An Exploration into our Nappy Changing Practices

Part 2: Control vs Choice: Relationships of mutual respect


What does giving choice to another person really mean? And who decides who has the power to give the choice to begin with? Who is in control of the interactions within an environment and how are decisions made about when and if to share control with children? These are just a few of the questions we debated over as a part of our action research investigation into our nappy changing and toileting practices. In part one we discussed the dichotomy of quality vs. quantity in relation to time and decision making within the early childhood environment. Here we will share our experiences of how we became challenged by notions of control and choice and how we balanced these to promote more respectful relationships with the children.

During the project, we began reading about notions of mutual respect, of children’s rights and of power relations within child-adult interactions. A particular article by George (2009) titled “Too young for respect? Realising respect for young children in their everyday environments” struck a chord for us and is a highly recommended read for anyone with further interest in this subject. In fact, three years later we still reread sections of this paper, which continue to reinforce our passion and understanding for the importance of continuing to work in a truly respectful way. Put simply, George discusses the all too common need for adults to control children in various aspects of their daily lives, the reasons why this may occur and the impact that this has on the potential for mutual respect.

George poses that our predominant image of the child is one too immature or incapable of choice. That is, a child’s relative physical dependence on an adult translates to suggest an equal emotional and cognitive dependence whereby adults take on the role of making all decisions on behalf of children. This caused us to question ourselves as to whether we were treating our babies as incapable of choice simply because they were much smaller in size and had less life experience in decision making?

George also does something else we love, and often do as a team, she turns the tables on routine practice. Have you ever stopped to ask yourself if you would tolerate being told to go to the toilet on someone else’s agenda? We often hear educators negotiating the times they will take their lunch breaks based on whether they are feeling hungry or not, and I’m certain most adults make decisions about rest and sleep by tuning into the cues of their body and not by looking at the clock. Yet with children we make assumptions that they are not capable of making these decisions, that it’s our job to decide on their behalf because we know more, or know better. We would question ‘do we know better?’ And if we do, at what point do we trust children to make these choices for themselves? At what point do we respectfully engage them in the process of decision making so that they have an opportunity to learn about their own body, to listen to their own cues and know that we trust them enough to be involved in decision making – this essentially is the crux of control vs. choice.

Children need a supportive and safe environment to build their knowledge and understanding of what it means to make a decision and to practice making informed choices. ‘Giving children choice’ and ‘listening to children’s voices’ have become commonplace catchphrases in early childhood environments over past years. Essentially we support the underlying theoretical basis for these ideas, but at the same time we question ‘what does this really mean?’ What does giving choice to children, and particularly babies, really look like in early childhood practice? And are we capable of this in our environment of group education and care in relation to nappy changing and toileting?

“Treating others with respect doesn’t just happen, even with the best will in the world: to convey respect means finding the words and gestures which make it felt and convincing”

— (Sennett, 2004 as cited by George).

Framing choice within a model of mutual respect and decision making, we began to approach routine toileting and nappy changing times with wonder instead of absolute knowing. By doing this, we lessened the need to control the child and their actions. We were less likely to make assumptions about what the child wanted or needed because we were building our knowledge from the child instead of applying our knowledge to the child. For example, imagine as an educator that you have encountered a child who has had a toileting mishap just as you are about to begin transitioning the group inside. The child’s pants are wet, and they are continuing to play in the environment. In this scenario we could respond in two ways. We may react thoughtlessly and feel the need to quickly control the situation, removing the child from play and collecting their spare clothes for changing, possibly becoming annoyed by the inconvenience of cleaning up, we may rush through this process as quickly as possible. On the other hand, when we respond to what has happened, approaching the situation with wonder and questioning, we open up the possibilities to promote learning and for the child to exercise choice.

As we help the child to get clean, our dialogue might include phrases such as:

“I can see you didn’t make it to the toilet this time – what were doing when you felt the wee coming?” … “And you didn’t want to stop playing?” … “I know it’s tough, but it’s important to stop and listen to your body. Maybe I can help you? When would you like me to remind you to try the toilet?” … “I think a good time to try the toilet is around lunchtime. Would you like me to remind you before or after lunch?”

Within our project we worked with educators to develop scripts that supported their questioning during nappy changing and toileting. The example scripts created a consistent language amongst educators and encouraged children to make connections between how their body was feeling and what they would like to do next.

Our philosophy statement affirms that we believe in lifelong learning. Children are not working towards a specific point of competence, and therefore we know that working from a place of mutual respect doesn’t mean that we will never make a choice on behalf of a child. In fact we recognise that sometimes we need others to make choices on our behalf, even as adults! If we turn the tables again, consider a time when you’ve had what we call a ‘limbic moment’. When you may be tired, run down, unwell, over worked or stressed and your limbic system (the part of your brain controlling your basic emotions and drives) goes all out of whack. Even as adults we need support to make rational and logical decisions at these times and it is no different for children. As a team we now talk about the choice continuum, where the extremes range between the times that a child is making a full choice for themselves and the times where we are making a choice on their behalf using our knowledge of the child and our professional judgement. Even at times where we are making a choice for children we are always explaining what is happening and why. The why is important as we are not only respecting the child’s right to know what is occurring, but we are sharing our thinking with the child as ground work for their later independent decision making.

As early childhood educators, we work within a highly regulated environment, where we are continually trying to balance the health and safety requirements for children with the value of learning opportunities which we can provide. We question ourselves regularly to critically reflect on this. Is our inclination to restrict children’s routines based on our own fears of possible unknown events occurring? We aim to exceed the Children’s Services Regulations and National Quality Standards so how do we align this with leaving a child in wet clothes who is not ready to get changed? And are we controlling children to try to make a smoother, easier and more predictable schedule for ourselves? We’d argue in the contrary that promoting an over regulated, over scheduled and over protective environment in fact increases stress for both educators and children and limits the possibilities for learning.

The impact on families has also been powerful. As our mindset was shifted, our conversations with families improved. We were able to (and still do) talk about our approach in a way where families talk openly and more positively about nappy changing, toilet learning and potential mishaps. They’ve come to understand the learning processes that are foundational for children and that creating more opportunities for choice for children does not mean less respect towards adults. These are elements we continue to focus on teaching, knowing this shared decision making is an ongoing process that strengthens trust, confidence and creates a stronger sense of self belief.


George, S. (2009). Too young for respect? Realising respect for young children in their everyday environments. A cross-cultural analysis. Working Paper No. 54. The Hague, The Netherlands: Bernard van Leer Foundation.

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