Children learn by what we say and the way we act. Guidance involves setting clear, consistent limits that have reasons and striving to foster self-esteem and independence. Guidance is NOT, however, letting a child “go free.” The adults that never set limits are the ones that are not taken seriously.
Most children want to please adults. However, sometimes children are confused about what is expected. When limits are consistent, children know what is expected (rather than guessing what they are supposed to do), and over time it makes meeting expectations automatic. The more automatic behavior is for the child, the less adult intervention is necessary. Therefore, consistency diminishes power struggles, increases the child’s independence, and fosters the following six qualities:
- Safety. Too much freedom is like too much water for a plant – the roots can rot! Children need to know that adults are watching out for them and ensuring their safety.
- Trust. Children learn to trust limits and consequences because, when there are no surprises, they know what to expect.
- Self-Regulation. When limits are random children doubt they can influence their future (Curwin & Medler, 1988); when limits are consistent children learn to self-regulate.
- Competence. As children become more independent they feel a wonderful sense of competence.
- Reflection. Guidance helps children make wise choices (Fields & Boesser, 1998), but making wise choices does not mean the child does whatever she wants. Rather, the child needs to be reflective about responsibilities. For example, a child can think about how a friend might feel if she took all the crayons.
- Respect. Rather than feeling resentment toward the person setting limits, children learn to respect the person guiding them.
The quest for adults is to be firm, fair, and friendly. Knowing the children you are working with (e.g., their temperaments) and what developmental practices make sense helps you guide and teach children. There are many methods that may be employed to positively guide young children. Many of the strategies described in this article are intended to help children “reclaim” their classrooms. Children are not objects that adults act on, but members of the community that deserve respect.
Praise, stickers, and time out do not help the children reclaim their classroom. Instead when these methods are overused the adult is the power figure and the children are subordinates. These methods rely on the adult giving or taking away. Thus, stickers, praise, and time out, in moderation, are fine. But, when used as the sole means of guiding children, do not help them learn to act appropriately in an intrinsic manner.
A key way to achieving this “firm, fair, and friendly quest” is for adults to keep reminding themselves of the longevity factor. The guidance we give children now will influence their actions in the future. Our guidance builds a fundamental foundation that will help children develop a strong, healthy self-esteem and independence.