As adults, we often find ourselves being called to join kids in play when suddenly we hear, “Hey, stop!”, or, worse, surprised crying. Kids who, moments ago, appeared immersed in joyful cooperative play, are now facing off over some angry gesture. Imagine this is you. These children were in the middle of some kind of game that everyone was enjoying, and now one child is crying. What happened? What do you do?
Say you go over there and the crying child says, “She hit me!” Oh, hitting is wrong. We know this. You turn to face the child who is said to have hit someone. She runs away, guilty. You assess the crying child and see that he is going to be okay. His feelings were hurt more than his body. But hurt feelings last a lot longer than bruises do. You comfort him. He gets up and resumes play.
Say you want to speak with that other child. Say you want to let them know that hitting hurts, so we don’t hit people. Maybe you even want to bring both kids back together, so that the injured party has an opportunity to practice saying for himself that he does not want to be hit. You find the kid, hiding in the bathroom. What do you say?
Now, put on your mental red apron. You’re going to try this the “Cottage Way”. First, think about where your head is right now. Are you too upset about seeing this happen to be calm and helpful to these kids? You might be, especially if one or more of these are your own kids. Then first, go talk to another grownup, so you can offload your big feelings to someone who is strong enough to hear them. Maybe this is where you tap out and let someone who does feel calm follow up. Or you do it together. Or, maybe, you are calm and you’re ready to listen. Okay then. Let’s go.
You approach at a relaxed pace, get down to her eye level, and make your voice come out softly, but calm and clear. “Hey. I saw what happened back there”, you say. Maybe she hides her face, silent. (You can say, “I want to hear your story. What happened?”) Or maybe this time, she spits out, “They said I can’t play! They said it’s no girls allowed”!
“Oh”, you say, “I bet you felt pretty mad about that. You know this space is for all of us. I’m glad you told me about that”. You see her body start to relax. You’re not going to yell at her. You understand why she got so upset. She slumps her shoulders and moves a little toward you, leaning on your arm. You give her a little hug, and you add, “I think we should go talk to them. When you hit people, it’s hard for them to understand the message you want to give them. It works better if you just tell them with words”.
“You tell them”, she urges, as she takes your hand and starts walking. “We will do it together”, and you do. When you get back, the kids are back in their immersive game. You politely interrupt them, “Excuse me, friends, So-and-so has something she needs to talk to you about”. This time, she’s kicking the ground and repeats her hope that you will tell them. Another day, she will know the words to say it herself. So you hold her hand and say, “this space is for everyone. It hurt her feelings when you said that she can’t play. I’m sorry that you got hit. I need to keep your body safe and I didn’t get here in time”. By this time, the kids are all gesturing, “yeah, I know, okay, come on, back to the game”, because children take their games seriously, and so do I. They all run off.
You spoke for the child whose feelings were so hurt, she couldn’t come up with anything to do but reach out her hand and hit. How frustrated she must have been, to resort to this base expression. You apologized, in your own voice, to the child whose body was hurt. Your job as the adult was to keep them safe, and you didn’t do such a good job. You affirmed the right of all the children to be included. And you used observational language, modeling restraint in casting judgements. You stand there in the sand, allowing forgiveness for them and for yourself, to fill you back up.
When children (heck, people) hurt each other, with words or with actions, there are reasons behind it. When you’re an adult, there’s about ten years of therapy worth of reasons why we might say or do something hurtful. For kids, it’s a shorter span, often in the last thirty seconds, but sometimes it was a remembered event from two years ago that triggers a big reaction. Kids are carrying around fears and worries, invisibly, and we only start to understand what’s happening inside of them if we take the time to hear their stories. Listen to their words, and listen for what’s behind them. I often say that, when a kid hits or lashes out, it’s like starting a book right in the middle. There are a bunch of pages you missed that would have told you what was about to happen. It never comes out of nowhere. We only need to admit that we don’t know the whole story.