Wednesday, 21 September 2011

My feelings are REAL !!! (or the day all hell broke loose...)

He screamed and screamed and screamed. He even kicked his little legs quite hard. I sat close, very close, offered my hand but was rejected. He screamed more. I stayed close. 'You are really upset' I said, trying to use a gentle voice. 'You are really upset, I can see that'. When the screaming stopped (and it lasted for ever...) we looked each other in the eye and hugged. We both needed that hug and we were both exhausted. Antek is now 16 months old. His feelings are REAL. Some of them are more than he can handle. And he wants to tell us about them. Sometimes all of them. 

This was the first tantrum in the house. It followed a few days of some viral infection and a dinner that was slightly too late. Not letting Antek throw food around was that last straw... and frankly - we had it coming. So I stayed calm, acknowledged his feelings, let him know I won't let him throw food around. Being close by and letting him scream it all out allowed me to see that he actually may have been more scared of these emotions than I had thought he would be... and made me realize how much more he needed me to be there for him than when he is happily exploring the world around.

There were three things I wanted to try hard and make sure that we get from this loud expression of ... anger, I guess:

1. ALL feelings are fine. And they are all real. And they are all yours, and you have to learn to live with them for the rest of your life (and it's a wonderful thing!). And once they're gone, life goes on (and that is a wonderful thing, too)

2. Not all actions are fine. There are all the feelings that you will live with, and sometimes it will be hard. But there are things you can do and things you cannot do. For various reasons.

3. You are great and we love you. No matter what.

Korczak writes so beautifully about the importance of all feelings, and the need to understand, but also to accept them all: How can we know happiness if we don't know sadness? How can we know love if we can't recognize hate? Sometimes in my head I try to name all the feelings and emotions I experienced during the day. Some of them are easy to admit to, some not so easy, but togther all of them are a full picture of who I was during that day. If we don't allow the children to get to know those feelings when they first encounter them, how can they move on and continue to get to know themselves?

'When we were one or two years old we had what we might visualize as a 360-degree personality.  Energy radiated out from all parts of our body and all parts of our psyche.  A child running is a living globe of energy.  We had a ball of energy, all right; but one day we noticed that our parents didn’t like certain parts of that ball.  They said things like: “Can’t you be still?” Or “It isn’t nice to try and kill your brother.”  Behind us we have an invisible bag, and the part of us our parents don’t like, we, to keep our parents’ love, put in the bag.  By the time we go to school our bag is quite large.  Then our teachers have their say: “Good children don’t get angry over such little things.”  So we take our anger and put it in the bag... Then we do a lot of bag-stuffing in high school.  This time it’s no longer the evil grownups that pressure us, but people our own age... So [...] out of a round globe of energy the twenty-year-old ends up with a slice... We spend our life until we’re twenty deciding what parts of ourself to put into the bag, and we spend the rest of our lives trying to get them out again.  Sometimes retrieving them feels impossible, as if the bag were sealed' (Robert Bly, "The book on the human shadow")

I know I have a bag. I know my husband has a pretty big one too. I know I have been trying hard to find some things in that bag when I needed them and because of all the clutter that's there, I couldn't find them (you know"good girls" don't really get angry, even when they feel they should). And I know that the bigger my bag got, the harder I found it to live with only that one slice that I had left - after all, it's nice to have a choice and lots of possibilities handy.

Not knowing all of the feelings we have, not understanding them may sometimes lead us to "get upset, when it's enough to ignore, feel contempt when [we] should have compassion" (Janusz Korczak)

But there is another thing that scares me about these bags that we drag around with us. When I looked at Antek after he screamed his anger out, I realised that it was all gone. All of it. Life was back to normal. We learnt a couple of things, but the anger was no longer there. If instead of letting it out we stuff it in a bag, surely it doesn't disappear there, does it?

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A Day in the Life of a Scientist

picture of emperor penguin chickMagda Gerber encourages us to 'observe more, do less'. While I wholeheartedly agree with the importance of observation, I also think it's not as easy as it sounds. Particularly when it comes to children. Particularly, when we are not sure what it is we are supposed to observe...

When I first started working with language and recording people I realised how difficult it is to just (!) listen. I set out to record people's conversations, and all (!) I had to do was sit there quietly, let them talk. And bite, bite and bite my tongue over and over again. Not to interrupt. Not to have hours of recordings of myself talking (that I can get, anytime I want:). It's not about pretending you're not there and if someone asks you something pretending you haven't heard. But it was about simply giving the people I was working with the time, space and floor to talk, and about quietly observing the interaction... like I said, easier said than done. But practice made it easier, after a few weeks I was enjoying it so much more, and noticing so much more than in the beginning (when all I could focus on was not to talk;) After a while I was getting so much into these conversations that were unfolding in front of my eyes (and ears), that every movement of the head, every laugh, every different tone of voice seemed (no, sorry, WAS) significant.

