Red Says Stop
My four year old daughter is going through a difficult phase. Her intelligence, lack of persistence, jealousy over her brother and natural tendency to over dramatize are combining to make her something of a behaviour minefield. In the midst of the drama I find it difficult to step back and respond coolly, but after I’ve had a chance to consider, I am able to be much more sanguine.
She’s not a sociopath. She’s a perfectly normal four year old, with a great deal more to learn about self-control, empathy, resilience and so on. Her brain is barely formed and far from fully functional. With what she has, she does a superb job, as do all children – the intensity of learning that children go through is a constant source of wonder to me.
Recently, my daughter has had some impulsivity issues. She sees a toy in the hands of another child and she wants the toy – even though she was quite happy playing with her own toy until that point. She goes over and takes the toy. Alternatively, she is inside and wants to go outside. A child is standing in the doorway. She pushes the child down in order to get out. Cue tears, recriminations and limited remorse.
Learning empathy is hard for small children. They are programmed to be selfish; it’s a survival thing. Acting impulsively, without considered thought, is also a small child’s modus operandi. Fortunately, with practice, both of these things can be learned.
I am experimenting with a play on language currently to work on these issues with my daughter. I took the cue from Martin Seligman, the father of positive psychology, whose book, The Optimistic Child, I am currently reading. It’s twenty years old now, but still has some excellent ideas for parents seeking to imbue their child with optimism and tools for sustained problem solving skills, social success, academic achievement and overall wellbeing. His suggested activities are designed for older children (from the age of eight), but the basic principles can be adapted for four year olds (or that’s my theory).
I can’t possibly have the long conversations and explanations suggested by Seligman. With my daughter, less is definitely more when you want her to really listen to what you’re saying. So I combined Seligman’s theory with a more age-appropriate medium.
Peter Combe is an Australian children’s singer and songwriter who has been putting out albums since I was a little one over thirty years ago. His latest album, Quirky Berserky, released in 2012, appeared in my daughter’s Christmas stocking this year and it is full of stories, songs and fun, with no drop in quality all this time later.
One of the songs on this album is sung by Oli, Combe’s three year old grandson. It’s called Red Says Stop and is all about traffic lights. Its main lyrics are: ‘Red says stop. Yellow: get ready. Green means go.’
I decided to try something out on my daughter after a particularly bad day at daycare. I asked her if she had heard of red thoughts, yellow thoughts and green thoughts. She said no (of course – I’d just thought of it) and wanted to know more. So I explained that red thoughts are what you have when you start to do something and you know it’s going to get you in trouble. Sometimes you have lots of red thoughts and those are the days you get into lots of trouble. Rather than having a lot of red thoughts, it’s better to focus on yellow thoughts. Yellow in this case means slow down. Think. Will this get me in trouble? Will it be a good thing or a bad thing? If it’s a bad thing, then it’s a red thought, and red says stop. If it’s a good thing, then it’s a green thought and you’re good to go. ‘So’ I said quickly, sensing her attention starting to fade, ‘let’s see if you can focus on yellow thoughts today, OK?’
It remains to be seen if this idea works. But if it does encourage her to stop and think a little more before acting, then I’ll be happy.
Such simple language used to teach some fairly sophisticated brainwork. The ultimate goal is to help my daughter stop and think before acting. But this simple action hides a lot. If all she does at first is think about whether she’ll get in trouble, and act accordingly, that’s a great first step. But with practice, I hope that she will learn to think about things in a more advanced way. ‘If I take the toy, I’ll get in trouble’ will hopefully change to: ‘If I take the toy, John will be unhappy and I like John and don’t want him to be unhappy.’ Perhaps even: ‘If I take the toy, John will be unhappy and I like Job and don’t want him to be unhappy. Maybe I’ll ask John if we can play with the toy together.’ Suddenly we have the beginnings of social competence.
Well it’s very early days and I’ll keep you posted. But I hope that I’m on the right track. If so, I’ll feel much more confident about finding useful songs and metaphors for future issues we’ll have to face and overcome together. So wish me luck!