What is that child really looking at?

RIE Foundations Course Reflection 2018 Day 2




Today, we practiced an old skill, albeit using new lenses: Observation.

“Hah!” You may say, “I am a keen observer. I know my child extremely well!”

Perhaps so. Now, humor me for a minute—what if you and I can’t tell what goes on in the child’s head, every. single. minute. of the day?

(I don’t know about you, but I absolutely hate it when someone assumes they know me completely. They can know me very well, but it’s arrogant for anyone to assume that s/he knows me completely.)


 The “Photo”

We were shown a photograph of two toddlers, and we were asked to “Observe, not Interpret.” To “observe” means to objectively say what we are sure of. To “interpret” is to infer, is subjective in nature, and may possibly be untrue.

(Due to potential copyright infringement, I cannot share the said photo online.)

Here are examples of our group observations:

  • The child on the left is holding the ball with wide fingers close to her body. Her shoulder is angled away from the boy.

  • The child on the right is reaching out his right arm towards the direction of the ball.

  • The child on the right is looking towards the ball. The child on the left is looking towards the boy’s face.

Now, compare these to my inferences—assumptions that may or may not be proven true:

  • The girl on the left is trying to keep the ball from the boy on the right.

  • The boy is trying to get his ball back.

  • The girl is trying to tell the boy, “back off.”

What was wrong about my assumptions? The fact that they are assumptions, not objective truth. What truly happened in the photo? Do I know if the girl is trying to keep the ball from the boy? When I infer that the boy is trying to get his ball “back,” am I implying that it was taken away from him? Do I really know for sure what is causing the child to look in one direction, and what each child is thinking? No. I can barely tell where the child is really looking, much less what she or he is thinking.

This was a photo with no backstory for us to work on. However, even in actual life, interactions happen quickly.

When we see two infants or toddlers, and one is on the floor crying, do we know for sure that one did something to the other? How are we to judge, and who are we to judge?


Playing Judge

In the same token, if a toddler “hits” another child with a toy, do we label the other child as “aggressive” or “naughty”? What if this “hitting” was a motor response that did not come as smooth as the child had hoped? What if there was no aggression motivating this action?

As adults, we (hopefully) are able to defend ourselves against incorrect judgment. We say, “You misunderstood my intentions,” or “That is not how it happened,” when we are wrongly accused. However, what about toddlers? How can they tell us what’s really on their minds?


The Great WHY

As a side story, I recall my experiences as a child. I hated answering most questions that began with, “WHY?”

“Why did you forget your lunchbox?”

“Why are you so clumsy?”

“Why can you not remember how to spell the word ‘February?’”

These were such big questions that I could not comprehend. How was I to give an answer that satisfy, when I myself did not know what caused me to make such “wrong” behaviour.



This brings me back to the toddlers. How would our toddlers be able to tell us, “I did not mean to make the other child cry,” when we rush at them with a barrage of comments that form a crazy monologue:

“Oh no! You hit! You’re naughty! Say sorry, say sorry, say sorry! You’re not supposed to do that!” as the clueless toddler looks on.

How about trying something different—how about looking on, stating facts, and saying, “Your friend looks unhappy that you flung the toy at her. It must have hit her hard, and that’s painful,” followed by modelling a caring behaviour— like asking the other child how s/he’s doing, and seeing how you can make things better. Perhaps the child that did the “hitting” will even participate as you try to soothe the other child. “Aggression” is not soothed by aggression. If we can provide a calm, objective support for children, they will be intrigued by what it means to listen without judgment, and to be genuinely interested in observing another person. These are the beginnings of empathy.

What was the toddler looking at? What was the toddler really thinking?

No one knows for sure until we observe, until we wait, and until we see for certain. When we judge, we stop the exchange. When we listen, we wait for things to reveal themselves. Only then can we help process. Only then will we be aware of our own biases. And only then can objectivity happen.