Lifting the treasure of words

By Lisbeth Wutte, July 2016

When we deal with small children, we should be aware of our feelings. We should be capable of articulating feelings in a differentiated way. When we describe the actions of children in descriptive rather than judgemental words, our behaviour has a peacemaking effect.

Photo: © Charlotte Fischer

When a child is born and makes themselves at home in our world, we deal with one another in a wonderfully empathetic way. Although we accept this happy experience as a gift, we tend to forget it over time. We lose it in everyday life and slide back into the objectively factual, self-referential way of life of our civilisation. We might consider it to be outdated and corrosive, but we practise it nevertheless.

Changing speech

Is it not surprising that all of us – parents or single people, young or old – are so much affected and touched by the direct nature of the encounter with the small child that it is almost as if we are inwardly taken out of ourselves and, indeed, stop talking in our sober everyday language?

We use a higher pitch because the child can hear it better, prefer a rising intonation because this is more cheerful and lighter, vary the tone colour of the syllables and words because the child likes that, articulate more slowly and precisely, and keep adjusting our volume to the child’s mood.

We are not even aware that we are doing it, but do so quite naturally. Our capacity for empathy thus not only has the power to change our immediate mood but can even affect deeply rooted ways of speaking. Who would have thought that we are so adaptable!

Since the small child apprehends the world in a feeling and intuitive way until about the age they start school – in contrast to us, they use mainly the right hemisphere of the brain – they need the adult as an empathetic and intuitive partner. In this way they can directly connect with the world through us. At the same time we are, as adults, the guarantor of and role model for the empathetic quality and the empathetic example we set. This is the elixir of life for the small child. They want to experience through us that they are welcome in the world. Early years education is thus unthinkable without the conscious handling of empathy.

What is empathy?

Empathy has two sides: it is directed both at ourselves and towards the other. Let us look at ourselves first – as if we were someone else. What do we perceive? A stream of thoughts, feelings and impulses which constantly pervades us and keeps us in movement. We can perceive, recognise and, as necessary, redirect or dissolve this happening – irrespective of whether we consider it to be appropriate or not.

We are the silent observer who stands still in the confusion of thoughts and feelings. As such we are not ruled by our inner flowing movement but are free in our approach to it.

Now we are prepared to encounter the child with an open mind and heart. We raise our emotionality to consciousness and do not project it without awareness into the child’s soul. We turn openly towards the child and create a connection with the language of their gestures, expression and look. We take in their spoken words and listen to what lives between the lines and behind the individual words. We are the guarantor for the child that empathy is present in the world in which they grow up.

Of course such an empathetic togetherness should be striven for in day care not just with the children but also in the college of teachers and with the parents; we know from experience that this is not always easy for us and we repeatedly experience setbacks. But it is already a helpful start to put an emphasis on ways of doing things in the everyday life of the day care centre which cultivate sensitivity towards empathy.

We should consciously adopt and appreciate moments of silence and listening – be it during a walk in the woods, making discoveries in nature or when telling a story. Letting children finish what they are saying, really listening to them and remembering what they are telling us also belongs here. Of course attention should be paid to the general noise level, it should be kept as low as possible and stress should be avoided. After all, feeling what the other feels means taking hold of oneself and entering an open space encompassing I and you.

Name it to tame it

Little space is given to the feelings in our upbringing, or in our culture. We grow up in such a way that we only clearly give a name to feelings of extreme delight or aversion and gradually put specific basic feelings into words. Emotion researchers are in agreement that these consist of about five feelings: surprise, joy, grief, fear, anger and disgust.

A kindergarten child might decide, for example, whether to avoid an angry child or actively approach them. As research shows, it is crucial for social co-existence in puberty whether an adolescent can distinguish between disgust and anger, or only vaguely perceives something negative against which they put up defences just to be on the safe side.

In contrast, we have hardly any words for our “muted” feelings. We only perceive them vaguely and they change very quickly in any case. With the exception of grief they change at the latest every 40 seconds. No wonder that we like to keep to generalities when we talk about them. “I don’t feel well” always fits and can mean a lot of things. But only if we penetrate as far as “I am disappointed because …, discouraged because …, feel low because …” can we obtain a sense of what “I don’t feel well” means in the specific situation.

When we seek the appropriate words for our sensations and feelings, we become aware of them. And it is easier for us to understand and change the things of which we are aware.

Studies have shown that “emotional fire” such as annoyance, anger or jealousy cools more easily if we give it the appropriate name. Name it to tame it!

The ability to name feelings is not just essential for a culture of debate but also eases and deepens every relationship. It is the basis for social co-existence.

Expanding and deepening vocabulary in day care thus comprises not just experiences through the senses and of the world but also relates to the interhuman aspects. Emotions and moods should be named in a precise and nuanced way in daily communication and when stories or children’s books are chosen this perspective should be included as well. Attention should be paid above all to adjectives. If something is always nothing other than great, lovely or super that does not mean a great deal.

Non-judgemental use of language

In the field of thinking we face the same issues as in the feeling sector. We normally think in static terms to measure, weigh, count, structure and manage the world even more effectively. That also relates to language.

As long ago as the 1970s the American linguistic researcher Wendell Johnson called for us to adapt our language to the changing world. Why? Because it is too much permeated by the canon of values of the industrial age. It is ideal for evaluating and judging the world but little suited for undertaking nuanced investigations and describing phenomena.

We are quick to assign labels such as unreliable, overambitious, average … without showing in detail when we have perceived what in which way. We do not do justice to the other person with these general judgements and produce a destructive effect in the social sphere. Using words in their descriptive quality – as we do in child case conferences – is something alien to us in daily usage and we first have to learn it.

At the same time this quality is indispensable if we wish to avoid and resolve disagreements and disputes. If there is to be good collaboration in the college of teachers, there is no way to avoid practising the non-judgemental use of language and also to demand of each other that we do so.

The descriptive quality comes much more naturally to small children. We can see this in the recurring way they speak to themselves. In describing aloud – for themselves – what they are doing, seeing or hearing, the individual actions become comprehensible and rise to consciousness out of the course of the whole event.

This is where we are called upon to be role models. If in the everyday life of the child care centre we speak in such a way that our activities or the joint sensory experiences correlate with the word, then the child has the experience that everything they do or experience with their senses can be grasped with and in language. Language becomes an instrument with which they can sensitively investigate the world and understand it non-judgementally. That also, of course, relates to the social sphere. “Enlightening” conversations, looking at experiences in a non-judgemental way, and thinking along “aloud” when reading children’s books are called for here.

What inner attitude and use of language help the child to connect with us and the world in an inquisitive and open way? For the child, vividly pictorial descriptions are helpful, judgemental assessments a hindrance. And our feelings? They should be recognised and named so that they can be tamed.

The world of thoughts and feelings of which we are only partially aware must be penetrated with consciousness if we wish to act out of our profoundest human nature. Only when we free ourselves from its spell can we anchor ourselves in our innermost being and encounter the child – such an encounter is existential.

Research affirms that the way in which we deal with one another is reflected as far down as into our genetic makeup, even in adulthood. I therefore think it is a vital necessity to enable ourselves and our children to live in a considerate and peacemaking way through the word.

About the author: Lisbeth Wutte works in various anthroposophical establishments throughout Germany as a drama teacher and freelance lecturer on language and the use of words.

Since 2010 she has been involved in art therapy emergency relief in crisis areas and works through drama with refugee children and German-speaking young people.