I come over, sit down, and start the video (see below) thinking that I might be able to capture a challenging moment... But, alas, these guys make it so easy! They know the limit: if you want to play in the yard, you need shoes on. They know that the choice is theirs. And from there, my work was simple:
The children express their joy in their shoe-free experience.
I sat with that--that joy in that spunky feeling. No one was trying to walk away from the step. No one was getting hurt.
A third child joins, also shoe free.
I throw in a gentle reminder: "When they're on, you can come out and play!" (I hoped my tone said, "This is totally up to you. It doesn't matter to me how long you want to stay on the step!")
They toss their shoes a little ways away.
I know that feeling too. Sometimes it feels fun to do things that are on the line. And if everyone is still safe, no lines are officially crossed, and the emotions from the experience aren't getting beyond control, why not? (I tried to react in a way that showed this was silly but still safe.)
Then one child exclaims, "I need to put my shoes on! I want to paint!"
The others think this sounds pretty awesome, especially when she talks about using her hands... and so everyone decides to put their shoes on.
The shoes didn't become about me versus them (power struggle) or obedience. This was just a silly, fun moment! When given the chance to feel seen, understood, and empowered, the children didn't seem to need to cross any lines. They just toed the lines. And when that didn't induce a reaction from me that implied shame or guilt or control (it's so easy to get that: "There's the liiiiiine... Watch oooout!" tone), the entire process felt simple--it was just about them making their own choices. And the painting afterwards was cool too.
It makes me wonder: How often do I make situations turn into a power struggle? What little aspects of my body language and tone and words support or tear down the chance for a situation to be about empowerment?