I started working with children when I was still a child myself. Early on, I began using this famous mantra when a child was having a tantrum or hitting or otherwise being socially unacceptable. It was a fairly common practice in childcare circles and schools.
“We don’t hit, Timothy. Use your words.”
It wasn’t until I was working as a full-time, live-in nanny with a 2-year-old who had a temper that I found myself searching for something better. He was constantly hitting his older brother. He was getting in trouble at his preschool. No matter what I did or said to him, he was violent.
“No, Madden! We don’t hit people. You need to use your words!”
It wasn’t working. I tried some alternative methods I didn’t really believe in but I was desperate. I told him he could hit a tree. People got hurt when you hit them, but trees didn’t. That did absolutely nothing. I gave him time-outs. He still hit. Now, I was extremely proficient in behavior modification strategies, but what was going wrong with this child? I couldn’t figure it out.
Then, I struck gold. I found this book:
I had a lot of books. I know parenting books have a very bad reputation. I also know why. They often contradict each other and parents are left confused. But I’m a lifelong student of child rearing and I rely on books for education, much like I did in college. Not all books are created equal. They must meet the muster of sound science. This one is thoroughly underappreciated and one of the most important books I ever read in my life.
Here’s the most basic concept I learned:
While I was spending my time telling this little toddler to use his words to express himself, I had spent little to no time actually teaching him what words to use. He had no words! No wonder he was unable to comply with my requests. I had not equipped him with the language necessary to associate emotions with words.
So I delved into the book and started using some of the games and pictures to teach the little boys the words they needed to understand their feelings and the feelings of others. I also learned how to teach them the language they needed to negotiate and make decisions when faced with challenging feelings or the feelings of others. I didn’t even make it through the first few chapters before our lives completely changed.
Madden stopped hitting. I mean, completely stopped. It was miraculous.
I remember the day he came running up to me with a huge smile on his face and tugged at my shirt.
“Zoe, Zoe! Guess what?” he exclaimed, grinning widely.
“What?” I asked.
“I wanted Joey’s ball and he said no and then we got a suh-woo-shun!”
He paused to see what I would do next. I was shocked that the word “solution” had just slipped out of his now 3-year-old mouth. I was beyond proud of him. And I knew that I would love that book for the rest of my life.
“Good job, Madden! You found a solution! And you are BOTH happy?”
“Yup!” he chirped and ran back to play with his brother.
He taught me one of the most critical lessons of my life. Before I can ever ask a child to use their words, I must first teach them those words and what they mean. Before I can ask a child to consider the feelings of another, I must first give them the skills to do so. Before I ask a child to anything at all, I better ask myself: can he really do this? Or I’m going to end up looking pretty stupid.
Thanks, Madden. I owe you one, buddy.