Observation and Reflection: keys to understanding your child

Sometimes you can learn a lot about a child by simply observing them in action. As adults, we often end up reacting to our children.  We know what needs to be done and how to do it, so we are quick to offer direction, tell them ‘no’ or ‘don’t’, or jump in and do it for them.

Yet, when we take the time to wait and watch and then reflect on what we’ve seen and heard, we gain insight into their needs and motives.  Our observation and reflection can make us better parents, by helping us see why they are behaving the way they are and what they are capable of.

Back when I was still in the classroom, I was having lunch with ten 2-year-olds.  We were gathered together around one large table. It was low to the ground, and each child sat in a small chair, feet firmly planted on the floor under the table.  I sat not quite so comfortably on a low stool at the same low table.

We each had a placemat, a plate, a glass of milk or water, a fork and a spoon.  Our food had been moved from lunch boxes to our plates and we used our forks, or fingers, as we ate and talked together.   Suddenly the child across the table from me swept his arm across his plate, accidentally knocking over his glass, which toppled and spilled its contents across the table.  My “oh!” burst forth, but then I stopped moving or speaking and simply observed what would happen next.  Group of preschool kids have a lunch in daycare. Children eating healthy food.

It was not easy to refrain from offering comment or advice, or leaping up to grab a towel and stop the flow of liquid. We are so wired to be helpful.  Often without even realizing we are doing it, we leap to assist. But something in that moment reminded me of the power of observation – and I waited.  

The toddler across the table took a moment to observe as well, and then pushed his chair back, exclaiming, “I’ll get a cloth!”.  He crossed the room, got a cleaning cloth from the stack on the shelf, returned with it in hand, and began to wipe up the spill. When he had finished, he took the wet cloth to the laundry basket and returned to his seat, smiling.  

He knew exactly what to do – without me needing to direct or advise – because he had observed me and the other children wiping up spills many, many times before that day.  By holding my tongue, he was given the opportunity bask in the pride of his own ability to solve the problem.  

Letting him fix the problem by waiting and observing let us both see that this young child was completely capable and needed no adult directing his actions.  

He sat back down and we shared a smile of satisfaction. He was proud of his ability to help and I was proud I’d chosen to observe and not rush in to fix it.

As adults, responsible for keeping our children safe, it isn’t easy to stop and watch or to wait and ‘see what happens.’  But practicing the art of observation, and taking time to reflect on what we observe, is a parenting skill that helps build strong relationships.

Observation: The What

As you observe your child in action, it isn’t necessary to take notes, document every action or utterance, or follow a prescribed checklist, although those things can sometimes add value.  "Observing can foster more positive relationships." quote by Kelly Griffith Mannion

Ask yourself, “What do I see and hear?”  Simply watch your child and notice how he interacts.   

Take note (either write it down or mentally file it away) of what is happening and how your child is responding to it.  Are there challenges? How do they meet those challenges? What do they choose when they are playing alone? What do they prefer when they are playing with others?  When do they become frustrated? How do they respond to the frustration? Patterns will emerge that will help you see what it is that results in perseverance and what leads to meltdown.  You will find underlying causes for mystifying behaviors.

“As parents, observing can be tough. We aren’t always objective. It can be hard to hang back, and it can be the last thing on our minds as we are busy multi-tasking and managing a busy family life. Yet, observing is truly the most illuminating gift—the gift of understanding our children,” notes Kelly Griffith Mannion, M. Ed.  

Reflection: The ‘So what’ and ‘What Next’

After observing, take time for reflection.  Reflecting on what you’ve observed helps you answer the question: “What does that mean to me?  What will I do with it?”

Reflection can help you make connections between behavior and what was going on inside the child.  As you reflect, try to identify what happened before, and what happened after. Is there a pattern?

Reflecting on the behaviors and emotions you observe in your child can deepen your understanding of your child’s inner life and create a greater connection.  Often as parents, we are in reactive mode, always trying to stay one step ahead of difficulties and challenges.  

Says Regina Pally, founder of the Center for Reflective Communities, “Reflective Parenting is a set of skills and guiding principles that encourage and support the use of Reflective Thinking in all the interactions parents have with their children. Reflective Parenting enables a parent to see the world from his or her own perspective and from their child’s perspective.” 

Taking time for observation and reflection helps us move from reactive parenting to reflective parenting.  Reflective parenting can foster positive relationships, allow for greater independence and growth in your child, and ensure greater satisfaction and fulfillment for you.