Respectful relationships… Who’s in charge here?

19 February 2019

Authentic leadership in the adult and child relationship is something that I think is probably the most difficult balance to establish.

I so often come across adults who battle with the finding the sweet spot between being passive and therefore allowing the child to tow the line at all times, and using power and control to be in charge. My belief, is that in all things there is a delicate balance to be sought and found. In order to have truly respectful relationships with children, we need to be conscious of not throwing the baby out with the bathwater! It is a case of connection and guidance VS power and control. One is relationship based, the other is management based.

There seems to be some blurred lines around the adult’s role in guiding and leading children through learning, behaviour and just life in general. In the quest to engage in respectful relationships, we get a little bit lost in translation around what it means to truly respect a child. We sometimes end up thinking that respect and freedom, means letting a child do whatever they want.

In the relationship, we want to embody the knowledge that both the adult and the child are free and equal human beings. This DOES NOT mean that the adult must forfeit all leadership, discipline and assertiveness in order to respect the child. In fact, I think it’s almost the opposite.

Historically, great leaders are people who have been able to partner WITH the people they lead. They can motivate, inspire, encourage and lead from WITHIN the relationship, not outside it, behind it or in front of it.

This is really what the child is looking for in the relationship with the adult. The child who is testing limits and boundaries (especially the toddler) is often left hanging by the adult, who may fear that being “in charge” can’t be done with respect.

I hear this all the time… “I can’t put my toddler down” or “He wouldn’t get dressed this morning so we came in pyjamas”

NO toddler actually wants to be in charge, no matter how desperately they come across that way. What they want is to have a sense of security in the knowledge that the adult who cares for them knows what they are doing. They want to know that this adult isn’t afraid of big feelings, disagreements or even meltdowns. What a sigh of relief the toddler must be able to breathe when they can think, “OK. She’s got this. Phew” because of how we respond.

But on the flip side, this doesn’t mean we need to be scary, dominant and authoritative either. Rather, calm, confident and empathetic… while knowing the boundaries and limits and sticking to them.

This year, I have been running a workshop that explores the tumultuous world of emotional wellbeing and intelligence, discipline and social learning in early childhood. Never has it been more apparent to me, that there is still a divide in our ECE sector between respectful, peaceful approaches and fear and power based approaches. I hear countless stories of children still being put in “time out” or “thinking” spots, removed from the play or placed in some kind of solitude for “bad behaviour” and receiving other similar consequences that don’t even come close to lining up with the child’s cognitive development.

Now, this is my humble opinion, but I think that at the heart of the matter, these strategies all boil down to one thing. Fear. I think as adults, we are fearful of not being in control. We are fearful of children ruling the roost, of presenting us with behaviour that offends us, shakes us up or makes us look bad. We are fearful of not knowing exactly which strategy we can deploy when being challenged with any particular behaviour. It’s all connected to fear.

The antidote to that fear? Relationship!!! If we are ALWAYS seeking to put relationship and connectedness first, then those “strategies” (which are really punishments) don’t have a place. If we tune into what the development and biology of the child tells us, we will see that at this stage of learning and development, the child can ONLY learn through connectedness.

I think Dr Daniel Seigel puts it so well, when he says “Too often we forget that discipline really means to teach, not to punish. A disciple is a student, not a recipient of behavioural consequences.”

Our babies, toddlers and young children are new here. They are learning the ropes and (just like we still do as adults) they are going to mess up, test limits and need support. I hear phrases all the time such as “I’ve already told you once” or “You know better than that”…. Well, I know I shouldn’t speed in my car when I’m running late, but do I get a ticket every now and then? Yes. You know you probably shouldn’t have a second slice of cake… but do you find yourself going back for more?? You catch my drift! Let’s try to be realistic about our expectations of children’s behaviour. The best way to do that, is to once again check in with their biology and developmental readiness for that behaviour.

Children need adults who are able to be confident leaders, seeking to guide them through relationship and connection. A good leader can still be respectful, empathetic and connected, while showing the way with confidence. This way, we uphold the child’s mana.

Five Tips for Respectful Leadership with Children:

  1. S L O W down and take a deep breath. Remember that our perspective comes from the way we see things and feel things, not necessarily from how they actually are. Stepping back a little can allow you to truly see things with new eyes.
  2. Always attempt to see things from the child’s perspective and stage of development. What can often seem like “bad behaviour” or “winding you up” is so often just normal, healthy stages of development.
  3. Connect, connect, connect. Rarely, if ever, is disconnection (separation, isolation, “thinking spots” etc going to help in the long run. It might seem like these strategies work for a while, but remember we are seeking relationship and connection over solution and control.
  4. Stay cool, calm and confident. Allowing challenging behaviour or even highly emotional behaviour to ruffle your feathers, only heats things even further. If it helps, develop a mantra that you can repeat in your mind to help you stay level.
  5. Acknowledge and allow space for all feelings, even the unpleasant ones. True connection is when we allow ourselves to be impacted by the state of the other person. Seeing their perspective, holding space for it and honouring it, is the foundation for an empathetic, respectful and connected relationship.