The preschooler is obsessed with Duplo towers. A few weeks ago, as the tower swayed and eventually crashed earthward, she fell apart as spectacularly as the Duplo itself. The floor was a disaster site of Duplo, snot and tears. I even thought I saw dried blood, but realized she used the curtain to wipe chocolate off her hands instead of washing them like she insisted she had done.
I cleaned the curtain and floor, and attempted verbally explaining Emotional Regulation 101 to a toddler. After all, being self-compassionate and understanding how to manage emotions without suppressing them is a good human skill. Beyond that, I believe also that the world could benefit from more leaders who know how to recognize and take action on their emotions in a mindful manner.
I was working with the wrong audience. She glazed over at the word amygdala, and I went back to making faces at the baby (who is still little enough to think I am incredibly interesting and rather hilarious).
Days later, with a sense of déjà vu, towers were built, towers fell, and gradually her resilience for failing architecture seemed to grow. I watched, standing over her and bounce-swaying the squawking baby, as yet another tower collapsed. I glanced at the baby and decided he was too far from sleep to bother putting my hand over his ears.
“Uh-oh,” she said, calmly.
She proceeded to gather the pieces and tried again. I looked at her, pleasantly surprised.
“Mummy, I am practicing.”
I glowed with parental satisfaction. The concept of accepting failure as a normal part of her day and having the reserves to try again was not part of her natural personality traits. It was a behaviour we have tried to instill in her. Perhaps Verbally Explaining Emotional Regulation to a Toddler 101 was working.
“Good girl for practicing,” I reaffirmed. “Do you remember Mummy saying that when something doesn’t work the first time, we try again?”
She looked at me as if I had suddenly grown purple antennae. And just then, as I was shrugging off her reaction and mentally patting myself on the back, her tower fell over again.
“AAAAUUUUUUGGGGGHH” she screamed.
“WAAAAAAAH” agreed the baby in terror.
I sighed and jiggle-shushed the baby while explaining again that she just had to keep practicing. I suggested she found a large flat piece of Duplo to build on, and she stared at me in mute frustration and refused. I shifted the baby and picked up some pieces to start her off again, prattling on about practicing and failure being ok, when all of a sudden a light appeared in her eyes and she took the Duplo out of my hand.
“No, no, Mummy. Like this. Far* showed me how to build.”
(* Dad in Danish)
And off she went, creating a stable base for the tower, working as deftly and systematically as my husband does, quickly adding bricks until she had an architecturally stunning (and stable) Duplo tower in front of her.
“Yay” she crowed, making a large V with her arms in triumph. “I did it! See Mummy! I did it all by myself.”
I gaped at her. She had mimicked my husband’s Duplo building perfectly, and in the process she reminded me quite rightly, that words from up high about how to do something are one thing; but actions from working beside one other have a different kind of impact. From a parenting perspective we learn many concepts that we try to teach our kids and help them wire their developing brains. We instruct, and explain, and repeat ourselves verbally, as our hands are frequently full of babies, school bags, saucepans and groceries.
Yet so much can be gained from climbing down from our current vantage point of overseeing everything that needs to be done in order to better understand the situation before applying a solution. In business this is called “Gemba” – a Japanese term meaning “the right place”. From a leadership perspective it is about observing, engaging and improving, about working alongside and listening or asking questions rather than telling. It is a powerful tool in leadership, and apparently also for parenting as my husband had accidentally (or deliberately?) discovered.
Instead of choosing to see only the tears and verbally instructing her on conceptual issues and seeing her tantrums as a behavioural issue that needed to be adjusted (as I had), my husband had quite simply seen a Duplo tower and tears fall at the same time, and had opted to sit down beside her night after night to build his own towers.
And in the moment that she chose to engage, observe and listen, she began to learn.
Many times in our lives we concentrate on pointing out the errors and where we think things could improve, yet we forget about the engaging part. Engaging creates the real value. When we (as leaders or parents) expand the process from observing and improving to observing, engaging and improving, we can build beautiful Duplo towers.
Logically it makes sense to shift our energy and time from verbal repetition to active engagement. And think what value the world gains when we have humans who want work beside one another instead of just offering their opinion to one another about how the world should be.
What a great thing to role model.
Gillian is a ShanghaiMama with a Masters degree in Leadership and an interest in leadership development in young people. She loves to research and she can be identified by the yoga pants which are permanently fluffy from sitting on the floor with her Kiwi-Danish kids (a Horse preschooler and a Monkey baby).