How Do We Teach Empowerment?
The primary way
anything is taught to
children is through modeling. From the time they are infants, they
are watching us and mimicking us. They learn as much from what we do
as what we say. And if there is a
discrepancy between the
message in our words and the message in our actions, children may
learn a different lesson from the one we are trying to teach them!
Therefore, the most effective way to
teach children they have the power to take positive action -- to work
through the challenges before them (now and later in life), is to
encourage this belief in ourselves, and to make choices -- take
action -- that reflects this belief.
Don't Fake It
On the other hand, if we fake and bluster -- if
we pretend to have such a belief in ourselves when in fact we do not
-- they will see through that also. And they may learn that
people should be frauds, that our authentic selves are not enough. Or
worse yet, that empowerment is impossible -- that our words (our
spoken messages) are only empty rhetoric.
Instead, we must simply do our earnest best, as
honestly as we can. If children see us standing fast in the face of
our own doubts, if they see us overcoming obstacles despite our own
handicaps and weaknesses, then they will have the chance to conclude,
"Perhaps I too
can do it, despite my
despite my weaknesses."
It is our process they learn from, as much as
Other Role Models We Can Give
Not only can we set an example through our own
acts, our own process, we can also share the experiences of others --
people young and old, human and
For young children, picture book characters can provide very
accessible role models (both visually and emotionally). Such stories
such as , "The Little Engine That Could" model the
importance of positive thinking -- the old train in the story, for
example, that said "I cannot" talked himself right out of trying!
Remember that with young children we must avoid
the temptation to be too wordy or to talk over their heads. Neither
should we condescend. But rather, we must make whatever we are
teaching relevant to the child -- to what he or she already knows,
sees, feels, and cares about.
For older children (and sometimes for younger),
stories about real people can be shared. In most cases, you can
paraphrase a person's life story to match the age and interests of
your child. Try to tie the story into something that your child can
already relate to -- either a personal hobby or interest, or a
current event in your lives. Sort of the "that reminds me of a
story" approach. Children learn best when the lesson is
presented in a meaningful context,
in which the lesson relates to
their own world (internal or external)
Remember to pull out the most important nugget
of the story to share with your child, and elaborate only if your
child indicates a desire to know more. (This will keep you from
appearing as a long-winded lecturer out to enlighten the less
Storytelling is a valuable tool also. This is
where you draw on incidents in your own life to create an
orally-transmitted story (or you could write it down!). Many people
are naturally great story-tellers! If you are not one of them, you
might find a workshop in your community to help hone your skills.
Developmentally Appropriate Environments
While I have talked about the importance of
role models and of consistency between word and deed, let's not
forget that children also learn by doing.
They observe and
then they do -- playacting at what they have seen. Conversely, like
small scientists, children also do.. and then observe the results of their actions.
We must ensure that children have sufficient
opportunity to playact and to explore. Too often children are rushed
from here to there and back again -- and kept busy with highly
organized, goal-oriented activities in between -- that they have no
time to indulge either of these vital, natural drives.
Children must be given time to dream, to touch,
to feel, and most of all to construct.
To build their ideas,
to expand on their questions, and to develop a deep sense of
rootedness, of connectedness (physically and emotionally) to the
world around them.
Besides time to explore and pretend, children
need permission. As caregivers and teachers, we will do much to
empower children if we take care to present them with environments
(home, classroom, etc.) that are enriching, safe and child-friendly.
Although it is important to give kids opportunities to learn about
limits, we want to avoid creating environments where we must
spout negative remarks, "Don't touch", "Don't do
that," "Stop it", "Sit still", and "Let
me do that for you."
Instead, we would like to have many opportunities
to say "go ahead,
see how that feels", "try it and see what happens",
"see how much you can do". But this requires thinking ahead
and knowing what is
Finally, just as we don't want to over-constrain
children, we also don't want to be overly permissive. That is, we
don't want to set them up for failure by setting them loose in situations
or environments where they are likely to cause damage or be
injured. Instead, we provide them with settings that are safe and
child-friendly. And when we introduce them to situations where
there must be stricter boundaries ("Please, don't touch anything."), we
keep in mind the limits already imposed on them by their age and stage
of development. We obviously don't expect a 14 month old to have
the same self-restraint as a 10 year old. And we don't expect a 10
year old to stay amused and contented by the same activities and range
of freedom that enthrall the 14 month old. And finally, we don't
expect ourselves as parents and educators to stay blissfully calm while
either one repeatedly vents their frustration at being pushed beyond
their limits. We plan ahead with reasonable, informed
expectations.... and then we do the best we can with whatever comes up.
