I will never forget the first time it happened.
We sat at the dinner table–and I could tell something was really off. It was a face of shame–not regret…not remorse…not repentance. Just shame.
He was four. Oh to be able to go back to that sweet little season! (Thankful I still have 3 more still this age! How sweet it is!)
He wouldn’t talk. He wouldn’t eat.
So I made phone calls. What in the WORLD shut this sweet 4 year old down today? It didn’t take much-just a conversation with his best friend to discover my little man that day…well, he had disobeyed earlier at preschool. And he had landed–on the dreaded YELLOW.
Have you ever been to a class that guides behavior in this way?
Most preschools and lower schools use a system related to this to maintain behavior. You’ve seen the charts. Maybe you are a teacher and you’ve even laminated one recently–with little cute clips with the children’s names on the end…or even their pictures to show where they stand that day. Minor offenses get you to yellow. Maybe you even get a warning or two. But “real offenses”–they get you straight to red often meriting a phone call or a trip to Mrs. Gloopy’s office in her naughty chair.
So why does everyone use this system? Because it works. But here are a few important questions to consider before we take the easy instead of narrow road.
What does this teach the child?
What happens when the charts are one day taken away?
What happens to a child’s heart when they are motivated by fear? By rules? By charts?
What happens to a child’s heart when instead of charts or rules to guide them–their hearts are taught why you should do “this or that” rather than…you should do it to stay on green?
You might think it’s not a big deal–but this shaping of these little hearts and how we choose to guide them just might have a greater impact on their futures and how they view things than we realize. In a sense, when we use these systems we are bribing our children to obey rather than teaching their hearts through true conviction, character, compassion, understanding and love. In many ways, we are selling them short–and not seeing them as people but rather as things to be controlled and maintained rather than deeply understood. There is nothing long term or heart-changing at the root of this classroom or home management–and even more so–should we be surprised when the children come home and act wild for us when they are being taught they need a system rather than an understanding in order to obey?
What about the child who sits and sees his name under red? Does this make him WANT to obey? For some children, this doesn’t motivate but rather creates more behavior problems–after all…they are already on yellow or red–and the heart isn’t being shaped but rather behavior controlled. For some kids, it will bring sadness–others same–and for very few a challenge to rise to the occasion and on their own have a change of heart of what caused the behavior to begin with. After all, littles ones need to be walked through this–and we need to be tender in how we guide them through their behaviors.
Alfie Kohn wrote a book entitled Punished by Rewards:
“Seeing that behavior stems from the heart, educators need not take on the role of a behaviorist, modifying and conditioning pupils to act accordingly through elaborate systems of rewards and punishments. There is another way, the way of the heart. Children already possess the capacity for responsible actions and natural curiosity to know and to do good work as a manifestation of who they are; free and responsible agents, in direct relationship to self, God, others and the world around them. When one rewards unthinkingly, the assumption is made that individuals cannot choose to act a certain way on their own. It becomes dehumanizing, treating people like pets or objects. It is the removal of what truly defines us as human.”
When our little man was sent to yellow–he was embarrassed. In front of the class, he may have been asked to move his marker. What did he learn that day? NEVER GET ON YELLOW–AGAIN. He didn’t eat dinner that night. He went to bed quiet. And he didn’t even remember WHY he was on yellow–only that he was moved to yellow and he was ashamed.
Now as a mom, I could easily be tempted to WANT him to stay on GREEN–for simply a mother’s pride. “I have a child who never gets yellow or red.” I will tell you, I *do* have a child that NEVER gets on yellow or red–but this is also the heart I see the need to shape the most.
As a mom, I could easily be tempted to pick up my child and ask, “Did you stay on GREEN?”
And I might even be just as easily tempted to be nosey and ask, “Did anyone get on yellow or red today?”
But WHAT does this teach my child?
Instead, let us ask questions that SHAPE their hearts…
Did you love others today?
What did you learn today that you want to share with me?
Did you have fun? What was the most fun thing you did today?
Was there anyone sad today? How do you think you could encourage them next time?
The list goes ON of heart shaping questions.
But one question I never want to ask again is this: Did you stay on green?
Because THIS question–it IS a heart shaping question too. Only this question teaches the child to behave through systems, control, fear and shame rather than teaching them important things like the WHYs behind doing the right thing.
How do we parent and teach their hearts instead?
We simply teach them. We get on their level. We speak to their hearts. And we help them understand. We don’t sell these little ones short choosing to believe they are not capable of compassion, understanding and respect. We teach them important lessons like we are quiet when the teacher talks because it’s disrespectful to talk when someone is already talking. We grow their hearts and help them develop deeper compassion–understanding that it hurts feelings when they are unkind. We help them process what the effects of their actions lead to rather than putting systems in place that control–because one day those systems won’t be there…but their hearts–will.
I love the words from the child-friendly motto of Charlotte Mason:
I am a child of God,
I ought to do His will.
I can do what He tells me,
And by His grace, I will.
Jack Beckman in the book When Children Love to Learn takes this motto and so eloquently writes how instead we can guide their sweet hearts:
“I am a child of God.” – How freeing to realize the wonder of the relationship of a child with her heavenly Father–the flow of love and grace in the child’s life as she learns to live under His care and authority!
“I ought to do His will.” – The child has a standard to live by found in the very Word of God. She has a place to go to find out about the “oughts” in life, but a place of forgiveness and acceptance as well.
“I can do what He tells me.” The very real presence of the Holy Spirit in the child’s life makes obedience to His precepts possible.
“And by His grace, I will.” It is by grace the child has been saved, and it is by grace that the child is preserved and sustained as she walks the walk of faith, life and learning.
And really–this teaching…the teaching of their hearts rather than control–leads right back to the Giver of their hearts.
He doesn’t control us but rather guides us and gives us free will. He molds us. He teaches us. He equips us.
So think twice before you ever ask your preschooler the question that may be more loaded than you realize: Did you stay on green today?
And when and if that dreaded day comes–and they get on yellow–or the forbidden red–be very cautious how you talk with them about it remembering that they may already have more shame and be unable to listen–and you have some added work to do in it’s place.
Replace the shame or guilt with love–walk with them through it–and take them back to the heart of the matter–the WHYs–rather than the system that won’t always be there.