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Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Sometimes I despair: changing people's minds about child care

Caring for children is such an emotive subject. Every day as I read others' blog posts and websites and news articles- and yes, I do a LOT of reading every day- I see parents and educators struggling as they try to be rational and honest about a subject which is so loaded with feelings that the slightest slip of vocabulary or expression can send people into a complete flip.

There's an old wisdom that states that if you want social mayhem, just bring up sex, religion or politics. I'd like to add 'child rearing' to that. People feel so passionate about the way they've chosen to care for their children. It's almost become a sort of religion, with people from different philosophies desperately trying to convert others to their point of view. Sometimes a discussion thread turns into the verbal equivalent of a holy war. People get hurt. People get angry. Ego overpowers good sense. The 'holiness' of parenthood turns to 'holier than thou', and what started as a desire to enable valuable change gets compromised by people being downright nasty to each other.

So today I feel inspired to look at the mistakes we make when we're trying to change people's minds.

A common thread running through many heated (and often vitriolic) exchanges about child care is the belief that people will change their minds if you can prove them wrong using facts. If only that were true- if only parenthood was so rational! (If only human beings were so rational.)

This idea, that well-researched facts will sway personal beliefs, has been proved to be a furphy many times- climate change is probably the best illustration. It doesn't matter how many experts you have on your side; there will be a conspiracy theory or three, a contrary piece of research or ten, and an infinite body of personal belief based on anecdotal evidence thrown back at you.

Facts don't change minds. We're not computers. You can't input the data and expect a logical result. Human beings are more complex than that.

The reason that facts don't change minds is that most of us aren't scientists, and so we mistrust others' evidence. It's much easier to rely on what we know ourselves- the anecdotal evidence, the things that we've seen with our own eyes. If our child got sick after a vaccination, vaccination seems dangerous. If our child or husband is circumcised and seems to have no problems, we may think there's no problem with circumcision. If we were smacked but we feel like we've grown up okay, we see smacking as effective and harmless. We are so stuck in our own frames. We are so untrusting of the sometimes cold and distant evidence presented by strangers.

That's not to say that facts aren't useful- of course they are; before we go out on a limb trying to change someone's mind, we'd better be sure in our own mind that we're not just relying on anecdotes. We need to look outside our own frame and research our topic. But we can't expect the facts we discover to change anyone else's mind. Not on their own- no, no matter how shocking they are.

Does that make you feel despairing? It does me. Sometimes I despair that my wide knowledge of the human child, gained from a lifetime of study and experience, isn't easier to distribute so it might help others magically change their practice overnight. I've presented co-workers with facts about child-centred, empathetic childcare and teaching practice, encouraged them to change, and been laughed at and undermined for it. I've given honest, fact-based advice in forums, and been flamed for it. I feel your pain as you try to change the world, I really do. People sometimes just don't want to believe me. My experience isn't their experience; my frame isn't their frame.

Don't despair. I've learnt a few things along the way about better methods of changing people's minds. Bear with me.

Another method that seems to be used by some is the guilt-trip. Oh, come on- you know that doesn't work- did it ever work on you to change your beliefs, or did it just make you feel rotten or furious?

In fact, it doesn't work to such an extent that if you slip up and make someone feel bad about what they're doing, even by accident, you may well have lost them for good. Guilt creates fight-or-flight. When people feel guilty, they'll typically either find a way to support even an untenable position or they'll close down. It takes a very fine human being to look guilt in the eye straight off and say "I made a mistake, how can I fix it?" So drama is not your friend. Heightened emotions are not your friend.

And that brings me to language and expression. If you want to change people's minds, the first thing you have to do is try to stand in the other person's shoes and then think 'How does this issue look from here? How does it feel from here? What would I feel sensitive about if I were standing here?'. Once you've done that, you do have a hope in hell of choosing the right words.

