I made a three-year old laugh today. I was out for my afternoon constitutional close to where I live (that’s a ‘walk’ to you) when I crossed paths with said three-year old and her grandmother. They were coming out from grandma’s house and crossing the footpath to reach the pocket park opposite with the little girl, head down, concentrating on balancing on her scooter.
I have a habit of giving way to children especially when they are so busy that they cannot fully pay attention to what is happening around them so I veered around the youngster and grandma so as not to interfere with their route or the amount of concentration being shown. Unsurprisingly, grandma saw me so said,
“Let’s watch out for this man, shall we?”
Three-year old looked up, eyes almost covered by helmet and tongue sticking out in effort, and said loudly,
Clearly the scooter trip to the park had been only one part of the day with grandma because her face had a fair covering of chocolate on it and without really thinking about it I answered her apology by saying,
“That’s ok, chocolate-face.”
That’s when it started. She let out such a belly-laugh that I thought she might wet herself. And it was no contrived, over the top laugh either – it was a genuine, deep-down, fighting for breath belly-laugh. We had just shared a natural, spontaneous moment of no real importance that no doubt in time will be forgotten. But for at least some time to come I could picture this three-year recounting the story among her three-year old friends with a, “And then he said … ‘That’s ok chocolate face!’” and ending with a snort. It was an unpretentious, uncontrived and agendaless moment.
Photo: the scene of the 'chocolate incident' - Darling Square, Melbourne Australia
One of the true tests of an individual working with children of all ages is in the nature of the interactions we have with them and that includes children who we do not usually work with. That may be with our own children and those of close relatives but the real test of our ability to relate comes from those interactions with children that we do not really know and who do not know us.
It is not difficult to see adults struggling with this. I remember being at a family occasion many years ago when one of my younger relatives pointed to someone and said, “Who is that?” I told him that it was a relative of ours from another branch of the family. “Is she a teacher?”, he asked. She was, and he could tell. We just seem to present this aura that children can sense and it can make them feel uneasy and guarded in their moments when we are present.
When children and teenagers are in an uncertain social situation or have people around them that they do not know very well their interactions with each other can appear artificial; they will laugh hysterically and loud in a forced over the top-way on hearing something funny – we’ve all heard it. But spend some time watching the same children when they are in each other’s company without the need to feel guarded and their laugh may still be loud but it becomes more subtle and real. It’s the same with their conversations and sharing, turn taking, supporting, helping, and a whole host of other interpersonal actions and reactions within a group of peers. The less contrived the situation the more likely they are to be spontaneous and real.
Working with children in many organised settings can appear tricky in this context: an institutional setting is in itself a contrived circumstance full of smaller contrived situations that we are largely in control of and our very work-role and job description may encourage us to act in a contrived, deliberate manner in our interactions because we have an agenda and the children around us know that. This tends to make us rather guarded too in our exchanges.
Yet the interaction between us and children need not be so contrived. If we appear to our children as simply one of a group of people that happen to be in a shared space at the same time, without an apparent agenda, whether it be kindergarten, school, adventure playground or just on the street opposite a public park, then there is more possibility that we will occasionally, when these uncontrived moments occur, just possibly be able to be part of them. These occasional moments are not in themselves special – they are just natural and spontaneous which is of course the very thing that makes them ‘special’.
I’ve lost count of the number of times children in schools and other settings have accidentally called me ‘dad’ (and in some cases ‘mum’ too) yet the real indication of a successful relationship between child and adult comes not when they see us accidentally as a parent figure but when we simply become another person sharing a moment. This is not the same thing as trying to become ‘a friend’ or even seeing ourselves as another child because not only is this impossible (as we are still an adult and no degree of relationship building will change that) but because such interaction itself can still be contrived.
When, however, we are seen as someone who is simply sharing a ‘moment’, then the relationship changes completely. What has actually happened is that for a brief moment the aura surrounding us has disappeared and it has allowed everyone involved – everyone – to let that slip that uneasy guard.