The instinct to exert control over young children crops up all the time, both within the home and outside of it. In attempts to discipline children during challenging moments, some adults succumb to harsh, authoritative practices, like what came to light in the Kinderland Preschool incidents last month.
One could argue that the caregivers’ intentions mostly come from a good place — for instance, to teach the child consequences, or to stop an “errant” behaviour.
However, such harsh and inappropriate actions may not only erode the adult’s sense of respect for children and the child’s own self-esteem, but also undermine the opportunity for learning and skills-building.
Any concrete changes in wider societal attitudes will need to start from the direct caregivers — parents and educators. Let us consider these three guiding principles:
a. Understand child development milestones
Child development is not a subject most of us learnt in school but is critical in one’s parenting or care-giving journey. Having a good understanding of these milestones enables us to calibrate realistic expectations of children in our charge — what they can and cannot do at a particular age.
For instance, a two-year-old who can’t sit still for fifteen minutes is not trying to be defiant on purpose. His ability to focus is not yet developed, and his impulse control is poor.
Keep in mind that milestones are a general guidance. Each child grows at his own pace, so he may not be able to perform 100% of all tasks that his peers are able to.
b. Reflect on the messaging behind our actions
Do my actions and reactions accurately convey what I want the child to learn? Or am I giving mixed signals that disrupt the clarity of the message I want to send?
When we smack our child for biting a classmate or snatch the toy away for refusing to share, we model those exact behaviours we do not want them to do. Yet, we punish them for it.
For a child to learn, our actions must lead them to understand the consequences.
c. Practise perspective-taking
Ask yourself: “If I were in the child’s position, would I want to be on the receiving end of my own actions?” If not, what is a better way to manage the incident, and what are the alternatives?
Suppose we made a mistake at work and our boss openly berated us in front of our colleagues. It would probably feel really demeaning.
Similarly, there are things we do to humiliate children under the pretext of “discipline” — such as the recent case of the mother who made her child kneel in a food court for an hour as punishment, or when we punish children by forcing them to stand facing a wall or sit inside a hula hoop.
Whatever we do to children in the pursuit of compliance, are these things that we, as adults, would want done to us? If not, it would be hard to justify these actions on those in our care.
TOWARDS UNIVERSAL RESPECT FOR CHILDREN
Respecting children should not be confused with permissiveness — it does not mean that we accede to their every whim and fancy.
As parents and caregivers, we have the responsibility to consider the relevance of each request, the capacity and comprehension level of the child, and if it is in their best interest.
We need to shift away from attitudes that view younger children as deficient and underdeveloped due to their age and perceived immaturity, neither of which should ever be grounds for dismissing or not taking them seriously.
Then there is the misguided fear that if we give children too much respect today, they will run riot and raise hell tomorrow. This is a logical fallacy based on fear and control.
For parents and caregivers, respecting children means seeking to build relationships with them that are based on communication, cooperation, and a secure attachment base.
This is the basic foundation not only for strong relationships to work meaningfully, but also for policies, practices and programmes.
Through a gradual process of scaffolding and guidance, we can help kids learn to be responsible for their actions and decisions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ang Boon Min is the Chief Executive Officer of Singapore Children’s Society.