Here's the crux of the matter: If you can't stand in the shoes of the person on the other side of the line, you have no hope of changing their mind. Speak to them the way you would like to be spoken to about your most deeply held personal views. This isn't about being patronising or dramatic, about humiliating others, about winning. It's about changing the world gently, one step at a time.

And this is why being a crusader for a cause doesn't work. Crusaders fill the whole frame with their own beliefs. They can't see anything outside that frame. To change people's minds, you need to make them feel that you understand their position and are prepared to work with them from where they are. You can't just whack them over the head with the facts, ridicule or patronise them if they argue and drag them over to your side. It doesn't matter how right you are. That won't work.

Telling stories is a good way to make people think about change. Share your own anecdotes, and when you listen to anecdotes from the other side of the line be very careful how you respond. You are treading on other people's personal experiences and beliefs; tiptoe. 

Often we try to change too much at once. Enjoy the small wins! An over-controlling early childhood teacher, for example, who one day agrees to let the children choose what colour paints to use, equals a win for play-based learning. Let her discover the children's response for herself, and she'll be encouraged to go further. Don't nag her to let them decide what or how to paint as well, don't expect her to suddenly let go of the reins of the whole experience- it's not going to happen.  One step at a time. Tell stories of what you saw during that experience instead of lecturing. Emphasise the good.

The last point I want to mention is that change is a painfully slow process. Here's the most difficult tip to embrace: stop pushing so hard, even if you feel your own position is vital and children's welfare is at stake.

I know this is counter intuitive, but if you want change to happen you do have to stop pushing and let people take themselves there at their own speed. Sometimes it takes generations. It is never as fast as we want it to be, or as fast as we think it should be. Here's an incredibly frustrating fact: you can't shock the human race into changing their ways overnight. You can't even hurry them up. People don't like being dragged along against their will. Let them walk, and feel their own way. Put your evidence out there without pressure, and work on your relationships with the people you want to change.

Remember that in the not-so-distant past, children were seen and not heard, beaten with straps, forced into child labour, sent away to wet nurses as a matter of course. Look how far we've come, and rejoice; realise that the fruits of your labours for change may not be seen for many years.

It's still worth doing, though, isn't it?


  1. Annie, such wisdom! I was especially struck by "To change people's minds, you need to make them feel that you understand their position and are prepared to work with them from where they are." I have found this time and again and am still learning how to do this, especially in regard to blogging.

    Becoming a RIE Parent/Infant Guidance Class facilitator is first about learning and assimilating Magda Gerber's philosophy, but the BIG challenge is learning how to offer it to others in a non-threatening way. I've been at it 17 years and am still working on this.

    And even then, it isn't NEARLY as hard to reach people who have already decided to enroll in one of our classes as it is to offer these new ideas up to the online community.

    When I first began blogging, I posted a couple of articles that infuriated some people...and that helped me to understand that I'd totally misjudged where they were. They were coming from an extremely different place and what I was saying was jarring. If I was at point Y, they were at B, so I had to try again...this time at C or maybe D.

    Anyway, everything you say here is so true and I totally I thank you for your eloquence. And, BTW, your comments on my blog always make my day. I'm honored to be "working" with you.

    1. Janet, thank you so much for your kind words. I too am honoured to be "working" with you.

      I totally understand what you say here: "...even then, it isn't NEARLY as hard to reach people who have already decided to enroll in one of our classes as it is to offer these new ideas up to the online community." I think this also happens to us on our Facebook pages. We're preaching to the congregation, and after a while we let something slip through that is really quite offensive to people who are, as you say, at point B not point Y with us. I was on the receiving end of this myself just yesterday and that's what made me think about the subject- I was definitely not looking through the same window as the author and felt offended by something that was said. Nothing like the receiving end to make us bloggers think!

