Several years ago I was in San Diego visiting my youngest son and his family. My granddaughter Kennedy was around two-and-a-half at the time, so we adults were all scattered around the floor of the apartment participating in our favourite activity — Kennedy-watching. At one point, Kennedy was about to do something — I don’t quite remember what — that could have been dangerous. My daughter-in-law, Jenny, immediately said, “Kennedy! NO!” From Kennedy’s reaction, you would have thought Jenny had said, “Kennedy, your dad and I have decided to move to a new country and, oh, yeah — we’re not taking you.” The poor child’s eyes welled up and she started sobbing as only a broken-hearted two-year-old can do.
Promptly, her parents rushed to her side, hugging and reassuring her that they loved her and everything was okay. Kennedy immediately stopped crying and on calming down, Jenny kindly (but firmly) said, “Now, Kennedy, are you ready for your time-out?”(i.e lecture).
Jenny knew much better than I did when I was a young parent that the needs of children must come before addressing their behaviour. Why? Because like all humans, children are emotional beings. Our first response to any stress or impending danger is physiological — anger, fear, anxiety, etc. And that’s where we stay until we decide to move on. Kennedy’s resp-onse to her mother’s “no” was anxiety, and fear that she had perhaps lost her parents’ love and affection. Such thinking isn’t irrational or unreasonable. It’s a nat-ural response to a perceived threat. Once assured that everything was okay and she had not lost what she most needed, Kennedy was ready to accept discipline and learn from it.
It’s useful to study another example of how “needs before behaviour” should work. Let’s say the defender in a football team allows the opposing team’s centre-forward to collect a pass. His furious coach yanks him from the game, shouting “Sit down! I’ll get somebody in there who can do the job!” The player is naturally anxious and upset and wonders if the coach hates him and whether he’s lost his place in the team. But a seasoned coach who knows to put needs first and behaviour second, would meet the player as he comes off the field and say something like, “Bill, you’re my guy, and I’ll get you back in the game in a moment. I just want to discuss some things before I send you back onto the field.” The player is instantly relieved because his immediate need and concern have been met. He can then listen to the coach and learn how to perform better.
What can we learn from these two examples?
Too often, we address a child’s behaviour lapse first and needs next. There are many reasons for this, one of which is that behavioural gaffes tend to be glaring. They are on the surface unlike needs, which usually require some digging to get to. When developing the idea of ‘A-Games’ in which children together with parents assume the role of planning and managing sports programmes in their communities, I gave serious thought to what children expect from a sports and fitness programme or from any kind of youth involvement programme. Here are some things I discovered:
• Children must be listened to. Really listening to a kid is like pouring water on a plant that’s been sitting in the sun for a week. They just soak it up! That’s why even though adult advisors are involved in A-Games, their brief is to do more listening than talking.
• Kids must have the opportunity to learn how to make good choices. When a three-year-old insists on wearing snow boots in the middle of summer and is allowed to do so, she quickly learns that her feet get hot and sweaty and that those boots weren’t such a good choice after all.
• Children need to have fun. This seems like a motherhood statement, but the lack of fun or enjoyment is the main reason for children dropping out of sports. For any youth programme to succeed, children have to derive enjoyment from it, together with a sense of purpose and achievement.
• Children also need to learn how to solve problems. Experts who have researched the subject of suicide in youth and adults say that one of the biggest indicators of resilience is the ability to solve problems. When we give kids opportunities to crack problems (“It’s raining and we were supposed to play football today! It’s a good thing we planned for indoor cricket as a back-up!”), we help enhance their resilience and problem-solving skills which are certain to prove useful in their adult lives.
Kennedy is now a happy, well-adjusted six-year-old because her parents not only love her, but understand what she needs to be able to handle the inevitable refusals and corrections of life. Adult advisors who are part of A-Games are trained to provide the same sort of understanding to the young people they work with. In that way, their needs are met, behaviour improves, and the happiness quotient rises — for everyone!
(Dr. George A. Selleck is a San Francisco-based advisor to EduSports, Bangalore)