I was in my second year of working with toddlers and was looking for a new story to tell. The children never tired of “The Three Little Pigs” and “Goldilocks,” but I was getting tired of them! I tried to think of an appropriate tale, and came up with one I thought might be perfect: the story of “The Little Red Hen.” We made bread regularly, so the children would like that, and it had lots of repetition, which toddlers love. That night I read the story through a couple of times, and the next day I started telling it at the snack table.
“Who will help me bake the bread?” said the Little Red Hen.
“Not I,” said the dog.
“Not I,” said the cat.
“Not I,” said the duck.
“Then I will do it myself,” said the Little Red Hen. And she did.
I told the story, feeling slightly uncomfortable without quite knowing why. The next day I told it again, and feeling even more uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure why, but I was sure that I couldn’t tell this story.
At that time, my assistant and I would wash one another’s feet in warm, lavender-scented water during our weekly meetings. This gave us a way to connect and also gave us time to reflect on the children without feeling hurried. During our next meeting, I mentioned my discomfort with the story. When she asked me why I started to explore the idea, and gradually it dawned on me: I didn’t want to tell a story of animals who don’t get to eat the bread because they refused to help make it, because I didn’t want to plant the idea in the children’s minds that they might refuse to help me! The children in my care said Yes! They loved to help me, and we loved to do things together. I didn’t want to talk to them every day about animals who said No.
I found a different story to tell, and life went on. But that experience awakened the idea that saying Yes might become a habit. The idea grew, and it started to affect the way I did things.
Helping Children Say Yes
I realized that if saying Yes were to be a habit, I must help children say Yes until it came naturally and automatically. But how do you “help” a toddler say Yes? Aren’t they wired to say No? After some experimentation, I discovered the best way to help them was physically.
“Joey, your shoes are waiting to jump onto your feet,” I would say. “Where ARE your shoes?” Joey would look over at his shoes, then turn and run away, jumping face-first into the couch. I could see that he needed help saying Yes to me. “It looks like you need some help,” I’d say, and I’d get up and take Joey by the hand. As we were walking to the shoes I’d say, “Your shoes can’t WAIT to have some feet in them! Do you see them over there? Are they wiggling with anticipation?”
So, that’s it: I’d ask them once, and then I’d help them physically. Sounds simple, right? Largely, it is. Simple, and effective. And I hated it! I hated hauling my adult body up and down all the time. It felt so much easier to talk than to get up. But I saw how much more effective it was, and I was determined to help the children develop the habit of Yes, so I stopped sighing to myself and just did it. I stopped saying things again in a louder voice. I stopped explaining why they needed to do the thing I’d asked. I stopped telling them that they needed to do it ‘right now,’ or that I needed them to be a big boy or a big girl. I stopped counting to three.
Now I do only one thing: I go over to them and help them physically. I incorporate imagination and humor when I can, but it is the physical nature of my help that is the key. Young children live through the will, and are happiest in motion. Sometimes, the only help that is needed is to point them in the right direction. More often it means taking them by the hand, and sometimes it means swooping them up and flying them over like an airplane. My help is not punitive; on the contrary, it’s generally fun and connecting. Saying Yes should be fun! But it comes each time after asking only once. As the children learn that I will ALWAYS follow through immediately, the habit of Yes grows.
Giving Them Things to Say Yes To
My experience with The Little Red Hen brought home another lesson that I already knew, but it came alive in a whole new way: if I wanted children to say Yes, I had to give them things to say Yes to. Specifically, I should tell children what I DO want them to do, instead of what I don’t want them to do.
We all think in images, and the modifier “don’t” means very little to our ancient brains. Case in point: when I tell you, “Don’t run out into the street,” what image comes into your head? An image of someone running out into the street, right? What if I say, “Please walk straight along the sidewalk.” A much different image, isn’t it? Well, children live in images even more than we do. I decided that if I wanted to help the children develop the habit of Yes, I had to get better at saying what I wanted them to say Yes to. So, I worked on it.
When Sammie banged her spoon on the table, I’d say, “You may use that spoon to take a bite.” When Elijah (age 3) pulled on his friend’s sleeve I’d say, “You may say ‘Excuse me.’” When Jimmy (age 2) pulled on HIS friend’s sleeve, I could tell it was in imitation and for the joy of pulling, so I’d say, “You may pull on your own sleeve.” This shocked me when it worked! When Annie was throwing sand, I’d say, “You may find a bucket to put sand into.” If she didn’t, I’d say, “It looks like you need help. Where IS a bucket?” I’d pause to see if she would find one herself, and if she couldn’t, I’d get up and help her physically: “Here’s one,” I’d say, and I’d start shoveling some sand into it myself. That usually would be enough, but if it wasn’t I would move behind her, take her hand in mine and help her shovel sand into the bucket. “There you go! That’s how you put sand in the bucket. You’re learning!” And she was.
Again, this didn’t come naturally. The words, “Stop it!” came so much more easily than just about anything else. But as with helping physically, once I noticed how much more successful it was I determined to practice and get better at it. Children develop the habit of Yes when you give them things to say Yes to.
Transforming Borderline Behavior
This idea of helping children develop a habit of saying Yes changed my behavior in more subtle ways, as well. I wanted the children to feel that saying Yes to me was easy and natural. I wanted them to feel like they did it all the time. One of the ways I tried to do this was by “transforming” borderline behavior into something acceptable. When I was folding laundry and little 17-month-old Tal would throw the washcloths into the air, I’d say, “Thank you for these washcloths! Can you find another one for me?” When he did, I’d add, “This time, you can put it right here,” and I’d pat my lap. When we were eating and two-and-a-half-year-old Jay-Jay started making loud droning noises, I’d say, “It does seem like it’s time for a song, doesn’t it, Jay-Jay? Let’s sing together,” and we’d sing “The Wheels on the Bus,” or “The Muffin Man,” or “Three Little Ducks.” In this way, the children weren’t being told No all the time. I would assume that they wanted to be helpful and enjoyable, and I’d give them a little nudge to make it so. The children then became helpful and enjoyable in actuality, and they came to see themselves as helpful and enjoyable people. It was win-win for us all. Everyone wants to be around people who enjoy their company.
The Habit of Yes
After several months’ hard work helping the children to develop a habit of Yes, our days were going more smoothly. There were fewer struggles, and I found I was enjoying the children in a new way. I was busy patting myself on the back for my good work when I had an epiphany: this new ease wasn’t because the children were different. The reality was that I was the one who had changed, and the children were merely responding to that. The person I’d transformed through my hard work was myself. It had become natural for me to say things in positive ways, talking about what I liked and what I wanted. I almost never said No, but expectations were firm and boundaries were clear. I didn’t waste my time explaining, complaining or cajoling, but moved into action to help children as it was needed. I rarely minded giving help to those who needed it, since I saw it as a chance to connect, using humor and imagination. I had evolved into someone with whom the children could float through the day, being successful, helpful and enjoyable. But they weren’t the only ones: I, too, could float through the day, being successful, helpful and enjoyable. I had developed the habit of Yes.
Faith Collins, founder of Joyful Toddlers, works with families and caregivers through tele-classes, workshops and one-on-one coaching. She holds LifeWays Early Childhood Certification and was co-founder of Rainbow Bridge LifeWays Program, working with 1-5 year olds in Boulder, Colorado. She and her husband divide their time between Colorado and London. To find out more about Faith, please visit her on her blog, Joyful Toddlers.
Rhythm of the Home is an online magazine for families that focuses on creating with children, nature explorations, seasonal celebrations, conscious parenting, and mindfulness in all that we do.