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Mixed Messages

November 22nd, 2015

A mother and father came to see me about their almost three year old daughter.  The mother in particular, was concerned about the girl’s seeming dependency.  The child is especially attached to her mother, father is her second preference and the nanny only as a last resort. The parents, who were born and raised in a different country and culture, explained that relationships between parents and children were different when they were growing up.  They feel American parents are too attached to their children and would like their daughter to be more independent.

While describing various aspects of the child’s behavior, the mother referred to her daughter kicking her.  It turned out that as the girl was not yet completely toilet trained, mom would change her diaper on the changing table.  Her daughter not liking this, would kick her while being changed.  Although wanting her child to be more self-reliant and independent, the mother was, in effect, treating her like a baby – who was also still in diapers.

This is a familiar story about toilet training.  A child is asked to take a step in growing up by learning to use the potty or toilet while at the same time infancy is reinforced during diaper change.  This mixed message a child is getting often also is compounded by clothing difficult to undo that interferes with independent functioning by requiring adult assistance.

There are other areas in the development of self help skills when we may inadvertently be giving children double or mixed messages.  One example is eating.    When children are learning to use implements rather than hands and fingers for food, they may eat less for a time while struggling with fork or spoon.  Mothers or caregivers may worry that children are not eating enough or impatient with how long it may take to finish a meal.  This easily can become continuing to feed a child even while wanting him to learn to feed himself.

Getting dressed is a famous area of conflict.  Here, too, impatience with how long it takes for children to master some aspects of getting dressed may be the culprit.  Also, a shirt put on backwards may be disturbing to some adults.  The inclination to just dress the child in order to move along can take over, giving a message that the child is not doing it well or right and reinforcing baby feelings of dependency.

As children grow from infancy to toddlerhood, to becoming twos and threes, all the transitions are marked by steps from dependent to independent functioning.  Children begin to walk and talk, to run and climb, to sleep in a bed instead of a crib, to feed and dress themselves.  Rarely is the move from one step to the next clear cut.  Having taken some steps alone, children still crawl at times.  They may want the bed but resist it at nap times.  The same is true of eating, dressing and using the potty.

The fact is, there is often ambivalence about that next step – about exchanging the pleasures of dependency for the rewards of mastery.  Parents, too, may feel that ambivalence – it is rewarding to see your children grow but hard to say goodbye to their babyhood.  Besides, each new step often means more work for mothers.  Children make a mess doing things on their own and can take more time than we would like to take.

The problem that leads to mixed messages often is the either or approach: either the child does it on her own or we do it for her.  It is the in-between solution – offering some help without taking over – that is the challenge.  It might be changing diapers in the bathroom standing up, rather than lying down on a baby changing table.  Maybe mom helps with the shirt while the child does the pants.  A forkful of food now and then by the grown up may help the child’s own efforts.

We can support a child’s emerging self-help skills without taking over or expecting total mastery by the child.  Most of all, we can avoid the mixed message that in effect says, you should be grown up but you are still a baby.

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