Comforting a Child is a Basic Life Skill

Published by — At a Waldorf-inspred school in Providence, a caring adult helps an angry boy learn an important lesson in caring and empathy that teachers and schools would do well to consider.

A delicious grandmotherly smell wafts through the Mariposa pre-school in Providence.  This old-fashioned-looking childhood oasis, in the midst of city grit, is idyllic.

Well, except for the boy banging the head of a cloth baby doll against a table.  Hmmmmm.

An oven in the real-kitchen area – there’s also a play kitchen – is baking granola-bar snacks that the four-year-olds made with Miss Susan, an adult aide.  While one little baker stirred the dough, others sang a cooking song.

At the sink, two girls stand on chairs to “wash the dishes” in super-sudsy water.  The kitchen is a floury, sudsy mess.  But the clean-up song and Miss Susan help them get it tidy again.  Even housework looks fun.

Across the way, a kerfuffle erupts because the grocery-store shelves are empty.  How can they play store, shrieks one irate customer?  An adult wonders aloud if the store might be re-stocked with the toy food and packages that found their way to the play dining area.  The little rocket scientists light up with a genius solution – grab baskets and move the stuff.

At this Waldorf-inspired school, the playthings are attractive, non-commercial, designed for imaginative play, and distinctly unhip.  (Who needs hip 4-year-olds?)

But that boy – we’ll call him Roger – can’t seem to stop banging that baby’s head, even when asked nicely.  His vehemence is upsetting.  Perhaps a new sibling at home has ignited murderous Cain-and-Abel passions.  This could happen to any family.

Or he could be signaling bigger, distressing issues in his life.

One of six public preschools being piloted in Rhode Island with a federal grant, Mariposa’s students are predominantly urban.

So however gauzy, pretty, and middle-class the atmosphere, Child Protective Services has been called more than once.

My heart warms all the more to see low-income urban kids having a blast, losing themselves in self-made games, make believe, and building projects.  Without Mariposa, they’d likely be home with too much TV, or in a less-gorgeously appointed daycare center, also with TV.

Head Teacher Miss Meghan (McDermott) finishes what she’s doing to work with the boy whose attacks are turning full-on violent.

I can’t hear specific words over the kinder-din.  But McDermott gets down to child-level to show him how to hold a baby.  This only triggers his inner Cain.  So she gently takes the poor baby doll herself to comfort it, with the gestures of a fabulous mom.  She cradles it in her arms, rocks gently, and repeatedly kisses what would have been a fatal concussion.  Occasionally she strokes Roger’s arm, to help him feel what the baby would be feeling.  He nods studiously.  He looks at the doll at least as much as McDermott.  He asks questions.  She answers one by showing him how to put the baby over her shoulder and pat it.

Then, with outstretched arms, he wants the baby back.  Okay.  McDermott gets another doll and together they mother their respective babies, cradling, rocking, stroking.

Waldorf classrooms always have squares of fun-colored cloth hanging about, as an all-purpose toy.  McDermott adroitly fashions one into a snuggie for Roger’s baby.  Roger, enraged moments ago, holds very still, as though the operation were quite delicate, and with surprisingly bright eyes, watches her tie the baby to his body.

By then an audience of three other boys had assembled, fascinated.  With Roger’s sling complete, they all want babies and slings of their own.  McDermott obliges.  Roger, now an expert, instructs them in his new-found skills – stroking, kissing, snuggling.  McDermott generously praises them.

So there they were, four urban boys practicing mothering in a comically-serious way.

Perhaps such care and comfort is not so available at home.  They’re learning it now, though, rehearsing the sweet behavior of a confident, secure mom, not harassed by the challenges of poverty, or working long hours, or single motherhood, or having more children than she can handle.  McDermott leaves them, busy soothing their babies, and in the case of Roger, soothing himself.

Mariposa’s Director Dr. Kristen Greene says, “Modeling mothering is a great route to teaching empathy, caring, kindness – all qualities we know we want to bring forth in our little ones.  Sadly, we are ignoring these human traits too much of late. Gentleness is actually something that children need to be taught.  The gentle person is considering another person’s experience, wanting it to be loving and caring. Children must learn this skill, or at least see it, experience it, have it recognized and affirmed when they act in this way.  Our predominant culture contains a lot of violence, especially in the media, and does not offer children a lot of opportunities to observe gentleness in action.”

So many parents today, at every socio-economic level, had poor models of sweet and gentle parenting when they were little.  How would they know how to teach it to their kids?

These boys’ lesson in nurturing might stay with them, if their schools continue to reinforce such values with them and their parents.  All problems, at home, school and elsewhere, are more tolerable when people treat one another mindfully, affectionately, playfully.

Nurture is a critical life skill, like showing up to work every day on time.  Everyone should know how to comfort a child.  (And how to comfort one another.)  How will children learn to be kind and caring, if they don’t see us model the behavior we want to see in them?

Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears and GoLocalWorcester.  She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island.  She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see or contact her at or c/o GoLocalProv, 44 Weybosset Street, Providence, RI 02903.

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