Janet responds to a mother who writes that she tries to sportscast disagreements between her older two children, but since the 2-year-old isn’t verbal yet, “it’s hard when I don’t really know what he’s thinking.” She’s wondering how to sportscast situations effectively without making assumptions about what her boy may be thinking or feeling in that moment.
Transcript of “How Sportscasting Helps Kids Develop Social Intelligence”
Hi, this is Janet Lansbury. Welcome to Unruffled. Today I’m going to be answering a question from a parent who really has her hands full. She’s got three kids – 4 ½, 2 and 3 months. She describes the two year old as nonverbal and she’s wondering how to sportscast disagreements between him and his older brother without making false assumptions about what he’s thinking.
Here’s the email that I received:
Hi Janet! Thank you, your podcast has helped me to stay calm in some situations I know I wouldn’t have before.
I’ve noticed that my two boys usually solve their problems faster and better without my intervention. It’s awesome! What I’m hoping you’ll do a podcast on sometime is conflict resolution for nonverbal children.
Out of my three kids, ages four-and-a-half, two, and three months, only one is really verbal and he didn’t even start until he was over two-and-a-half years old. I try to sportscast disagreements between the older two, but it’s hard when I don’t really know what the two-year-old is thinking. I’m hoping you can give some tips, because I’m sure I’ll experience similar struggles with the baby once she starts interacting more with her brothers. Thanks!
Okay, I’m really happy to hear this podcast has helped this parent to stay calm, and also that she’s noticing how her two boys can solve their problems without her intervention. Yes, that is awesome. That’s wonderful. Actually, children do this better without our intervention most of the time because they feel freer to problem solve when they don’t sense we are bringing in our own judgments or agendas. This is also helpful to them in the bigger picture with building confidence in themselves in regard to social engagement and conflict resolution, because our interventions can train them to believe that they are dependent on us, that they can’t do it themselves. Because we as their influential leaders are unwittingly showing them that we don’t quite believe they can.
While we think we’re helping, and this is true with a lot of different kinds of helping that we do with children, helping sounds so wonderful but helping sometimes gives the child a message, or often gives the child a message, You can’t do this. You need me to do this for you or to make it work for you. Children build confidence in themselves and their abilities to resolve social conflicts when they are able to experience and feel from us that we believe they can do it.
So whether these are siblings or peers, to foster a feeling in children of being more capable and also allowing them to learn more though their practice, practice, practice, we’ll want to try to intervene in the most minimal way so that they can do the maximum they can do safely. This parent also makes a comment about her child being nonverbal. What she means, I believe, is that he does not have expressive language yet. He almost certainly does have receptive language because children begin learning receptive language from birth, possibly even in the wombs. By hearing us speak words to them and to others, they start to comprehend and internalize language. So, this child likely does have a lot of language, he’s just not speaking yet
With that in mind, what is sportscasting and how do we do this with children that are actually not speaking words? Sportscasting is actually just supporting children in their struggles of any kind. This can be with one child on their own with an object or a project that they’re working on, and all it really is is acknowledging. Acknowledging what we see because we sense that our child would appreciate the clarification or interpretation or a show of our attention and support in that moment.
Sportscasting was Magda Gerber’s term and I realize it’s maybe not quite as accurate a term as it could be, because “sportscasting” sounds like we’re giving a running dialogue of what’s happening, as sportscasters do during games. And that is not the intention at all. It’s not “now so-and-so is doing this and now they’re doing that,” because that would be interruptive for children, and way too tiring and unnatural feeling for us.
Sportscasting is only recommended when we sense that acknowledging the situation would help a child.
And then it really is just about the facts. It’s actually not about us trying to decide what someone’s intention is, what they’re feeling, what they’re thinking. It’s only what we know for sure that we reflect back to the children. That means, even with the child who is speaking or otherwise communicating, we wouldn’t decide what they’re thinking or what they want. We really don’t know. All we know is that you both seem to want this toy.
So I wouldn’t even make comments like, “He’s still using this” or “He wanted to use this longer.” We actually don’t really know that for sure. Why does it matter that we’re so precise on this? It matters because the whole point of sportscasting is actually not just to give children language and a better understanding of the situation and to help them feel heard and understood, but it is for us to remind ourselves not to project, to really be observant, and try to see from the children’s perspective rather than with our adult lens.
Projection is something that we all do, especially with children, and most especially with children who do not have expressive language yet. It’s wonderful that this parent wants to be careful about that. I would be careful about it with any child because it’s really hard not to do. It’s such an inclination that we all have, to see, “He took that from you” and “You’re sad” instead of, “It seems like you’re saying ‘No, I don’t like that.’”
A lot of times, because we as parents care so much and can tend to worry, our projections will often tend to be our worst fear, or the worst case scenario… which causes us to take it up a notch. “He’s really sad and he needed that and you got that.”