  2. So worth doing! Thank you for an eloquent post and a wonderful reminder. This is something I do easily and naturally with children (try to put myself in their shoes, try to feel and understand where they're coming from, give them the benefit of the doubt when we don't see eye to eye, and give them time to come around on their own terms), but I sometimes struggle to do the same with adults, especially when blogging and communicating with others in the on-line world. While I love the power that the internet and social media gives us to share information, communicate, collaborate, and converse quickly and easily across sometimes great distances and to come together around shared values, I feel we do sometimes lose something in the translation. Sitting alone reading someone's post or response to a post, we miss out on tone of voice, body language, and other clues, which can lead us to misinterpret meanings, and if we're not careful, can lead us to respond in haste with angry or hurtful words.Best to step back and take a deep breath before pushing "enter", "send" or "publish" and ask the questions you propose: 'How does this issue look from the other person's point of view? How does it feel from here? What would I feel sensitive about if I were standing here?'.I'm going to copy and paste those words to my desktop as a reminder!

    1. YES Lisa, exactly- I also struggle so much more with adults, especially those I'm working with. I actually find it easier to edit myself in writing than face to face- I get too impassioned, and I need to step back and think before I respond. Maybe I need to make myself some signs too!

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post :) EXACTLY what I needed to read in regards to my relationship with my son's grandparents....It is SO hard though, to hold back sometimes! Slowly and gently though, onwards and upwards :)

    1. It IS hard when you're passionate about something, and there's probably nothing that makes us as passionate as our kids. I'm glad you found the post helpful!

  4. Annie, you always make me think - even when you are writing words that I support fully. Understanding the other person's viewpoint is so important. And looking for the "small steps" to help someone move to a new understanding. (Sometimes that person is me - sometimes I need to also take small steps away from some of my "absolutes.")

    Your example is exactly what I've been trying to do, too. An over-controlling teacher who gives up some (a little) control to the kids should be commended...not chastised for not going further. Step B to step C...not Step B to step Y. Perfect way to think about it.

    Thanks, Annie. You have an eloquence and directness that often eludes me.

    1. I too take small steps towards better understandings. It's very hard to give up a position with which you're comfortable, especially if that means feeling that you're losing control. It's a trust issue, really. And I've learned what I write about by doing it the wrong way!! There's no point in being an 'expert' if you can't get people to follow your lead!

  5. thank you. I also find "putting myself in their shoes......looking at their point of view" easy with children but, as mentioned by another reader, i find it difficult with adults, particularly adults that work with young children. I am working with an art teacher who completes childrens art for them as in her eyes "theres not enough glitter" or "its not pretty enough" Her 'lessons' are product based and i would love to focus more on the process. I am struggling with how to approach her, any more advice would be appreciated. Thank you.

    1. It's a common problem, Anon, and I really feel and have shared your frustration. It sounds like your art teacher may be in need of some professional development as her EC educational concepts are a little dated- can you talk to your director about the 'process not product' mentality and suggest some group PD that doesn't single this teacher out? If she can get the 'aha' moment without feeling humiliated, you have a hope of change.

      Other ideas: approach sideways and try to encourage the children to narrate their paintings, to you and to her. In other words, see if you can get them to tell the art teacher what their painting is about so they establish more ownership in her eyes. (It's good to write this at the bottom of the painting- children love to see their own words written down, even if they can't read them.) Can you do art activities with them too? You could get them making up and illustrating their own stories so you get right away from the 'pretty product' idea and more towards giving the children artistic ownership. The moment you see this teacher let go the tiniest bit of her attitude of over-riding ownership, you need to comment on it in a very positive way- simply narrating to her what you've seen of the children's positive response will make her feel good about the difficult act of relinquishing control.

      Another thing you could try is to suggest she sometimes does her own 'model' artwork and ask the children for input. This is putting her in their shoes as well as allowing her to show her own artistic ability, which sounds like what she needs to me! When a child suggests she needs to add more red, or to put in another figure, or to add more glitter HERE, she will perhaps start to understand the issue more by experiencing it. (I wouldn't recommend this be done all the time as an art activity- in fact for the children it is more about feeling their own power and following multi-step processes than about art.)

