The other day I noticed a interesting dynamic going on in my classes.
"Tom, Be quiet in circle."
"Tom, We need you to sit still."
"Tom, it's story time, you need to pay attention"
"Tom, please sit on your bottom at the snack table"
No fewer that 3 of the 5 working adults in the class felt the need to remind "Tom" of the class rules during the day. It was interesting because the children around Tom were doing the same thing, but did not get the direct attention for it. Because of a few bad days, Tom was being watched very carefully - but what did that mean for how Tom was starting to see himself? and How the other children were starting to see him?
"Johnny, You are doing so well today" said to a child who was dealing with separation anxiety and had finally begun to have a parent free, tear free day. Well, right up to the moment that someone pointed out that he was having a great day. Basically he was reminded that this was not typical behavior for him and not what was expected.
Sometimes without meaning to parents and teachers give children ideas of who they should be. Childhood is a constant time of self identification. During the ages of 3-5years (and then again in adolescence) children are seriously struggling with independence and with that comes the desire to figure out who they are and how others see them. As they search for this self-concept they use many different ways to determine who they should be and in turn how they should act. When we as adults give them these definitions, they latch onto them and use them. Adults and peers are the mirrors they are using to see themselves. How they are treated and the words people use to define them and interact with them become very important.
Children at this age are very concrete thinkers. They don't understand that good and bad can exist simultaneously. They don't know that they can be known as the "kid who has a hard time separating" and still grow into an easy separation pattern. They don't understand that they can be seen as the "trouble maker" who constantly needs to be tapped on the shoulder - and still have a good day.
Then there is the flip side....
"Fred, Wow that is great work - you're a real artist. I love seeing you at the art table everyday."
"Suzie, you can write you name really well, you are so smart."
"Suzie" and "Fred" now have a ton of pressure to be artsy and smart. I saw Fred at the art table after this comment and where before he seemed to be in the moment enjoying him self, this time he seemed to be trying. He actually stopped and asked "Isn't this a pretty rainbow?" The pressure was on.
I haven't see Suzie pull out a calculus book, or try to impress someone with her intellect - but I bet if she is told this enough she too will begin to look for ways to be the smart one. And worse will be disappointed or frustrated in herself when she isn't.
Labels both good and bad are just that LABELS. They are restrictive. These young children are trying to grow and with growth comes change and mistakes. We as adults need to support this growth. We need to allow them to try on new identities and give them the freedom to express different self-concepts without making them choose. It's not time yet. Maybe/Hopefully that time never comes.
What to do? Be a little less restrictive in your comments. Practice using more descriptive and narrative phrases. Phrases that are judgment free. "I see you're at the writing table." "You helped with the dishes." "looks like your homework is done."
Expect good behavior and notice it. "Thanks for sitting so respectfully during circle." "Looks like you and your friends had a good time in the sand box."
What labels are you putting on your children? For the next week or so pay close attention to what you are saying to them and what that is telling them about themselves. Do you have expectations?
Do you always count on one child to be "easy" on a shopping trip and the other you gently remind of the rules on your way in? While talking about doing homework does one child say "Mom, I ALWAYS get straight A's!" while the other looks on longingly and has a hard time sharing when they're frustrated with their assignments. I've heard parents talk about some kids being "great nappers, unlike their brother who was so hard to put down." While the children were listening.
Remember children are always listening and learning about who you expect them to be. I once heard it said that it takes up to 7 positive comments to negate one negative one. Imagine!
What labels have you adopted for yourself? Are they yours or did you get them from someone else? A lot of us walk around with expectations of and beliefs about ourselves that we didn't develop on our own. Take some time to evaluate who YOU want to be. Does that match how you act or your self talk. If so, GREAT! if not, then what can you do to change that?
For more on preschoolers and the development of their self-concept see the links below.
For information on adults see below.