Don’t let your child think you're unreliable
One of the most important and difficult parts of working with small children is being consistent. It is important because we must strive to be a reliable, trustworthy and safe adult children can count on. It is difficult because we are only human and make mistakes.
In my job we see a lot of children who have learned to act a certain way either to get attention or so that things go the way they want. In most cases, this is a direct result of grown-ups not being consistent.
When children know that your “no” can easily turn into a “yes” if they keep asking, start screaming or stop cooperating, you are essentially teaching them that you are unreliable. As children are hardwired to explore boundaries, when they do not receive clear ones, they will spend most of their time pushing limitations rather than focusing on their physical, mental and personal development.
Imagine you had a boss at work who never told you clearly what was expected of you, saying it is an inconvenience when you hand work in before a deadline because he or she can’t keep track of things when you don’t stick to the date, but then when you hand in on the due date your boss tells you off because it wasn’t filed in advance. You become confused, insecure, and maybe even scared to interact with your boss.
This is exactly how children feel when they do not receive clear and consistent boundaries.
When you say what you mean, and mean what you say, you are being honest and reliable, and children feel safe with you. From within this safety, they can focus on their development without distraction. Children who know they will always get a hug when they ask for one are secure in their emotional support and do not need to learn to play games to get attention instead. This helps in all aspects of life, but most importantly helps them form healthy and strong attachments.
Of course, it’s difficult to be consistent all the time because you are tired, you need to do many things at the same time, and you love your child and when they are upset it hurts you, too. However, what we as adults need to understand is that we know the end goal, and children do not.
While they live purely in the moment and express all their feelings directly, we can anticipate the future and how what we do now impacts it. There’s no point in trying to explain all of this at length to your child: as long as you know why you do something and project that sureness, it’s enough.
A simple example is that when we tell the children at my nursery that we’re tidying up, we immediately start helping and guiding them to do so. They know when we say we’re going to do something, we do it straight away.
The more often this happens in a child’s life, the more a child will listen and follow, because the child knows we mean what we say. In short: when our actions and our language match fully, we are consistent. When we are consistent, children feel safe and are able to rely on us, and they can focus on the important business of being a child.
Merel Miedema is an early childhood educator in Amsterdam, where she works at one of the city’s oldest independent and green crèches.