I was nervous. Bobby is a year old now, and fast on his feet. He loves watching his sister Sally in her dance class. Usually we stay outside the room and watch through a long window, and I hold him up to see. But one day a semester, the parents are invited to sit in on the class to watch. Sally was excited to have us in the room. There was a slightly inset area that ran along one side of the room, with space for folding chairs and a bit of room around them. But how in the world was I to sit there with Bobby and keep him from going out onto the dance floor?
I’ve often talked about changing small children’s environment rather than expecting them to perform in ways that are not realistic or fair for their ages. As I got ready to take Sally to her dance class with Bobby in tow, I felt very strongly that what I was expecting of Bobby was not fair. To expect him to be right next to the dance floor and yet stay off of it, to sit still on my lap or play quietly in the few feet along the side? What would I do if he became so upset with those constraints that he threw a tantrum—and unsurprisingly so?
I’d always been taught that this was why spanking was so important. How else to enforce to a child that he wasn’t supposed to do something? I would have Bobby right there, in tempting reach of the dance floor—at his age, what other than pain would teach him not to venture out on it? And could I really expect him to stay on my lap without fussing or squirming if I didn’t back it up with some swats? But I no longer believe in spanking. Instead, I try not to put Bobby in situations like this, where he is set up to fail. If Sean had been able to come, I might have just taken Bobby out, but he wasn’t available, and Sally really wanted a parent in the room watching her, and had made it clear that that was important to her.
And so, I packed up Bobby’s cup and some of his favorite board books and headed off to dance class, two children in tow. And yes, I was nervous. But I needn’t have been. Sally did just fine, but to be honest, the child that truly impressed me that day was Bobby.
For a while I held Bobby, but then he wanted down. The chairs were spaced far enough apart that there was room for him, so I set him down and handed him his cup and some books. Not surprisingly, Bobby tried to head onto the dance floor. I pulled him back and said “no” gently, offering some further explanation—I doubted he could understand it, but I figured I might as well try. I also told him that I understood why he wanted to go out there, and that I would totally have wanted to when I was his age too. I helped him watch his sister, pointing her out and talking quietly about what she was doing. Then I scooped him onto my lap and flipped through a board book with him. After a little while he asked to get down again.
Bobby’s activities varied. He went to the edge of the dance floor and watched, he sat beside my chair with another book, he hunted down his cup and took a drink of water. When he tried to go out on the dance floor again, I once again crouched by him, pulled him back, and talked to him kindly, and then pulled him back into my lap for some more lap time and board books. There was only one time he really resisted, and that time I sat down with him, holding him as he struggled momentarily, and talked gently until he decided he did want to read a board book after all. Alternating between my lap and the floor, Bobby only tried to head out on the dance floor three or four times—and we were there for a full hour.
If Bobby had lost it completely, I would have done the only thing I could have done and taken him out. I wouldn’t have been upset with him, because I would have understood his frustration, and Sally would have had to understand too. But he didn’t. Simple redirection and gentle words were able to accomplish what I had once been taught spanking alone could accomplish.
I know I shouldn’t have been surprised. Until now, though, I’ve simply solved the problem by avoiding putting my children in situations I felt imposed unfair expectations on them. And now it’s good to know just how well redirection and gentle words can work when a difficult situation like that is unavoidable. I think sometimes people underestimate kids—and the power of gentle understanding.