We may not think how our kids sit on the floor (especially if we’re grateful that they’re even sitting at all) could tell us something about their neurological profile or that such positioning could possibly harm them.
Yet, sitting in a W formation—when kids sit on their bums with their knees bent and their feet out to either side of their hips—is a neurological red flag, and it’s a position that should be discouraged.
So why do kids even adopt this odd way of sitting?
First, it provides trunk and hip stability (i.e. creates a wide base) which, in turn, makes it easier to balance when reaching out for a toy. What can that tell us? Well, kids who need this extra support may not be receiving good vestibular and proprioceptive feedback since these senses are directly related to automatic balance.
However, there’s a price to pay for this compensation. Since there’s no trunk rotation when sitting this way, such kids avoid crossing their midline when reaching for a toy. Yet midline crossing is a developmental milestone for more advanced motor skills, reading, and writing.
It’s also likely that these kids have a retained symmetrical tonic neck reflex (STNR). This primitive reflex is supposed to be integrated by the time the child is 9-to 11-months-old.
Yet if the STNR isn’t inhibited during the first year of life, it causes problems later on, such as poor posture, a tendency to slump when sitting at a table, clumsiness, attention difficulties, challenges with swimming, problems doing a somersault—and a preference to sit in a W formation.
Okay, suddenly what seemed like an innocuous sitting position now sounds ominous. Not really. Information is always good if we use it to move forward.
In this case, such awareness may now prompt us to encourage kids to sit in different positions—legs to the side, straight out in front, or crossed. If such sitting positions are too hard for the child, we can then advocate play time at a kiddy table (it’s almost impossible to sit in a W in a chair).
But more importantly, we can use this information to explore more fully whether there are additional indicators of underdeveloped lower centers of the brain. There’s nothing like getting to the “root” of the problem rather than merely addressing a symptom.
So in that sense, sitting in a W can be a blessing.
I’ve met a lot of kids whose body language changes the minute they think someone is going to talk to them about their behavior. They either look resigned and defeated or combative and hostile. Sometimes they’ll throw in, “I know. I’m a bad kid” or, “I’m always being called out.”
Couple that with a parent, teacher or coach who already views the child’s action as negative, and it’s no wonder that the exchange does not go well.
But what if we wipe out a perception that the child was “bad” or did something “wrong” when we approach her about a concerning behavior?
What if, instead, we first assure the child that we want to help, rather than punish, her?
What if we then communicate in a way that helps her understand why the behavior is worrisome—and therefore helps her conclude on her own that such behavior is not in her best interest?
So how do we do that?
We start by assuring kids that they are not in trouble . . . that we just want to talk to see if we might be able to help them. Upon hearing those words, it’s amazing how many resigned, slouching kids sit up straight or how many hostile kids automatically unfold their arms.
We then explain why the concerning behavior may not serve them well. To do that, I find it helpful to make a connection between what happens in the brain every time the child does the behavior and how that may then cause problems today, tomorrow, and far into the future.
Here are a few examples of how such a dialogue might start:
Behavior: Son hits his mother when he’s upset
Father’s starting dialogue: Every time you hit your mom, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “Hitting a female is okay if you’re angry.” The only problem is . . . there is nowhere on this entire planet where anyone thinks it’s okay to hit a female—at any time. So it worries me that your brain is learning something that it thinks is fine—when it’s definitely going to mess you up.
Behavior: Child doesn’t wait before being given the signal or permission to do something
Mother’s starting dialogue: Every time you don’t wait, you’re reinforcing a brain map that says, “If I’m feeling impatient, it’s okay to go ahead and do whatever.” The only problem is . . .there are lots of times when it’s in our best interest to wait—and how is your brain ever going to learn that?
For example, what if your ball rolls out into the street and you run to get it without waiting to see if any cars are coming? What if when you’re older and driving, you don’t feel like waiting at a red light—so you just punch it?
Note how the above dialogue is focused on helping the child reflect, not defend, his concerning behavior.
For those who are saying: What? The kid gets off scot-free with this approach?
Guess it depends on the parent’s goal. I’m thinking if the child has already been previously scolded and punished for the behavior—and she still continues to do it—the punitive approach probably isn’t working all that well.
Maybe that’s a sign to try something different.
We may not like how our child responds. In such case, we may find ourselves defending our prior actions. After all, don’t we have our children’s best interest at heart when we push them to go further, challenge them to perfect something, or expect them to start all over?
But is there a price for pushing and keeping the focus on what wasn’t accomplished?
I think so. When I was a child, my sisters and I were assigned kitchen clean-up after dinner. But when it was my turn, I inevitably forgot to clean a fork or I left crumbs on part of the counter—something small when compared to all the pots and dishes and scrubbing I had done.
Yet, I’d still get a speech on whatever I “forgot” to do. Well, it didn’t take me long to figure that I might as well forego trying to do a good job since I was still going to get the speech. In other words, who cared if the lecture now included a few more items that I had neglected? After all, everything I had cleaned was still going to be overshadowed by what I had missed.
To this day, I still don’t view myself very highly when it comes to cleaning up—and consequently, I still don’t even bother to try and do an excellent job.
Luckily, my parents only applied this never-seemed-to-be-enough scenario to my cleaning skills—and not to my academics, sports performance, or other aspects of my life. Scary to think who I might be today if they had.
Truth be known, harping to do better for whatever (and that’s how it’s processed from a child’s viewpoint) has a high probability of backfiring in the long-term. Low self-esteem, lack of motivation, and encouragement to lie (to avoid punishment for not doing something as expected) are just a few likely outcomes when kids don’t think they live up to “the standard.”
But here’s what we know about human nature . . .experiencing success—not failure—is what actually motivates us to do more. So how can we take that approach with our kids?
• We emphasize effort over final results, keeping in mind that effort is a variable that kids can control.
• We inch towards the desired result gradually. That means we may initially expect less of the desired behavior or we expect it for less time or less often.
So maybe my parents could have started by asking me to wash just the dinner plates, progressively working towards doing the rest of the dishes, the pots, the countertops, the floor.
And who knows? With that approach, I may have become someone who loves to clean, let alone a person who actually makes a place shine after doing so.