When relating to children, be open and be unapologetically your self as much as possible. This does not mean you must violate your to privacy and reveal everything you feel and do. No. Being real with children means there is no need to wear a mask. Any pretense or lack of honesty with them is usually quickly perceived. Once dishonesty is discovered or uncovered, all else in a relationship is held suspect.
First of all, being real means you don’t have to pretend you know more than you do. You are not obliged to have answers to all the questions children ask. Believing you always have to have an answer to a child’s questions puts a heavy burden on you. It also gives the child an unrealistic idea of what it means to be an adult. A child might reason like this: “If adults seem to have all the answers, and that is what it means to be an adult, how am I ever going to become an adult? There a lot of things I don’t know and lot more things I don’t seem to be able to be interesting in knowing.”
Another benefit in being able to tell a child you honestly don’t know something is the mutual trust implied: “I can tell you I don’t know something, and you will still respect me.”
Still another benefit in being real is the opportunity it often offers you in guiding the child to a resource where the answer can be found, or in doing the research together. A child in my class once asked me where Springfield was, saying he had met someone from there. ” Is it far away?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered. “Would you like to get out a map? Then let’s see if we can find Springfield.”
Sometimes it is difficult to give honest responses to low-self-esteem children, especially when, for example, they bring cookies they made or a picture they drew and say, “You won’t like the cookies” or “I’ll bet you think it is a messy picture.” Instead of getting hooked into delivering a critical evaluation of cookies, drawings, or other creations, you can respond to their warm intent, thoughtfulness, the effort they put into the work. You might try saying something like, “That is very thoughtful of you, and I really appreciate it. You probably took a lot of time to do it. That you thought of sharing it with me makes me very happy.”
I found I could honestly share my sad feeling with some children I tutored. One day as I came into the room and sat down with Tommy, aged ten, I said, “hello,” but the usual enthusiasm in my voice was missing; so was my usual smile. I found it difficult to stay attentive to Tommy’s lesson. I was distracted and quiet, not making my usual encouraging comments, giving flow to the session and positive feedback to Tommy, which was part of my normal style. Soon I began to sense a distractedness in Tommy, too, and a concern he had about his performance. I realized Tommy was reacting to my mood. The problem was a lack of clarity in understanding our relationship that day.
What had happened at my home that morning was that our fourteen-year-old dog Willie had died, and I was really upset. When I came into the tutoring room, I was aware I was still quite sad inside. Tommy picked up on my unusual quietness and lack of enthusiasm. Like many low self-esteemers, he probably thought he was the cause of my bad mood. Instead of continuing the tutoring, pretending nothing was wrong, and struggling alone with my sad feelings, I decided to tell Tommy what was going on inside me.
I told him about how we’d had this old cairn terrier named Willie for fourteen years and how I had found him dead on the kitchen floor this morning, having died in his sleep. Tommy, of course, remembered seeing Willie, because several times I had brought the dog with me to school. I explained to Tommy I was distracted today because I felt very sad. “It’s hard for me to keep my mind on the work you and I are doing because my mind keeps going back to Willie.”
Tommy was very helpful to me in asking about my feelings, so I could let them out. He wanted to know if I had cried and if my children had cried. In response to his questions, I was able to talk about my sense of loss. When he wanted to know if we would get another dog, I got in touch with my unwillingness even to think about trying to replace old Willie.
Tommy, in turn, had an opportunity to talk about his fear of loss, for he had a dog. He also revealed his curiosity about death. The session became a time for Tommy and me to become very real people to each other.
Self-Esteem Principle: If children feel you are real, then perhaps they can let some of the real them show.