5 Ways to Help Children Be Who They Are


5 Ways to Help Children Be Who They Are

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Summary We as teachers can serve as a pivotal inspiration for genuineness to arise in our students. Here are five specific ways to promote a child’s ability to feel comfortable with who they are.
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5 Ways to Help Children Be Who They Are

by Steve Sachs

Over the next couple of years, and as a part of honoring Alaya Preschool’s 40th anniversary (!), we will be exploring our “Principles of Practice”. The “Principles of Practice” are 15 different expressions of what happens here at Alaya; they provide a direction and purpose to our work, and perhaps even to our lives altogether. The principles hang in each classroom and in the office.

We are discussing them one at a time together as a staff in order to further understand each principle–both as ideas and as a direct experience. Our transcribed discussions are being re-worked into articles for the school newsletter and our blog.  Here is our exploration of the first principle, genuine relationships.

Alaya Principle of Practice #1: Genuine Relationships

The first principle, Genuine Relationships, is seen as encompassing the other fourteen. This principle lies at the heart of Alaya and is essential to any understanding of who we are and how we function. Genuine relationships are what inspires many parents to have their children here at Alaya, many teachers and staff to teach and work here, and is a guiding principle for many people.  But what is it?  What is the experience of being genuine?  How is genuineness cultivated in ourselves and how is it taught, if it even can be taught?

In a culture where appearance and performance are in the driver’s seat, we have moved away from valuing self-honesty and self-acceptance. The consequences of that external focus is far-reaching: looking for happiness outside of ourselves, we are thrown into the shifting sands of hope and fear, into the dizzying array of other people’s opinions of how and what we “should” be.  “So much of our adult lives can be spent hiding from who we are,” is how Mikayla puts it.

Being genuine is feeling how we’re feeling, in this present moment, no matter how we’re feeling.  It is truly an act of bravery.  Brooke describes genuineness as being “honest, clear, direct and nonjudgmental.”  It is being “who and how we are, without shame or expectation,” adds Julia. As we practice settling into our direct experience of showing up in a genuine way, we learn to trust this as a reliable compass to guide our actions and lives.

5 Ways to Be Genuine with Children

One of the most valuable features of contemplative education is in offering skillful means for teachers to be genuine themselves through their own contemplative practices. Any activity cultivating an allegiance to mind-body synchronization is considered a contemplative practice here. Sitting meditation, yoga, dancing, and hiking are the most popular disciplines currently practiced by Alaya teachers and staff.

Through our own practice of genuine relationship with ourselves and others, we as teachers can serve as a pivotal inspiration for genuineness to arise in our students. Here are five specific ways to promote a child’s ability to feel comfortable with who they are:

1. Not Too Tall

Take the time to sit down or kneel and listen to children; actually getting down to their level and making good eye (and heart!) contact. Imagine talking with someone 8’ tall and having to look way up to them to see their face and eyes. Accept their words and feelings unconditionally, even if you have to reply in a way that ultimately changes their course of action. You can empathize by saying things like, “I can feel you’re really sad.” Or, “I’d be sad too if I couldn’t…” before continuing with, “And we need to…”.

2. Cultivate Independence

Children who are given many opportunities throughout the day to successfully do things for themselves feel generally more empowered and comfortable with who they are. Provide a snack drawer of healthy foods that children can access on their own, or a small pitcher of water they can maneuver without too much trouble (and a sponge!); a low hook for them to hang up their own coat; choices between 2 or 3 alternatives for dress, lunch, books from the library, etc. Whenever you can–even if it takes quite a bit longer–try to let young children discover that they can meet their own needs.

3. Uncovering Our Negativity Biases

Pretty much all of us emphasize negative events in our lives over the positive ones. This is called having a “negativity bias,” and there may actually be an evolutionary explanation as to why we do this so habitually. Diminishing the positive things in our lives by stressing the negative has obvious repercussions, not just for ourselves but for children who are mapping onto what they see and feel we value in our lives. We need to actively and intentionally cultivate appreciation and gratitude to counteract this habitual tendency. Here’s a beautiful video on the practice of gratitude, which is one of the most effective ways we can focus on the positive things in life. The more we can get out from under our negativity bias, the greater our ability to rest in who we genuinely are and model that for the kids in our lives.

4. Not Afraid to Be Who We Are

While it’s not useful to overemphasize the negative, to recognize when we do feel sad, mad, frustrated, etc, can let children know (and remind ourselves) that such feelings are part of being a genuine human being. We can show them that they don’t have to fear their own difficult emotions. In fact, feeling the hard stuff frees us up to feel the great stuff as well. It’s the suppression or acting out of suppressed feelings that bind us to our grumpier states of mind.

5. Kindness for Ourselves

On the wall next to Alaya’s staff table is the quote, “We won’t have much compassion to give others if we’re not being kind to ourselves.” (Ponlop Rinpoche) Or as Juliet puts it, “It’s hard not to judge when we can’t have a tender spot for ourselves.” Self-care can be as simple as getting up 5-10 minutes early to do a contemplative practice, or scheduling personal time for each member of the family each week. Again, children map onto us taking or not taking care of ourselves, and when we feel nurtured, we naturally relax and are more genuine with ourselves and with them.

We won’t have much compassion to give others if we’re not being kind to ourselves.” –Ponlop Rinpoche

About the Author

Steve is a Co-Director of Alaya Preschool, as well as one of our most experienced teachers. He has been an educator for almost 40 years, including 24 years at Montessori and more than 10 at Alaya. Steve is also the current co-director of Family Camp at the Shambhala Mountain Center, which focuses on the path of parenthood as a spiritual practice, and helping children “grow brave.” You can read more about Steve on our Team Page and read all his blog posts here.


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