One of the things that frustrates parents and teachers the most is when kids don’t follow a rule, even when it is repeated again and again.
A mom I talked to today told me that she was afraid her son might get asked to leave his daycare because he was biting kids every day at recess. His teachers were frustrated because they told him, day after day, that this was not okay and, yet, he was still doing it. In order to drive the message home, they facilitated conversations after each incident where the “victim” told the boy that they didn’t like being bit. Why, this parent and these teachers wondered, won’t this otherwise sweet, gentle and sensitive boy stop biting?
When kids misbehave, it is usually for one of two reasons: they are too immature to comply with the rule or the relationship with the adult making the rule isn’t strong enough. Of course there are exceptions to this, the most notable being when kids (often toddlers and teens) instinctually resist anything that feels like coercion in the service of figuring out who they, uniquely, are (this instinct is called counterwill; you can read more about it here and here).
In the case of this four-year-old boy, he was simply too immature to do what he was being asked to do: to hold two opposing feelings in his mind at the same time (the first being that he was frustrated by something and the second being that he wanted to please his teacher/be a good boy/not get in trouble). I want to make clear that I use immature here not as a pejorative word but as a literal one: a four-year-old brain is literally unable to hold two feelings at the same time; the prefrontal cortex is not yet wired up for this.
When we hammer home the same rules again and again to kids whose brains cannot “do” impulse control it is truly an exercise in futility. This lack of understanding about the behavior that young children’s brains are capable of supporting contributes to much frustration for parents and teachers and, often, much relational damage–in the forms of scolding, shaming, time-outs and punishments–for kids.
If everything is going well, the ability of the prefrontal cortex (which Dr. Gordon Neufeld dubs “the mixing bowl of the brain”) to hold opposing feelings at the same time occurs between ages 5-7. If you have a child who is highly sensitive, hypersensitive, defended or has had adverse experiences, this ability may not develop until much later (9, 10 or, even, 11) and then (like a cruel joke!) this ability takes a nosedive again during early adolescence. Of course, we all know some adults who don’t even have this ability, so it is not an inevitable development, rather it requires conducive conditions.
When a child’s brain becomes capable of what we call integrative functioning, it is not only a development milestone to be celebrated (this child is maturing as nature intended!), but it also makes parents’ and teachers’ lives much easier as it renders a child capable of impulse control as well as a host of other virtues–consideration, patience, cooperation, forgiveness and empathy– that require mixed feelings. Integrative functioning goes a long way towards rendering children more civilized. But before that capacity is developed, we can reiterate “we don’t bite our friends” to children until we are blue in the face and, no matter how earnest their good intentions are, they will not be able to carry this out when they are flooded with powerful feelings of frustration.
So what do we do in situations like the one this mother is facing: where her four-year-old is being taken to task for his brain’s inability to mix opposing feelings? We need to stop putting the burden of responsibility on young kids who cannot do what we are asking them to do. It is our responsibility to compensate for the immaturity of the children in our care; we need to use our mature brains to compensate for their immature ones. The burden is on us to find ways to keep them out of trouble and to maintain their dignity. For this little guy, maybe during recess he could be a teacher’s helper or be given some other “special responsibilities” that play to his strengths and keep his relationship with his teachers strong, an essential key to supporting maturation. Like a fruit tree, maturation needs the right conditions in which to grow, fruit and flower. What are these conditions? In short, children need right relationships and soft hearts in order to grow. Right relationships with caring adults provide our kids with emotional rest and keeps their hearts soft, and it is from that soft, shielded, restful place that growth emanates. In the meantime, while we are waiting for the prefrontal cortex to be able to fulfill its capabilities as a beautiful “mixing bowl”, we need to remember that it is our job to take responsibility for both the biters and the bitees in our care, until they can do it for themselves.