      Another idea: suggest that instead of enhancing the actual art, she enhance the framing for display. Maybe she just feels the need for an artistic expression of her own- she's probably very frustrated too. The extra glitter can go on the frame, surely; colours can be 'brought out' by echoing them with the backing paper. Another way of giving her an outlet would be to suggest she paint a mural for the children or take responsibility for the arrangement of all displays in the environment.

      Finally, if her lessons are product based and you're getting nowhere with change, use them as cognitive rather than creative experiences and lead some art activities of your own!

  6. Stephanie Mackley has asked me to post her FB comment here, as Blogger is misbehaving!

    "Well sheesh. I'm just delighted to know about you. This is the first post of yours I've ever read and you just NAILED it in so many ways. In college, one of my professors said to me, "Stephanie, you have some serious missionary zeal." And I remember then that I started to own up to the fact that I've always wanted to change the world. When I was young, it was from the conservative, Christian frame that I was raised in. In college, it was from the liberal activist world to which I converted. And now...well, I have a hard time owning up to any missionary zeal because I've seen from so much experience how hurtful it can be to others and how intensely draining of the person doing it.

    The place I'm at with all of this now is STORIES. I love that you raised this because its what I do. I believe in the power of stories, and specific stories above all else. When all of the bells are going off when I'm talking to a parent and I want to tell them what to do and just *know* I could solve all their problems, I reel myself in and at most, tell a story from my own experience and leave it at that.

    I suppose the other things I'd add to your beautiful list of how to change people's minds are: *You have to believe in them* and *Be honest about your intentions.* I have to regularly remind myself that I actually believe in the minds and hearts of other people, b/c it totally changes the way I talk to them. And I've also started saying things, especially in my friendships, like "Do you want my advice on that?" Its a huge relief to me, b/c then I don't have to try to sneak my advice in undercover. And then they have the option to say "No...I just want to vent about this." And then I can just shut up and be a good friend.

    The other thing this post brought up for me is some thoughts I'm churning through as a result of this post I wrote about mom's judging eachother:

    It was a frightening post to write (and then the discussion that ensued in the comments even more frightening) in many ways because it was my attempt at being a bit more transparent about the judgments we all have about eachother even if we say nothing of them.

    I think what I'm finding from that post, and especially the discussion that followed in the comments is that my judgments of other moms in particular are rooted in the ways I feel that I was mis-parented as a child and most don't want to pass on to my kid. Anyhoo. That all feels related to this too. Curious about your wise observations on that front.

    Thrilled to know you exist! Thank you."

    1. Thanks, Stephanie- and I love your additions to my list. Great ideas- and I also tend to ask if people want my advice these days, especially in my personal relationships.

      Just read your post about judgment- fabulous conversation, go there, people! I've visited your blog before and it's always interesting (and I don't mean that in a sit-on-the-fence, backhander way, I mean INTERESTING). I totally agree that our sensitivities are based on where we've come from, but I'd add to the childhood mishaps and say we are also sensitive (and insensitive to others) about things we used to do but don't do any more because we've learnt better.

      For example, I was an over-the-top 'helper' when I started out in childcare, and now it really peeves me when parents and carers won't let children try to do things themselves. I think this might also be something that Janet Lansbury touched on in her comment above- the 'I'm at point Y, why aren't you?' attitude. Sometimes it's so hard to be patient, especially when people aren't particularly interested in moving forward and educating themselves (possibly this is also 'Anon' 's problem in the previous comment!).

      Anyway, thanks for your thoughtful comment, and I'm off to read some more of your blog! :)

  7. Love this, and you have said it so well. I LOL at proving people wrong with facts. Parenting is SO not rational like that. I wish I could comment/share on FB, but it's being moody today. I will try tomorrow. Thanks for sharing as always!

