Thursday, May 24, 2012

Toddler assertiveness training?

I recently came across an article explaining why a video of a little boy repeatedly trying to hug a similarly-aged little girl despite her very clear resistance is profoundly disturbing. I want to add my two cents.

I would estimate the kids here are around or just under two years old. The girl pushed the boy forcefully away from herself, making him fall down several times, and at one point shouted something at him. He said something back (they're not speaking English, and the annoying added soundtrack obscures their words) and continued to pin her against a wall over and over again. The boy probably hug-attacked the girl ten times or more before she got smart and tried running away, at which point he chased her and kept trying to spin her around by her wrist to face him again for more hug-abuse.

If we were talking about teenagers here, or even school-aged children, you would all be dropping your mouses in horror and dashing off to file complaints with the police or at least the principal. But because they're "babies" and they "don't know what they're doing" this is somehow supposed to be adorable and perfectly acceptable.

I have been the responsible adult present countless times when a situation like this begins to develop. I think this is a fantastic learning experience for both children. On the one hand, I could just stand by and let the natural consequences unfold. On the other hand, these situations tend to rapidly lead down a road with Multiple Incident Reports at the end of it, and they also ignore or negate one of the most important lessons that I strive to teach children of all ages: Your body belongs to you. No one is allowed to touch your body without your consent (of course there are circumstances in which adults necessarily override this right with young children, and it is challenging to avoid doing so unnecessarily...). So, had I been the adult present at the incident documented in the video, I would have stepped in. I would have stepped in after the second or third hug-attempt, to give the children a chance to work it out naturally. I would have talked them through their conflict, given them the tools they needed, reinforced each child's body autonomy, encouraged respect, compassion, and kindness, and provided an alternative behaviour for the "troublemaker". Sounds pretty complicated for toddlers, doesn't it? It's possible, though! Hard work, yes. But rewarding. The three remarkable two-year-olds in our preschool class spent about 11 months each in the toddler room learning these skills before they "graduated" into the preschool room. The teachers in the toddler class do really good work!

So, here is a fictional scenario based upon multiple actual incidents from my Toddler Teacher days:

Jimmy tries to hug Sam; Sam pushes him away forcefully, wearing an angry expression. Jimmy gets up and tries again, with a similarly strong reaction from Sam. As he moves in for round three, I say "Jimmy! I hear Sam saying 'NO!'. Sam does not want a hug right now." If necessary, I interpose as much as my body as possible between the two children, even if it's just an arm. I then address Sam: "Sam, you can talk to Jimmy. You can say 'No! Stop! I don't want a hug! I don't like it!" I pair each of these exclamations with the ASL sign for "stop":

 (More later on why I prefer using the ASL "stop" with young children rather than the commonly-used palm outward "traffic cop stop"). Back to Jimmy: "Jimmy, if you want a hug, you can ask your friend: Hug please? Or you can hug Missa. I like hugs. Would you like a hug right now?" If Jimmy says no (in any way at all, verbal or nonverbal), I will model the desired behaviour by respecting his answer: "Okay, Jimmy. I hear you telling me 'no hug'. I won't hug you right now." Hopefully, Sam is satisfied, Jimmy gets a grown-up hug if he wants one, and both children are ready to move on to more enjoyable tasks.

(I deliberately avoided assigning a gender to Sam, and Jimmy could just as easily be Janie. At this age, gender plays a much smaller role in these exchanges.)

Usually, one or both of the children is surprised by my intervention in the first place, and the conflict pauses immediately, but sometimes the persistent "aggressor" just tries harder to achieve his goal. I will stop him from reaching his target by the gentlest means possible. I might also describe any communication I see: "I hear Sam's voice. Sam says 'nonono!' Sam is signing 'all done.' Sam is pushing Jimmy away. Sam's face looks afraid and angry." Reminders (frequently mistaken for admonishments) to "use your words" and "keep your hands on your own body" and "ask before hugging" are generally reserved for kids who have already gained enough skills to understand what the reminders mean (read: preschoolers!). Toddlers are still learning about the power of expressive language, have not yet developed a whole lot of impulse control, and are frustrated by tasks requiring complex reasoning. Reminders won't help them navigate a peer conflict any more that a reminder to "signal correctly" and "give right-of-way to the inside lane" and "don't miss your exit" will help a first-time driver navigate a traffic circle during rush hour.

If we equip our toddlers with the skills they need for asserting their body rights, they will be better prepared to protect themselves from physical abuse as they get older. They will be more likely to stand up for themselves and for other people who are being harassed, bullied, and abused. They will be less likely to harass, bully, or abuse others, because they will already know that everyone has the right to feel safe and that there are other ways to attain their objectives.

If we stand by and allow things to carry on as they did in that video (and I will admit to snickering when the boy would "pretend" to fall down after the girl's shove failed to knock him to the ground), we are teaching our toddlers that it is a good idea to continue to harass people to get what we want because eventually they will give up. We teach them that it is acceptable, even expected, for one group of people to persistently insist on violating the rights of another group of people, and that the "nother" group of people ought to learn their place and let it happen without too much fight. We teach them that it's cute and funny to be mean to someone else. That, my friends, is NOT OKAY.

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