Sometimes when we talk about children, we focus on what kids can’t do: they can’t walk yet, or they can’t reach the sink, or they don’t know how to read, or they lack critical thinking skills. These may be accurate descriptions, but they also encourage us to think of children as deficient. They lead to a weak image of children, where being a child means being seen mostly as dependent and needy.
We only need to think of our own negative reactions to being thought weak to imagine how children might also suffer from such an image. Children, like adults, want to feel respected and valued. When they declare “me do it!”, they want to be seen as capable. We can reinforce this positive self-image by building and acting on a strong image of children.
A strong child image focuses on a child’s current skills and abilities, as well as their developmental potential. It reflects a ‘glass half full’ mentality, where adults celebrate children for who they are rather than who they’re not. This positive image then becomes the basis for creating learning experiences that incorporate children’s strengths and desire to grow.
The first step toward strengthening your child image is to think carefully about what you believe about children. Make a list of the traits you associate with children of different ages. Notice how many are positive (can do) rather than negative (can’t do) statements. Reflect on the language you use when you talk about kids with others. Do you comment on strengths (“Ramon asks thoughtful follow-up questions”) or weaknesses (“Jess can’t remember the story accurately”)?
Then translate your thinking into the learning environment. Put up posters that affirm children’s capabilities, such as “Your questions matter!”, “Everyone is creative in their own way”, or “We all have abilities – embrace yours!” Learn about children’s interests and incorporate them into lessons. Showcase children’s work. Invite children to collaborate with you as partners in setting class goals and selecting topics for exploration.
Third, spend time getting to know each child. Learn how children inhabit the image of a capable child in their own ways. Ask questions like “how do you spend your free time?” and listen to them talk about their hobbies. Wonder together about what a really good day looks like for a glimpse into their ideals. Invite them to share their favorite things or experiences during circle time so you know what they care about. Notice their body language and facial expressions so you can be mindful of their emotional needs.
Finally, keep in mind that children express their abilities in many ways. By offering multiple ways to engage in the learning process, you honor their differences. Mix large group discussions with hands-on exploration. Pair children as research partners sometimes and encourage individual work other days. Offer choices for how children demonstrate knowledge of spiritual ideas and practices. For example, one child might describe how to practice meditation, another might write a story about meditating, and a third might create a step-by-step picture chart.