I recently witnessed a new teacher struggling with a child over putting on his shoes. The conversation went something like this: Child: Help me put my shoe on. Teacher: I know you can do it yourself. Child: But I want you to help me. Teacher: I’ve seen you do it before and I know you are very capable. Child: (falling to the floor in tears) I can’t do it!
After a few minutes of crying and sprawling in the middle of the cubby room another teacher stepped and said, “What’s happening here?” and the new teacher explained, the child is crying because he wants me to put his shoes on for him even though I know he can do it himself. The second teacher knelt down and said to the new teacher and the child, “Would it be okay if I helped?” and the child nodded. She said, “Let’s see, you look pretty sad, I wonder what we should do first? How about if I put on one shoe, and you do the other one?” The child nodded again, and she proceeded to gently put his shoe on while handing him the other one. He quickly wiped his eyes, jumped up and finished the job and got his coat on, too.
In a follow up conversation with the teachers, we talked about care rituals at cubby time. The new teacher expressed her frustration, saying that she really believed that if the second teacher would have just let the boy cry it out, he would have eventually gotten his shoes on. I agreed with her that this child is very capable, and I asked her to talk a bit more about her goals and hopes for children around self-help skills. She told us that she believes that children are capable and that if we do everything for them, we will be taking away their chance for independence. The second teacher and I supported her beliefs and agreed with her, that independence is an important program goal. We also explained how crucial it is to support one another as team members, and sometimes a team member can step in when there seems to be a power struggle brewing—we didn’t intend for this to be an instance of one teacher undermining another, but rather a way for a team to be supportive and a more experienced teacher to offer a model for scaffolding.
This conversation opened up many good points about care and independence. The three of us talked about why children who are very capable might still want us to care for them, and how we can support them by being a partner—sometimes when a child does not want to do it him self, even just sitting down next to him and walking him through the steps is a way to be supportive. In this instance, offering to do the first step bolstered him to do the rest all by himself, like we knew he could. This would have been different if the second teacher would have scooped him up and held him in her arms like a baby and put his shoes on for him. That would have been over-care. That would have reinforced his sadness and enabled him. But, she didn’t shield him from his own frustration—she acknowledged his feelings and looked for a way to pull him out of the hole he was digging for himself.
I have seen many teachers who are insistent upon teaching independence fall into power struggles with children over dressing or hand washing or toileting. What I have witnessed is that power struggles of withholding care often lead to a feeling of abandonment, and can be examples of under-care. We have found that the struggles are easily avoided if the teachers slow down during care rituals, and often just being present and acknowledging the challenges alongside children, while children are caring for themselves, is enough to support them in all the steps.
When a child says, “I can’t do it” and we say, “Oh yes you can!” we are offering an opposing view and immediately inviting a challenge. When a child says, “I can’t do it” and we say, “Hmm.. I wonder what you mean?” or “It looks like you are frustrated”, or "Sounds like you'd really like my help today" we show that we respect care as not only a physical task, but also an emotional meeting of two people. Care is an invitation.
For the most part, children are fiercely independent, and we see their natural urges to “do it by myself.” We see their capacity and capabilities clearly, so why is it that they sometimes revert to needing or wanting our help, during caring rituals? Although we can only speculate, I believe there are many emotional explanations: It feels good to have someone else care for you, putting on your own shoes is a lot of work, and more work for some children with organizational challenges, children miss home, care rituals remind them of mom and dad, children feel ambivalent about growing up, but can’t express these subconscious fears except through behavior and children are seeking connection with the people around them.
Again, I want to make clear that partnering with children to avoid under-care is very different than an approach that coddles children and robs them of their opportunity to feel pride in autonomy and accomplishment. We can see each child as capable and also remember that they have been on this planet for three or four years—and we can be sure that helping them put on their coat or shoes will not prevent them from becoming adults who can do this on their own.
In this instance, I ask us all to take a few moments to reflect upon our own care needs as adults. Think about how good you feel when a friend makes you a salad or a bowl of soup. Doesn’t it just taste better when you didn’t have to make it yourself and someone else served it to you? Imagine standing in the sun on a humid day and having a friend or partner offer you an ice cold drink—what a caring gesture and how much more refreshing the drink is, knowing it came from someone who is noticing your needs and caring for your well-being. We all appreciate this kind of care, no matter how old we are.
A few nights ago, I stayed up late writing in my pajamas at the dining room table. When I finally got into bed I didn’t realize how cold my feet had gotten and I started to complain about my toes being ice cubes. My husband got up and found some of his own wool socks and put them on me. As he tugged the socks up over my ankles, I felt like a kid and I thought, “When is the last time someone has put my socks on for me?” It made me reflect upon care and comfort and independence. How often do I let others care for me? With this reflection my awareness for care was heightened. I started noticing care everywhere—when I went out to eat at a restaurant I noticed the gentle gracious way the waitress placed my plate in front of me; when I got my groceries, I noticed the way the bagger helped me load my cart; when I rushed into the bank on a rainy afternoon, I noticed the woman who held the door for me. Care is all around us, and opening our eyes to it allows us to receive. Care is reciprocal and we are always connected to one another, and need one another, even when we can "do it by ourselves". Moving through the world with this simple awareness is a form of self-care.