Innately for children, these kinds of struggles are often more interesting than negative and to be avoided, actually very interesting. “What happens when I do this? Wow, hey, he got that. I think I want that, too.” They’re very in-the-moment. While they often go through developmental stages where they want to hold on to control their environment and react more strongly to “loss” of that control, i.e.,from the latter part of the first year to 15 months or so when they commonly experience separation anxiety and react strongly to surprises of any kind, they don’t have these preconceived ideas of what’s right and what’s fair.
And their open-mindedness – their beginner’s mind – is why they are so able to learn about their world and conflict resolution. They don’t have these ideas that we might have, that can narrow our perceptions of situations. We make quicker judgments about them. It’s marvelous, this openness children have. They can see all the possibilities and they’re coming from a place of not deciding that this other person is being mean or a bad guy or stingy or grabby or anything like that. They’re fluid learners with each other.
So with this approach, much of our role is restraint, sportscasting responsively with just the facts, and minimally. We don’t need to talk as much as we might think. We can wait until a child looks puzzled or looks at us or appears as if they need some support in what’s happening. If those things didn’t happen, I would just be there and be present. “You two both want this. It’s hard when you’re both holding onto this at the same time.”
Allowing them to have the struggle. Allowing it to be a loud, scary-looking struggle where no one is getting hurt. When we’re able to be there, we’re able to stop hands from grabbing each other and block hitting or pushing or touching each other’s bodies. They can both hold onto the object, if that’s what it’s about, but not touch each other’s bodies. Then if this is an object that we don’t feel safe about, maybe it’s something heavy, a truck or something that we’re not sure if someone’s gonna get hurt, we could say, “You know, I can’t let you struggle over this. This doesn’t seem safe. I’m gonna need to take this for now.”
That’s okay to do, as well. We’ll need to make those kinds of judgment calls. But beyond safety, I would aim to give them free rein to struggle. That’s what allows them to experience and learn and master conflict resolution. Now, in terms of being preverbal regarding expressive language, I would understand that another positive to sportscasting is reinforcing those words for children and modeling speaking those words.
Maybe encouraging a little bit – again, it has to be from a neutral place, but encouraging the expressive language in the situation. When we see something physical, let’s say the older child has something, the younger child wants it, he’s grabbing it, the older child’s getting angry, the younger child now wants to bite. With siblings especially, these things are also going to happen when we’re not there. After the fact, the challenge is even greater to let it go (block it from happening again) and not overreact to the victim, confirming to that child that we perceive them as a victim and to the other child that they are a villain in our eyes.
Children will read that from us if we’re fawning over or pitying the “victim” who very likely played a part in the conflict that we didn’t see. Children do. Siblings, they master each other. They know that other person very, very well. Maybe even better than we know our children. So, I would try not to take sides, even after the fact because of that messaging that gives to both the children. (But hey, it will happen that we’ll fall into that. Perfectly normal! So if you’re aiming for a neutral coaching vs. refereeing approach, give yourself a break – this is a big challenge!) But in that moment, stopping that child from biting, we can acknowledge/sportscast, “That makes you want to bite.” and then reiterate in just a brief few words: “I can’t let you bite.”
Meanwhile, your hand is there. You’re holding his shoulder back from his brother so that he can’t bite. You’re making that impossible.
There you can say, “Looks like you’re telling him, ‘No, I want that.’” Even there, where we are maybe a little bit trying to read what’s going on and maybe we’re not going to be totally accurate, I would say, “Looks like you’re” or “Seems like you’re saying” or “Do you want to tell him?” not expecting that my child’s going to say it right there or do it right there, but just reinforcing that language to remind them and model for them that there is language for what they’re feeling and doing.
That’s it. The hardest part is letting children engage in the conflicts, because it’s going to look gnarly sometimes, particularly for those of us (like me) who tend to shy away from conflicts and others who maybe get emotionally triggered by them. That older child’s going to seem really mean. Maybe for some people it’s the younger child that seems really, really aggressive and at fault. It may be that one child has a more dominant personality. Still, both children flourish and learn best when they feel like we’re on their side. That we are both of their coaches, not their referees. We love them both and both of them have a valid point of view in any situation. That’s basically what sportscasting is. It’s coming from that challenging but hugely respectful, trusting, affirming and unconditionally loving place in ourselves.
I think this parent will continue to see these wonderful results that she’s getting. I really hope this extra bit of feedback helps.
Thanks so much for listening. We can do this.
Please check out some of the other podcasts on my website, janetlandsbury.com. They’re all indexed by subject and category, so you should be able to find whatever topic you might be interested in. Both of my books are available in paperback at Amazon: No Bad Kids, Toddler Discipline Without Shame and Elevating Child Care, A Guide To Respectful Parenting. You can get them in ebook at Amazon, Apple, Google Play, or barnesandnoble.com, and in audio, audible.com. As a matter of fact, you can get a free audio copy of either book at Audible by following the link in the liner notes of this podcast.