When I read about the importance of observing a child, and giving him the time, space and floor to interact with his environment on his own terms - in other words, giving him the opportunity to PLAY - I remembered how I learnt to do this for all the people whose conversations I recorded. And I decided to do just that. It made a world of difference.

So here is what I like to do, and if you have a moment, try and do the same - I promise you, you will get addicted to watching your child at play.

When I first started practising observation, this is what I saw: Antek is standing on a box. Now, he's getting down to the floor, picking something up. Now, he's playing with the boxes... not very exciting, I know. Bear with me.

Pawel and I like to watch things like 'Planet Earth' and other docummentaries about animals. It's fascinating, probably because, at least to me, I realise how much I can learn about them, and how wonderfully the are adapted to living in the environment they are in. I started observing Antek in the same way, as if I knew nothing about him. After a while it was much more fascinating than the secret life of penguins ;) The trick is also in realising that we really don't know what the penguins are trying to do. We can guess, and hypothesize, but we might be wrong. Which is why, it might be better to let penguins do what they're doing, and carefully observe, without trying to interfere...

The things I looked for in the beginning to help me focus on something were:

1. What is going on with his body?
2. What is going on emotionally?
3. What kind of learning is going on? (this one I owe to Polly Elam and Maureen Perry)

So, going back to Antek standing on that box... here is what I see:

Antek is now 15 months old, just learnt to walk. He is standing on a box - it's not too stable, so he has to be very focussed on not loosing balance. He is shifting his weight very slowly from one leg to the other, as if trying to see what difference it will make to his centre of gravity. His arms are slightly raised, but he is very stable. Slowly, very slowly, he lifts one foot just above the surface of the box, and regains his balance by firmly putting his weight onto the other foot. He bends his knee very carefully as if he didn't know where his left foot is going to land. Continuing to bend his right knee he places his left foot on the floor. He looks up at me and smiles :) Next, ge slowly gets down to the floor and picks up one of the empty cups. He looks around, as if he knew exactly what the plan is. He finds a bowl with a lot of little plastic caps in it and moves it closer, next he picks up a spoon (not an easy task, the spoon is big and he has to work hard to hold it in his hand) and carefully looks at it. He decides on a task: he starts transferring the caps from the bowl to the cup. Very slowly he keeps transferring the caps, one by one (working hard on something that resembles a tripod grip!!!). All of a sudden he stops, lowers his head and using his left hand removes the only green cap (all the other ones are white - that is pretty cool, you have to admit :) from the bowl. He puts that one aside. Clearly, this one was not part of the plan. He then finishes the task and when all the white caps are in the bowl he looks up and smiles at me again. He slowly grabs the cup full of caps in his right hand, moves carefully from sitting to squatting, and then, very slowly, still holding the full cup in his hand, straigthens his knees and stands up. He looks around the kitchen, balances on both feet, and with one sudden movement throws the cup up in the air and all the white plastic caps are flying everywhere! Well, that was unexpected :)

If you think you don't have time, your life is busy, you have stuff to do - I understand, so do I. But...this took about 5 minutes. It's not a lot, but a lot was going on. The great things about it is that you really learn so much about the penguins, pardon, your child... we learnt what kinds of things he liked to engage with (which helped in choosing toys that he would like), what he liked doing at that stage (which helped in deciding whether what he needed was a bowl full of small objects, a set of cups to stack, or a large box to push around the room), what he was working on physically (does he need a box to climb onto, or do we need to go to the playground more?). But above all, we realised that all he does is really pretty impressive - all the things we observed made us appreciate how wonderfully capable (and focussed!) he is :)

I enjoy watching Antek play, mainly because, at least to me, I realise how much I can learn about him, and how wonderfully he is adapted to living in the environment he is in. Once I got into the habit of quietly looking at his play, I realised that all the time, continuously, without a break, he is discovering something, working on something, mastering something, perfecting something. He is testing hypotheses, experimenting, exploring the world and all its wonders. And I realised that he is like a scientist at work - constantly looking for new things to try, to do and to experiment with.

If you can spare 5 minutes a day to do that, it will be worth it. These days, we hardly ever watch 'Planet Earth' anymore...

Foto from: