The thoughtful director of New York City’s Sara Curry Preschool and author of The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights, Eileen Johnson has developed a philosophy of children’s emotional development. Over breakfast in the East Village, we asked her about bullying, fostering empathy, and managing expectations.
Ada Calhoun: You talk in your book about dwelling on children’s feelings rather than rushing in to fix situations. How do we keep ourselves from immediately reacting?
Eileen Johnson: Therapy is really key to good parenting. You deal with your own issues first. What we do here is A.R.T.: Accept, Reflect, Teach.
A: The hardest thing is to accept that that is a separate individual. Maybe at this age, the child is angry or aggressive. You need to accept that it’s not about you. Part of that is accepting yourself: saying to yourself, “I feel angry today; we all do sometimes.”
R: I encourage the teachers to talk about their feelings: Who irritated you today? Why? Maybe it’s “I felt like I wasn’t being listened to,” or, “I felt like my boundaries were crossed.” And to the children, we can say, “Oh, you guys are having a fight right now!” Just say what you see. Nobody wants advice. You don’t want advice; I don’t. Even in your own relationships, you just want to be heard or seen. You want your partner to say, “Oh, you’re angry with me.” The other day, this little girl was saying, “I’m just . . . so… so…” Then she said, “I want everyone to know how I feel!” So I said, “Okay,” and I gave her the microphone and she said, “I just want everyone to know: I’m disappointed!” And she just loved that. You don’t fix it. You just let them be heard.
T: Later, you can do the teaching. “Remember this morning when you kicked mommy? How were you feeling when you did that? You can hurt people when you kick.”
AC: What are some other ways to foster empathy?
EJ: Often parents will say to children, “How would YOU like it if someone did that to YOU?” But that doesn’t work. Young children don’t think that way. You need to model empathy. If your child gets hurt, you focus on that: “Oh, you got hurt!” It may not be a big deal to us, but it’s a big deal to her. It’s good to linger on this trauma rather than to rush to say, “You’ll get over it.” That’s not what people need.
AC: What about expressing concern for other people in front of your child?
EJ: That’s wonderful. If you look at the Theory of Mind, young children don’t know that others have different thoughts than they do. If they see you think through things and hear you say things like, “I’m worried about Samantha. She seems sick today,” then they see that you have a separate mind and that you care about other people.
AC: I wonder about the dialogue around bullying now, where the bully is purely evil and the victim is purely good.
EJ: If you set it up like they’re bad and you’re the victim, that’s bad for both sides. Some people just don’t have good social skills, and so when they say, “Nobody’s playing with me!” maybe the answer isn’t to punish everyone else. Maybe that this child needs guidance about how to go over and play. At our school, there were these two boys who kept fighting with each other, and we kept pointing out things they had in common. Both sets of parents were divorced, so we said, “Your dad lives in a different place! So does yours!” And they eventually stopped fighting. The more you can get them to see themselves in other people, the less they become threatened by other people.
AC: And yet, there is always the one kid on the playground who seems like a genuine sociopath.
EF: I would ask my kids, “Why do you think he’s doing that? Most kids wouldn’t do that.” That shows that this behavior is not okay, but also acknowledges that there are probably reasons for it. That’s not just a bully. That’s a kid who’s crying for help, actually. You can say, “He’s scaring other people. I’m sure he would love a friend, but he can’t have friends, can he, while he’s doing this? He must need some kind of help.” In any case, it’s better than what we were taught: “Go out there and fight those kids! Go back and punch them!” I don’t think that’s right. Do you?
AC: No. I think play-fighting is okay, though.
EJ: Yes, and in that case you can help them pick up each other’s cues: “Oh, you were wrestling so much and now his face is red! Is he hurt?” It’s like the struggle between the superego and the id. If you don’t have those things integrated, you get a situation where the good is really good and the bad is really bad and they aren’t connected.
AC: Like a certain attorney general who was out there fighting the bad guys but then being the bad guy after he clocked out.
EJ: Yes, when boys are playing good guys and bad guys, they’re trying to integrate those sides. Also, it’s fantasy and drama. Storytelling. If you take away the guns, they use their fingers. It is phallic. They’re boys; they want to point something at somebody. You need to channel it, not suppress it.
AC: How do you manage your expectations for your own children?
EJ: When my daughters were teenagers, I nagged. But therapy helped me just say how I felt and listen to how my daughters felt. It was that easy.