Children make mistakes. And that’s OK. The brain of a small child has is not developed enough to be able to control strong emotions and impulses. Sometimes children use behaviors that are not acceptable, which opens the door for learning experiences for them, and loving experiences for the rest of us.
My school encourages love-oriented discipline. When a child hurts someone else, ignores or defies directions, or otherwise deviates from acceptable behavior, we teachers have an opportunity to use our relationship with the child as a way to understand the gravity of their actions. I used to tell my children, “I love you so much, but it is not OK to hurt your friend.” The children and I would find this effective, but I found increased effectiveness when I changed just one word.
I recently realized that I tend to view things as ‘but’s rather than ‘and’s. I have been telling myself things like, “I am excited to go to graduate school, but I don’t want to leave the life I have here.” There are obvious limitations to this way of thinking; it promotes exclusion. When I incorporated this into my teaching, I noticed a shift. I started telling my children, “I love you AND it is not OK to hurt your friend.”
As I mention frequently, young children are constantly learning new things about the world. They are continually expanding their existing schemas, and creating new schemas to gain understanding about the world. It is the role of the adults in their live to help them build these schemas. When I said, “I love you BUT…”, I was defining love through something it is not. These negative definitions are confusing for children (and the rest of us), and makes the concept even more abstract. By using ‘and,’ I am giving them a quality of love. A quality they can feel.
Another reason this practice is powerful is because it illuminates just how powerful genuine love is. It is important for my children to understand that they will not just be loved when they are controlling their impulses, using kind words, and happy. They are loved all the time. Even when they hurt their friends. Even when they feel disappointed in their choices. They are not perfect and that’s OK. I will love them just the way they are. No matter what. When I am reflecting with a child about an incident, I often tell him or her, “There is nothing you can do to make me stop loving you.”
I have seen this really work. When a child really gets it, he or she transforms. I notice the child seems more relaxed, less anxious that my love will go stop with one misstep. Often, the frequency of challenging behaviors decreases because the child feels my love. He or she is less likely to test my limits because the child knows that my love has no limits. The children who feel the love are the ones that can reciprocate it. They are the ones who show concern for a friend who is upset or angry. They are the ones who love me, even when I am cranky.
This shift in discipline has been enlightening for me too. This has been an opportunity to challenge my own unintentional limits of love. have found more opportunity for self-affirmation. I am now telling myself, “I am so excited for graduate school AND I don’t want to leave the life I have here. And that’s OK.” I can embrace and accept each emotion for what it is.
What about you? Do you ever find yourself saying or thinking, “I love you, but….”? I wonder what it would look like for everyone to open up their love and use more ‘and’s. I’ll admit that it is a challenge for me to think things like, “I love the people in the world AND sometimes some people make choices that hurt my heart.” By thinking this, I am sending love to those who are hurting my heart. Maybe they can start to feel the love and stop testing the limits of those around them. Maybe they can start to reciprocate limitless love.
-” ‘How do you spell “love”?’ asks Piglet. ‘You don’t spell it…you feel it.’ replies Pooh.” -A.A. Milne