Accidents happen and so they should!

A very good friend of mine shared a funny story one day about her young daughter who came running from outside going “Yukky! Yukky!” while holding her pointer finger in the air. Her mum asked her what was wrong and she replied: “I accidentally put my finger up pussy cat’s bottom!”

Now as adults we know that it would be almost impossible to accidentally put your little finger up a cat’s bottom, however it is amusing to see that this four year old had worked out that when we do things by accident, it may mean something very different to when we do things on purpose.

I have been thinking a lot lately about how today’s fear-based thinking has made ‘accidents’ appear on the same par as intentional incidents.

Take for example children doing handstands and cartwheels in a schoolyard on some lawn. If a child slips or collides with another child unintentionally, many adults see that as grounds for the school being sued for negligence. So to keep children safe we ban handstands and cartwheels.

Many schools have banned children playing benignly before school while waiting for classes to begin because of the same worry (the worry of being sued, not the worry of normal accidents happening!). It is not only unhealthy for children who are already more passive than any other previous generation, it is plain sad. Unfortunately, ‘duty of care’ and the interpretation of the laws that govern managing risk have made accidents something to be shamed and avoided. That is a sad outcome from our highly litigious society.

Everyone has accidents – I have slammed one of my son’s fingers in a car door, I have knocked out my young nephew’s tooth when playing rough and tumble, and many years ago I knocked over a young guy on a dance floor. That’s just for starters.

I have been thinking that when our children are getting to school age we need to be helping them understand the difference between accidental harm and intentional, premeditated harm. So many children, especially boys, get shamed for accidentally hurting another child when they play in a vigorous way and this often triggers more anger. The same goes for siblings and the conflict that happens quite randomly. Our job as carers and guardians is to help them manage differences of opinion, different needs and different wants without resorting to intentionally hurting the one who is not in agreement with us.

Never assume

I remember once working with a troubled lad who was always in trouble. It seemed that he did use intentionally hurtful ways of expressing his anger and frustration when he was a preschooler and when he was in primary school he found that no-one believed him anyway so he never defended himself when he was innocent! There are times our kids may deliberately push or hit another child – yes it’s the wrong way to resolve conflict. But before we make an assumption, we should pause and ask, “What happened? What were you trying to do?” So often I have found they have pushed or hit a child who was hurting a younger child or saying disgusting things to their little sister or something along these lines. Things are not always as they seem. Given children don’t yet have a pre-frontal lobe that helps them make good decisions it takes guidance from calm adults to help them learn better ways to manage big ugly feelings and to make things right that are wrong.

“When a child is not given enough help with his intense lower brain feelings and primitive impulses, his brain may not develop the pathways to enable him to manage stressful situations effectively. The legacy later in life is that he will not develop the higher human capacity for concern, or the ability to reflect on his feelings in a self aware way. Brain scans show that many violent adults are still driven, just like infants, by their ancient rage/fear and defence/attack responses deep in their brain.”  –Margot Sunderland, The Science of Parenting (2007).

Daniel Siegel, in his excellent book Mindsight (2010), explores emotionally mature behaviour as being a function of the middle portion of the prefrontal cortex and it has the ability to coordinate these essential skills:

  • regulating our body
  • attuning to others
  • balancing emotions
  • being flexible in our responses
  • soothing fear
  • creating empathy
  • having insight
  • having moral awareness
  • using intuition.

While many of these attributes are similar to the characteristics Daniel Goleman describes in his book Emotional Intelligence, the ability to soothe fear, create empathy, and to have insight and moral awareness, seem to suggest a deeper level of emotional and social capacity can be nurtured in our children. Siegel argues that due to the plasticity of the human brain, we can build emotional and social awareness and competence at any time in life. However the best time to build this awareness is in the first five years.

Blaming and shaming doesn’t teach empathy

Being able to tune into other people is a key aspect of empathy. Even though you can teach your child the nuances of the social dance of getting on with others like using manners, taking turns, sharing and asking for things in a clear kind way, you cannot teach your child how to be emotionally warm, thoughtful and how to comfort a person in distress, or how to be naturally curious about others. Your children have to learn these attributes themselves through the multiple experiences they have with other children and humans; with Mum and Dad being their starting point.

My worry is when we manage accidents in a punitive way with a need to blame, we are setting our kids up to always be looking for fault or blame rather than building a resilient mindset which allows them to bounce back from setbacks and keep having another go at whatever was challenging?

Shelley Davidow is a teacher, author and trained facilitator in Restorative Practice. She believes that the punitive/retributive disciplinary model —on which our society is based —creates narcissism in children because they become focused entirely on what they need to do to avoid punishment, rather than looking at the consequences of their actions.

Davidow writes in her book, Raising Stress Proof Kids (2014), about restorative parenting, which is based on a model of practice that has its roots in indigenous cultures around the world, and has become a part of parenting and education thanks to its effectiveness in criminal justice.

She describes Restorative Practice in her book, as simply: “to repair any harm that has been done and restore relationships. The focus is on the relationship, not on the ‘crime’, or on the person who commits the crime”.

It is easy to see how the way we act and react as parents has a profound impact on the way our children decide to behave. It also shows clearly that modelling is a powerful way of teaching our children positive and fair ways of living when in relationships, especially families. This is where we explore accidental and intentional choices that cause pain or damage.

Friendship is a learnt behaviour

To counteract perceived or real bullying or hurtful behaviour towards others, we need to teach children the skills of being a good friend. This set of social skills can help children when they start school because having friends to play with makes life less threatening, and stimulates positive neuro-transmitters that help create happiness, joy and delight. I have created an audio track called I am a Good Friend for children under 10 to help those who have no concept of appropriate choices around playing with other children. We must take the time to build these social skills as soon as possible before school.

This creative visualisation guides children through a journey of being a good friend and with repeated messages of being fair, kind and respectful and it has helped many children re-wire a mindset that discourages them from being a good friend. Remember the imagination is very powerful in childhood and it works a bit like role-play. Norman Doidge (author of The Brain that Changes Itself) writes of how our brain can re-wire itself during the process of imagining an act, just the same as if we were actually performing the act. For example, if a person imagines playing a piece on the piano, the brain fires the same as if that person was actually sitting at the piano, fingers playing the keys. The more often a child hears a visualisation, the more the brain changes – practice helps master all tasks.

Our children are constantly watching us and modelling how we behave to others. So make sure you help them understand that accidents happen to adults as well as kids and often trying to find someone to blame can cause emotional damage to the relationship. Help them work out better ways to do that next time and remember, be mindful when you tell young children to “use their words” when they are frustrated or angry. For some young lads in particular there are no words forthcoming just big ugly feelings.

Playing will always have a level of risk however what do we risk without the opportunities for our kids being exposed to these life experiences and learning how to manage them, overcome them or celebrate them as markers of success?