(Note: many of us have found that a spiritual practice helps in this.)
Encourage Healthy Boundaries
Yet another way to help to help children
positively experience and discover their personal power is to teach
them about healthy
Specifically, we can encourage children
to speak their minds, to share what they really feel -- in ways that
respect the rights and feelings of others. We can encourage them to
speak up for what they need and what they believe in. And validate
them when they do.
You might tell your vegetarian child, "I
noticed that you told Grandma you didn't want to eat the turkey. You
weren't afraid to say what you really felt. And I'm sure Grandma
appreciated your saying it in a kind way." With a four year old
student at preschool you might say, "Good using your words. You
really told Magda how you felt about that. You didn't
to take your ball!"
Remember however, that
listening is a
vital part of this process. Sometimes you will be the one a child
must speak up to. If you can really listen, and communicate back what
you think you have heard, you will not only make that child feel more
valuable and powerful, but you will also improve your relationship
with that child.
Risk Taking and Self-Nurturing
We can also validate children simply for
trying, for taking risks. Taking action is a primary component of
personal power. And the fear of making mistakes, is its chief
disabler. It's important to comment on the attempt children make--
not just the success.
Children also benefit from being validated for
being true to themselves and for nurturing themselves (knowing when it's
okay to choose not to take a risk). Knowing your limits is critical. We set ourselves up for failure when we don't
take notice of the small voice that says "I've had enough for
We can encourage them as they engage in the
process of learning to do all this better, of constructing knowledge
on how to do it effectively .
Modeling our own process; sharing the
stories of others who kept faith in their own (and others') positive
potential; providing safe, stimulating, and developmentally
appropriate environments and challenges; teaching healthy boundaries;
and validating children for trying, for taking healthy risks, and for
listening to their inner truth are all ways that we can empower
children. For more information about child development and some of
the other topics touched on here, please browse around this website.
If you can't find what you are looking for (through either articles
like the one above, linked information on other sites, or through
books or organizations listed on this site) please drop us an email
and we'll do our best to point you in the right direction.
It must begin with the belief "I can --
step by step, bit by bit -- I can." And when our faith in the
power of "I" is a bit shaky, we must develop the belief in
something bigger than ourselves. If not a spiritual
"something", then in the power of community. We must know,
that we are not alone. That working together "we can".
("Si, se puedes" as the song goes.)
We must remind ourselves that, "there is a
way." In this way, our mind is open to the seeds of possibility
as they arise. Making positive change in the world (even in our
private world) is not so much about forcing our will, as it is to
opening up to a possibility. Allowing it a space to come in, to enter
our lives, our world.
We must consider that when something truly needs to
be done, the way to do it not only can
open to us, but
open to us. For many people, this seems a ridiculous supposition, not
at all in keeping with the way we've been told the world works. After
all, we've all experienced setbacks. And it wouldn't be hard to point
to incidences in our personal lives when we've wanted something and
we didn't get it.
And yet, that perspective only takes into
account the desire of the personality self alone. What about the
desire of the soul self? Or even, of the unconscious aspects
of the self? When the desires of the personality self are in conflict
with its own deeper fears and desires and wisdom, the will is
diluted. The ability to affect change in the world is dampened.
So, when the way does not open, perhaps it is
because we are not willing to see it. Sometimes we look away -- out
of fear of the unknown, out of lack of self love, out of the belief
that we simply cannot escape our suffering, and so on. (But perhaps
it would be better to ask ourselves why we believe these things, than
to simply accept that they reflect an inevitable reality!)
So many of us were taught to believe that to do
great things, one must use great force -- great force of will, a
great force of intelligence, great force of power, or wealth or
influence. That this was why good things happened for some people and
not for others. And we said in response, "What about the rest of
us? I have none of these things -- or if I have some of it, there is
so much weighing against it.
"I can only do small things. I don't have
the energy, the experience, the drive, the time to do great things --
or even to keep up with all the commitments of my present daily life."
But what if it were enough, to do one simple
thing at a time? What if something greater than our conscious mind
could provide the vision, the motivation, the desire, and the
influence. What if all we had do was sit down and ask what is in our
own hearts. And then, having uncovered this, to ask... for a way to
make it come about?
The dream is there, inside us. It is not something we must think up,
wholly by the efforts of our rational selves. And it is not simply
our base desires, heretofore repressed. (Although both of these are a
part of ourselves, and therefore should be given a respectful hearing.)
The dream is there, unfolding in concert with these other aspects of
ourselves, these other needs and creativities.