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Supporting Families through Wakanheza

By Janice O’Donnell,
Executive Director, Providence Children’s Museum

pcmlogocolor-9.jpgOn a chilly, wet day, a woman opens the door to the Children’s Museum. She has a toddler on her hip, a preschooler by the hand and a large diaper bag over her shoulder. As they enter the lobby, the preschooler pulls away and heads toward a gift shop display of tempting little toys. The woman grabs him and snaps harshly, “Stop that! Do as you’re told!” The child begins to cry. People exchange looks that say, “Whoa, what’s her problem?” Meanwhile, the toddler squirms to be put down and the woman’s bag slips and spills on the floor. Bystanders avert their eyes and move away as she collects her belongings and tries to keep both children from disappearing into the crowd. Been there?Wakanheza

A few years ago, we learned about an idea — Wakanheza — that was being implemented at Minnesota Children’s Museum. Wakanheza is the Dakota word for child and translates literally as “sacred being.” The idea is that, if we regard children as sacred beings and our actions reflect this, our communities can be far more welcoming and supportive of families and children.

Of course we want the Children’s Museum to be a family-friendly, family-supportive place, and we know families often experience stress while visiting. So we train our staff and volunteers in Wakanheza principles and strategies. We ask them to suspend judgment and to imagine a Museum visit from a parent’s perspective — packing up the kids, diaper bag, finding the misplaced shoe, getting everyone buckled in their car seats, resolving backseat disputes while keeping eyes on the road, finding a place to park, and getting a wriggly toddler out of her car seat while the 3-year-old tries to run across the parking lot.

Trained in Wakanheza, our play guides and other staff are able to step in, lend an understanding hand and help alleviate the stress of the moment. In the above example, a staff member would smile at the frazzled mom and say something about how excited children are when they get to the Museum. (Message: this is normal!) She would engage the preschooler, saying, “I bet you can’t wait to play. What things do you like to do here?” She might offer to help pick up the spilled items or make silly faces to distract the children while their mother collects herself. Stress is reduced all around and the family is much more ready to enjoy their visit — and each other.

Wakanheza strategies can be practiced anywhere. I’ve used them to support parents and distract antsy children in airports and grocery stores. They help keep adult/child power struggles from escalating and can be used even in situations that have escalated — for example, a parent who has lost control and is physically struggling with or berating a child. That can be pretty scary and many of us wonder what our role is in such a situation.

Wakanheza teaches us that we do have a role and a responsibility to intervene and how to do it. It might be a matter of breaking the pattern by “spilling the milk” — creating a distraction by asking the adult if she knows where the peanut butter is in the grocery store or how to get to Main Street. It might involve picking up something the child has flung and handing it to the adult with an understanding smile that says to both adult and child, “I’m not judging you, and I’m here and willing to help.”

We regularly share “Wakanheza moments,” what’s worked, and ideas for diffusing difficult situations. One colleague says, “Wakanheza empowers me to get involved to make a tough situation easier. It reminds me that, when I interact with someone who is angry or upset, they may be reacting from any number of stresses … and a small act like offering to assist with an unwieldy stroller can be truly helpful.”

By understanding, by lending a hand — even in small ways — we can make our community a better place for families.

Click here to learn more about how Wakanheza has been implemented at Providence Children’s Museum. For other Wakanheza stories and strategies, check The Wakanheza Project blog.

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