The other day I shared a waiting room with a loving mother and her three-year-old. He was busy playing with the waiting room toys and she was busy trying to pack each moment with learning for him. As he played, she peppered him with questions: “What color is the circle, Michael? What sound does the cow make? What is this animal called?” I admired her efforts to be his first, best teacher, but I was also soon exhausted by hearing her. Imagine how her son felt!
When children are playing, they are exploring and learning. They are observing how the world works as they interact with their toys. Michael is seeing all of the colors, shapes and animals as he plays. Unfortunately, asking questions interrupts this process. Each time mom asks him a question, Michael is pulled away from his natural learning and has to stop, think and respond (or not) to mom. This is work for Michael, and diminishes his pleasure in play. It can also be destructive to his relationship with mom, as he becomes irritated by her badgering.
Of course, we can assume that mom’s motives are good and that she is seeking to enrich his life and learning and that she wants to strengthen their relationship. Happily, with a few changes in her behavior, she can do that. Here are some basic steps:
- Zip it! If mom can close her mouth and open her ears and eyes she can better understand the world Michael is in. This will give her ideas for how to interact with him. For example, if he is playing with building blocks, she can observe what he might be building, its colors and shape, and how Michael is interacting with the blocks (building, banging, putting them in a pile, etc.).
- Reflect his actions verbally to him. “You are building a tower with your blocks.” This will not interrupt him but it will let him know that she is interested in him and understands his world. Relationship enhancing!
- Embellish the reflecting. Rather than asking him a question to attempt to build his knowledge and vocabulary, she can just make statements. When she says “you are building a RED tower,” he can absorb the new word “red” without being tested by her. Teaching occurs in a positive way!
There are many ways to add to this basic structure of interaction to further enhance the learning. Ideally, mom would play right alongside Michael, rather than sitting in her chair watching him. However, just the fact that she is talking with him is extremely important for his language and vocabulary development. The less that parents talk with their children, the bigger the language problems when those kids go to school.
This style of interacting will take a little practice, but it is well-worth the effort. Learning to take a little time to listen and observe, and think about our best responses will build all of our relationships, with children and adults alike!