Every time one more mass shooting occurs, our polarized culture increasingly retreats into two camps: those who want to blame mental illness, and those who want to blame guns. But these days, the more time I spend working in a school, I can’t help but also wonder about shoelaces.
If you’ve ever spent time around young children in a school, one thing you’ve likely noticed is all of the loose shoelaces. Tangled messes instead of neat bows. The long, lone lace dragging behind a foot clunking down the hallway. The crazy pair of laces leaping as the child walks down the stairs. Just watch as the unruly mess of loose shoelaces constantly poses the risk of tripping children all day long.
Many children arrive at kindergarten not yet having the fine motor skills to tie their own shoes. For some children, it will take all year or longer to learn. So on any given day, our smallest students will spend time trying, and failing, and trying again—and occasionally succeeding for an hour or so to keep their shoelaces tied. For a child, this is hard and constant work.
As adults, we often offer quick fixes. Velcro straps or lace-less boots seem to eliminate the problem altogether. Or for the sake of expediency, it is so easy for a grown-up to crouch down, tie the laces, then move the child along without much struggle.
But these quick fixes never work in the long run. A child must learn to tie her own shoelaces. Tie a child’s shoes, and she can walk for an hour or so. Teach a child to tie her own shoes, and she can walk for a lifetime.
Like loose shoelaces, a child’s emotional life tends to spill out all over the place. It’s messy, unruly, and seems to constantly risk becoming a bigger problem. A child’s frustration at not being heard can quickly grow to rage. A mid-afternoon memory of an argument at home can trigger a wave of sadness that sinks the child into a nonresponsive shutdown. A moment of sheer joy can quickly turn if a child does not know how to use his body safely when celebrating.
It is just as hard to navigate big emotions in a community as it is to keep shoelaces tied. For children—and adults—this is hard and constant work.
And once again, as adults, we can always offer quick fixes. We can become the authoritative figures who believe it doesn’t matter what is going on inside their hearts and minds and instincts—what they need to do is sit down and shut up and follow our instructions. Or we can focus on the children who do seem to behave, perform, or self-regulate better, and simply ignore (or in a school, suspend or expel) the children who do not conform to our needs for expedient conformity.
And perhaps one of the reasons we seek these quick fixes is because we, ourselves, struggle to navigate our own emotional lives as adults. Easier to shut them off, find easy solutions, or seek distraction.
But these quick fixes don’t work either. We all must learn to navigate the rocky terrain of human relationships. As a culture, we often say we value things like empathy, understanding, integrity, and love. But these don’t always come naturally to young and developing minds. If you’ve ever watched a child go from smiling and playful one moment to suddenly wailing and flailing about on the floor with arms and legs flopping through the air like untied shoelaces, you likely know what I’m talking about.
And yet, as a local school leader recently told me, “We fully expect it will take a couple of years for a child to learn to tie a shoe, but we expect them to share space, time, and materials with others successfully in a few days or weeks.”
The hard work of social-emotional learning involves helping a child understand the steps it takes to notice a feeling or emotion, name it, and see the choices available in responding to the emotion. It’s not about teaching them to be stoic and ignore their emotions; it is about helping them understand their own bodies and minds so they can self-regulate and make choices.
It is about helping them see that they are connected to other people in their families, school, and community, and the choices they make in response to anger or sadness or joy might have a real impact on themselves and others.
For a generation of children at risk of such deep alienation that they will reach for guns, let’s give them the tools they need to reach out to each other instead.
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