“It’s hard for a child being in the nursery, it’s we, we, we, all the time, not you. It must be very difficult for a child to fit in being an I and not a we.”
A nursery nurse said this - I wish I could hear her - to two researchers from the Tavistock Centre in the 1980s, Lynne Barnett and Alastair Bain. I guess she meant all that "we put our things here", "we're all friends in nursery", "we walk sensibly", "we eat nicely" that goes on.
And whilst most nurseries are kind places, or at least places where kindness is meant, and try to focus on children's social development and personal development, not many that I've seen are very good at allowing children to "be" emotionally. Cries are smothered at birth with "it's alright" or "don't cry" or "mummy will be back soon" (soon often really meaning 8, 9, 10 or even more hours).
The workshop I was leading last week looked at how practitioners could help children to express and accept their emotions - starting from the point that we, the adults, need to accept them and enable expression. By which I don't mean the let-it-all-out approach of therapy culture, with no consideration for other people. But I do mean that children should be given space to cry, when they are sad; to enjoy the high emotions of being a toddler, and giggle at lunch or skip to the door when they want to go out without being shooshed or told to do "nice walking". And rather than get busy with labels for little children who get angry about things, or don't focus their attention on one thing for long, or who like to be constantly on the go, we should allow these as the typical signs of being 2 years old.
And shouldn't there be room for intimacy, cuddles, sitting on laps and all the other things that sometimes seem to be frowned on in nurseries. What sort of emotionally barren places will nurseries become if this is brought to an end through a seeming concern for child protection (and I even noticed that recently an aeroplane could not take off because a mother had allowed her child to sit on another passenger's lap - see the story here )?
Some good controversies came up in the workshop. Should children get attached to a special member of staff (a key person) - if that makes them feel sad when that person is away? I would say - yes. Rather a child with a special relationship feeling sad, than an emotionally flat child.
We talked a lot about steering behaviour in ways that still respected the child's feelings - the "I know you're angry, but biting isn't allowed" approach which does work really well in my experience. Acknowledging children feeling angry, getting cross with their friends, wanting things badly. Leaving a little space and time for children to argue and perhaps resolve disputes (on their own, or with help) rather than always charging in and doing it for them.
In the end - more than a little part of me also wants to celebrate the directness of toddlers and little children. Biting, pushing, scratching and grabbing - none of them very nice, of course, but what's the cost when we "grow out" of all that or turn it into words, not actions? Is it really so much worse to bite, than to gossip and say cruel things about the people we don't like?