    1. Thanks Momma IP- and thanks for the share, it happened in the end!

  8. What a wonderful post! I'm going to share this with my fellow volunteer writers at Natural Parent's Network (and bookmark it for easy reference, because I know I'll need a good "do not despair" every once in a while on my parenting journey). . . we just had a wonderful blog carnival on the topic of "Peaceful Interactions with Other Parents" - basically we talked about interacting with mainstream parents and how to interact peacefully with those who may criticize or ostracize because of natural parenting philosophies.

    Personally, I used to be one of the "If I state the facts and prove that ____ is good for children because ___ then I will change their minds" kind of person. Now, I realize that it's exponentially more effective and enjoyable if I walk along with every other parent I know and share experiences with them as they organically come up in our relationships. Compassion and modeling are my go-to ways to cooperate with those who hold onto archaic forms of child raising.

    Thank you - Thank you for writing this! It's lovely!

  9. Thank you for the great feedback, Amy! I also used to think that the facts were everything, so I know exactly where you're coming from. If only we could have the wisdom of age when we're needing it in our youth!

    You're so right about the modelling. It works with children, but it also works with adults- as long as they're paying attention. You do get some who are so totally tied up in their own little world of stress that they don't even notice, though... these are the ones who might need a friendly anecdote or two. :)

  10. I am 40 year old male whom quit his job and retrained to become a preschool teacher. IN my first job now where my co worker has had little to no support for the last 5 years. I do not want to yell (use grumpy voice) with children but this is what the children are use to hearing. Any advice on how to break this cycle without losing my job!

    1. Okay, this is a perfect example of where you can work by setting a good example, Lanz. I've got to say first, though, that I FEEL YOUR PAIN. Been there.

      You don't have to do things their way- you can use your own methods with the children. So for example, instead of yelling to get the whole group's attention, turn the lights off... then on again, and speak in a normal voice. Or play a musical instrument- a drum, or a slide whistle, or the cymbals... then speak in a normal voice.

      To get the attention of a more select group- identify the 'ring leader', walk over, get down to his/her level and get eye contact and speak in a normal voice. Or- whisper in a child's ear... "I'm going to the mat to do (activity) now, would you like to come too?"... and move to the next child and do the same...

      If you practice peaceful crowd control and your co-workers see that it works, you are halfway there. That is step one.

      Step two is DO NOT CRITICISE YOUR CO-WORKERS in word or gesture (rolling eyes, etc) because that makes them more resistant to change. Just don't play their game.

      And step three is build positive relationships with those co-workers. Praise them for what they do RIGHT, and be specific in your praise. "I really liked the way you set up that activity this morning- the kids were really motivated by the way you combined resources that don't usually get put out together" is going to do so much more for change than "I wish you wouldn't yell at the kids like that."

      Hope this helps! And good luck. Honestly, I totally understand how frustrating it is to work with people who habitually engage in counterproductive management behaviours. Make sure you 'download' when you get home... but don't do it on Facebook! LOL!

  11. TY so much for you reply, I tried your advice today at morning mat time. I just went to the mat, where there 3 children sitting down, and I whispered copy me. I then start singing a song with motions with no warning. Although I did not get ALL the children, I got most. I was amazed at how many children just stopped in their tracks, cane over, and joined in. Some even stopped what they were doihng and started the motions where they were standing.

    Good advice. I am already thinking of said ring leader. I will read your post on behaviour. It is very trying for me at times as all the young women use said grumpy voice with the children. They even have a laugh when they make a child cry.

    Do you have any post on Peaceful Crowd Control 101?

    1. YES I do!

      I have a whole page where the behaviour posts are listed, too:

      Happy reading!

    2. And well done today! From little things, big things grow! Oh and what you say about the other enjoying making the kids cry? That is sick. It makes me furious. Hang in there because it sounds like you are these children's very best hope for a happy day.

      YOU ROCK.


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