Updated: Apr 9
Lisa, 3 years old, is playing with her friends at the playground, running fast, cartoon-style. Suddenly, she trips and falls, real-life style. She gets up and seems perfectly fine except for a minor scratch on her hand, which her mom easily cleans up as she warns her to slow down. Lisa tells her friends, “It’s OK, my body will heal itself.”
Tommy, 2 years old, is trying to stand on his small chair in the living room. He starts by lifting his knee high enough so he can get on the chair and try to stand. His mother wipes the sweat from her brow, but does not stop him. She knows that the carpet will cushion him if he does fall. “Pay attention, Tommy, I’m afraid you might fall. Chairs are not for standing, they are for sitting.” Tommy stops, looks at her and continues to climb. He loses his grip on the chair and tumbles to the carpet. Mom is quick enough to make sure the chair doesn’t fall on him, but he does start crying. “This is what I was afraid of,” she says. “ You hurt your body. One day you can do this safely because you’ll be bigger, but not right now. Let’s straighten the chair and go ahead and sit on it. Chairs are for sitting.”
Let’s look and listen closely to what happened:
Although she is merely 3 years old, Lisa is a bright child who is able to recognize that her hand will heal. It’s not because she’s seen too many Looney Tunes, because this isn’t 1992 and she actually hasn’t seen any Looney Tunes at all. It’s because she has been taught by her parents about the body’s amazing abilities to fight colds and heal wounds. This helps give her assurance that when she gets hurt, she will be OK because she knows her body is capable of caring for itself. She has learned about the miraculous process of healing.
Tommy is wondering if he can stand on the chair just like he stands on the floor. He experiments and his mom knows this is what he is doing. She doesn’t stop him because the only way a child can truly learn the consequence of their actions is by going through the consequence and not listening to their parents express fear. Kind of annoying, right? But, makes sense. Most of us jump to the consequence and say things like:
Stop, you’ll fall off the chair!
You’re gonna hurt yourself!
For the love of God, DON’T!
By saying these things, what are we communicating to this 2-year-old who is learning so many things as he goes about climbing a chair? What is he learning? He is learning about:
Hard wooden chairs
And eventually falling
From the moment children are born, they are constantly testing the capabilities and limitations of their bodies; they do this when they learn to crawl, grab, pull your hair, turn a page, pull your earring, pick up a pencil, hit you in the face, walk. By teaching children more about their body’s functions, they gain insight and become more attuned to their bodies. Understanding one’s body promotes a greater sense of autonomy. By gaining such perspective, children get a better sense of control over their bodies. This in turn promotes a greater sense of self.
What are our messages to them? Lisa’s mom, by not expressing fear or anger that she scraped her hand, showed Lisa:
That her body will heal.
Getting hurt sometimes is OK because her mom is there to help her.
Playing with the body can cause pain if we move too fast and trip.
Tommy’s mom, by not stopping him from climbing the chair, taught him a valuable lesson. She says:
“Pay attention Tommy” – paying attention is a clearer and more active reminder than “Be careful.” It engages the child’s cognition to focus on what they’re doing. Tommy doesn’t know how to be “careful” at his age.
Then she says “I’m afraid you might fall” – she tells Tommy her feelings about him climbing the chair. Telling children how we feel is a good habit as it teaches them compassion and communicates to them that their actions have effects, like causing feelings in someone else. It’s also just nice to get it out, am I right?
Then she says “Chairs are for sitting, not standing.” Tommy’s mom turns the whole situation into a teachable moment.
By using the words she did, she taught him:
Compassion – “I am feeling afraid.”
Consequence – “What you’re doing is worrying me.”
Focus – “When you’re attempting something dangerous, focus.”
Correct function – “Chairs are for sitting and when you use an object for something other than what it’s intended for, you are taking a risk.”
And then when he does fall, she reiterates these communications by saying:
“This is what I was afraid of.” (Compassion)
“You hurt your body.” (Consequence)
“One day you could do this safely because you’ll be bigger, but not right now.” (Encouragement)
“Let’s straighten the chair and go ahead and sit on it. Chairs are for sitting.” – (Driving home the point of a chair’s function).
By staying calm and speaking with intention instead of hysteria or “I told you so,” Tommy learned from this experience.
What else can we do ?
● Encourage children to be aware of their bodies throughout the day. While they are running at the park, you can remind them to feel how fast their heart is beating when they stop. When they are not feeling well, you can ask them to explain where their pain is and describe the quality of their pain.
● Engage in hands-on activities that allow them to investigate, like letting them feel their ribcage or examine chicken bones.
● Books can also be helpful in providing pictures and descriptions of different body parts and organs.
● Teach your child about the skin. Have them explore differences in skin through books and talk about the importance of sunscreen. Smooth lotion on them after a bath and watch them relax into their bodies.
Children have to see their bodies as a means to experience the world rather than a medium for being hurt. Let’s help them see a safe and beautiful world, not a dangerous and fearful one.