One of my favorite early childhood experts is Janet Gonzales-Mena. If you’ve never read her books, and especially if you work with infants and toddlers, I highly recommend you stop reading this blog and go buy all her books – NOW! Yes, she’s that good, I’d happily drive traffic away from my blog and off to her. As you recall, my goal in all I do is to make a difference in the life of a child, either directly or through those of you reading this, and having more people read Janet’s words will absolutely accomplish this goal.
For those of you who have heard of her (or just made a note to buy her book and are continuing to read!) I want to discuss today one of my favorite analogies from Janet. She talks about how important it is for caregivers to give guidance and direction to children, and yes, discipline. These “limits” we give to young children (including infants/toddlers) provide security. Some adults have a hard time seeing how it can provide a sense of security to give limitations and rules to children. Janet’s beautiful analogy is to imagine a bridge that you’ve driven across many times. It likely has rails on the sides to protect you. Yet, if they took the rails off, you would likely still be able to drive across without going over the sides, correct? But how would that make you feel? You feel better when there are rails, don’t you? The limits and rules we provide to children are like rails on a bridge: yes, they might be able to function safely without them, but they are going to feel much safer and protected with them in place.
What I love about this analogy (and Janet in general) is that it shows rule making, limits, and discipline, as something positive and loving. I think that’s the core message we often miss. If we are setting limits and disciplining our children out of anger, then we’re missing the mark. If you correlate a child’s mis-step with the right to be angry, it will lead to discipline that has nothing to do with a sense of security. If you see a child’s mis-step as an opportunity to show them where the rails are, to guide them towards safety, your choices for limits and discipline are more likely to be those that promote a sense of security. Most importantly, they are also more likely to be effective.
Here’s my addition to this analogy: if a horse were walking across the bridge with no rails and you stood on one side and he came dangerously close to going over the edge and you screamed “No! Back Off!” and waved your arms at him, he’s likely to get spooked, rear up, and run the opposite direction – straight off the other side of the bridge. What if instead, you held your arms out to the sides, creating rails on the side of the bridge to protect him and said gently “Whoa there, watch out honey.” The horse would likely take a look at the edge, then take few steps towards the center and remain on the bridge.
Think about this next time you are setting limits or disciplining a child for a mis-step. Are you spooking the child off the bridge or showing him where the rails are?