135. Cheering Up Children

Beatrice came to school one day looking as if her world had fallen apart. Committed as I am to taking children seriously, my first approach was to show her my concern, and ask her questions, hoping to find out the nature and cause of the calamity, and perhaps contribute some helpful insights.
This is often a good approach. Children have lives they live outside school, and these lives, important in their own right, can also be obstacles to effective functioning in school. And so my first approach to Beatrice’s dismal look was appropriate as a first approach. One never knows what may be happening in a child’s life.
But I don’t think the look on Beatrice’s face represented any kind of calamity. After seeing the look for several days, I began to think that I was being manipulated. Beatrice loved to get attention, and calamity or not, the face she showed me each day was getting her the attention she wanted. I know the word “manipulate” is not quite what I mean; there was no devious intent. But I don’t know any word closer to my meaning.
It’s important to pay attention to what is going on for children. There are too many things that could be really wrong, and we can’t rely on other people to discover those things. Every time we see the signs of problems in children, we owe it to children to pay attention to those signs. But with Beatrice, I had already paid quite a bit of attention to the signs, and I had a hunch that there was no real crisis.
I tried another approach. An approach I used to use too often with children. I said a few things that I knew would probably get Beatrice to smile. Sure enough, daylight shone on her face. A dazzling smile, full of joie de vivre. Beatrice has a great smile. I commented on the beauty of the smile, but then quickly apologized for distracting her from the calamity. I wanted her to know that it’s all right to feel sad, upset, etc. But the smile didn’t go away.
That approach works for now, with Beatrice. Perhaps I’m still being “manipulated;” she still enters school with a look that spells disaster. But instead of spending ten minutes probing, to no avail, I spend thirty seconds eliciting the smile. Eventually, I’ll make sure she can bring out her smile by herself. And I’ll never dismiss the possibility that something is really wrong. But sometimes, it seems that the best way to treat a child who looks upset is to “cheer him/her up.”

Comments are closed.