See a Child Differently and You’ll See a Different Child

This was originally an article in the Self-Reg Parenting Magazine Vol 1 Issue 2.

Take a look at this picture and tell me whether there’s something in the duck’s bill:

Now take a look at this picture and tell me whether there is something in the rabbit’s mouth:

This phenomenon is called an “aspect-shift,” and it applies just as much to how we see kids as to how we see ambiguous visuals.

I can paint you a verbal picture of a child who is resisting working on a math problem. He comes up with a million excuses why he can’t do it, or gives up at the slightest hurdle, and all you see is a child who’s too lazy or unmotivated to work at math. But once you understand the Self-Reg distinction between lazy and limbic, and how, when a child’s “limbic brakes” are triggered they block his ability to concentrate, you’ll see a completely different child before your eyes.

But there’s one big difference between the two examples. In the case of the duck-rabbit, all that’s involved here is where you focus your gaze. But in the case of the child, the second you see a different child, everything about how you engage with that child changes in a split second.

Instead of being frustrated or annoyed, you see before you a child who is over-stressed. Questions suddenly occur to you that you would never have thought of when you saw him as lazy. For example:

  • Why did this problem or task over-stress him?
  • Was he overstressed to begin with, and if so, why?
  • What can you do to reduce his overall stress load?
  • What can you do to reduce the cognitive stress of the math problem?
  • What can you do to help him restore so that he has both the energy and the desire to tackle the problem again?

But there’s an even bigger difference between the two examples. In the case of the child, the second you see him differently everything about your body language changes. Your facial expression, eye gaze, tone of voice, gestures, posture all soften as a result of your aspect-shift. And the child picks up on all this: especially a child who has “gone Red Brain.” In an instant, he doesn’t just mirror but actually shares your calmness.

What’s involved here isn’t just a shift in how you perceive a child’s behaviour. A child responds intuitively to the change that he senses in you. This is the reason why, when you see a child differently, you quite literally see a different child.

Dr. Stuart Shanker is a Distinguished Research Professor Emeritus of Philosophy and Psychology at York University and the CEO of The MEHRIT Centre, Ltd. Stuart has served as an advisor on early child development to government organizations across Canada and the US, and in countries around the world. Dr. Shanker also blogs for Psychology Today
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