When children struggle, there isn’t one “right” way to help them that will work every time. Our job is to be patient, keep things safe, and do our best to give the right amount of help. Sometimes we end up giving too much help, and sometimes we end up giving too little. In the end, the most important thing to remember is that we can trust in development. If we are modeling respect and giving kids safe places to experiment with emotions and sharing, the natural human drive for empathy will win out.
Here's a play-by-play that you can imagine occuring in one of my RIE® Parent Infant Guidance classes. It’s a made-up interaction, but something you see a lot when children are exploring toys and each other.
Maria and Preema are both two years old. Maria is interested in gently touching Preema’s head. If I could slow down time and choose the most intentional reaction, this is what I might do and say.
The first thing I would do is move closer. If it seemed to me that Preema liked what Maria was doing, I might not say anything. If I wasn’t sure, I would reflect what I saw and ask:
To Preema: “Maria is touching your head. How does it feel, Preema?”
To Maria: “You are touching Preema’s head. Do you think she likes it?”
It’s important not to project our feelings or worries onto children. This is especially easy to do when we believe one child is often “aggressive” and another is a “victim.” If we believe this, we may create a self-fulfilling prophecy. At this age, it’s unlikely that children are really falling into long-term habits of aggression or passivity. More likely, they are simply curious about each other.
It’s important to talk to both children, and not focus solely on the “aggressor” or the “victim." I want to send the message that I value the feelings of both children, even if I am preventing some of their desires from coming true.
If it seemed like Preema didn’t like being touched but was not in danger of getting hurt, I would give her a short amount of time to solve the problem herself. Perhaps she would say “No” or move away without my help. If that didn’t happen, I would narrate again:
To Maria: “Preema doesn’t like it. She is moving away. I think she wants more space.”
To Preema: “You didn’t like it, so you moved away. Now you have more space.”
Mobile children often move away from a stimulus they don't like. This is a great strategy for children to use in unwanted interactions. It also shows the other child a natural consequence for their actions.
What if Preema is a young, nonmobile baby? Or perhaps she is stuck in a corner or does not think of moving away. In this case, I would intervene more directly. I would stop the touches gently with my hands, while simply and calmly stating the boundary:
To Maria: “Preema doesn’t like having her head touched right now. I won’t let you touch her.” I would also clear a path for Preema to move away.
To Preema: “You really didn’t like it. I will give you some more room to move away.”
Children have a right to consent to touch. As adults, we can support that right by intervening and preventing unwanted contact, whether it is from a child or from another adult.
Most of the time, this level of selective intervention will resolve conflicts without taking the initiative for solving problems away from children too much. Very rarely, if children seem stuck in a rut on certain interactions, I may move to the next level of intervention, which might be offering alternatives and ideas.
To Preema: “You wanted more space. Next time you could tell Maria ‘No’ or move away.”
To Maria: “You wanted to say hello to Preema. Next time you can ask before you touch her, or wave to her.”
For children that are truly stuck, this kind of suggestion can be helpful. I would not use this level of help very often, though, because I know that there is more involved in developing social skills than simply getting a great new idea from an adult. By suggesting a solution to the conflict, I am depriving the children of the chance to discover their own solution (which might be better than mine!). That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t ever say it, but I would do so…selectively.
When it comes to selective intervention, what you will do is different each time depending on the situation. In the beginning, it might feel useful to you to have a script of sorts like the one I have provided here. With practice, it will feel authentic and easy to intervene based on what is happening in the moment.