I was walking through a park the other day when I observed the following: A preschool aged child saw a dog on a leash coming his way. The child started to rush forward to embrace and pet the dog. His mother quickly grabbed and restrained him. At this point the mother could have kept the child tightly to her side until the dog passed by or she could have scolded the child for approaching a strange and maybe dangerous dog. What she did instead taught thinking skills combined with a lesson in manners.
The mother bent down to the child’s level and asked, “Do you know if that is a friendly dog or a mean dog?” The child shrugged. The mother continued, “How might you find out?” By this time the lady with the dog had slowed her pace, paying attention to mother and child. The child shrugged again. The mother said, “Maybe you could watch to see if the dog was friendly with other children, or maybe you could ask the lady with the dog. What would you like to do?” The child said “I’ll ask.” Then the mother added, “And don’t forget, after you ask if the dog is friendly, you still need to ask if you can please pet the dog.” The child was allowed to pet the dog, the dog loved the attention, and the mother and dog owner had a nice chat.
I was heartened by this little exchange because it was such a good example of using the environment and what is in it to extend a child’s learning. In this case, the mother offered a dual lesson on approaching strange dogs in a safe manner and judging the possible outcomes prior to choosing an action. As this mother continues to repeat similar lessons in a wide variety situations the child will learn how to assess risk and how to stay safe when out in the world. By the time he is in his teens, good judgment will be a natural part of who he is.
In the example above, the dogwalker may not have allowed the dog to be petted. If that happened, I would expect the mother to say, “Thank-you, have a nice day,” giving her son the example of how to behave when one can’t get one’s own way. This is a lesson that also needs much practice in all situations.
Notice, too, that this mother was reinforcing manners while teaching safety. Not just the use of the word ‘please’ but also reinforcing the idea that one always asks before putting one’s hands on anything that belongs to another person. This is a difficult lesson for preschoolers, especially the more active and impulsive ones, so it takes many teaching sessions. In addition, it is one of the lessons that is learned quicker through prevention, than it is through discipline after the fact. (More on that topic in next week’s blog.)
Every day you have many opportunities to teach through little lessons provided by present moment, doing the things you normally do in your own environment. Ask questions, wait for answers, provide guidance and choices. Allow your child to make the wrong choice when the consequences are bearable. You are going to have an awesome teenager.
Evelyn Satterlee, M.Ed.