Recently, I found myself smiling while having a conversation with my teen-age grandson. “You are a fidgeter”, I told him. He asked me what that meant and I explained that it meant fiddling in an absent minded way with anything at hand. He was startled, not having realized that was what he was doing. He also seemed reassured when I told him that all the boys in our family were fidgeters. That in fact, many boys are fidgeters. Sometimes girls are, too. But more often, it’s the boys.
What brought a smile to my face during this conversation was the memory of my children doing exactly the same thing when they were growing up. My grandson smiled, too, when I told him how his father always fidgeted with the cord on the window blind, for he seemed to feel he was in good company.
Of course, I can’t say I was smiling at the time. Actually, I know it drove me crazy and I’m sure I was a real pest, constantly saying, “STOP FIDGETING.” But one thing I know that is different between then and now is that it never occurred to me that the fidgeting was a sign of anything other than the restless energy of a growing boy. Mothers today are not that fortunate, because the world around them has created anxiety about all sorts of behavior. What used to be just the description of a child now often is seen as a symptom – and something to worry about.
We have an ideal in our culture of valuing the individual. Yet, in reality, there is little tolerance of individual differences in development and in personality. Increasingly the emphasis is on norms – the achievement of skills and behavior at specified times in development. Somehow the idea of a developmental spectrum within the norms has gotten lost; the fact that individual children are at different points on that spectrum.
The pressure on children – and on their parents – to meet set expectations has come from several sources. Often it comes from schools, where overcrowding and other difficulties result in large classes and little opportunity to meet individual needs. It is easier to manage a class where children are compliant. Unfortunately, it also becomes easier to label a child a “problem” than first to try to understand what that “problem” is coming from.
Sometimes parents who themselves have many pressures may also set unrealistic expectations for their children. If you have been working all day, have to make dinner, clean up and do other chores, it is hard to find the time and energy to understand and deal with behavior that is asking for attention. But parents want to do what is best for their children and are quick to worry if there are suggestions that evaluations or special help is needed.
The fact that evaluations and interventions for young children are available is, of course, all to the good. But there is also a downside. Too often behavior that is simply a more intense expression of things children are experiencing or feeling becomes suspect. Good examples are children with high activity levels or strong emotional reactions. There is a wide range of behavior in these areas in young children. Not every active child is hyperactive, or has an attention deficit disorder. Not every child who is sensitive, or who cries easily, has a mood disorder.
What has happened is that behavior has too often become pathologized – looked upon as symptomatic of a disorder, and too quickly labeled as such. In general, we all have a need to give something a name. It’s as though naming it (which is what a label does) tells us what it is and what to do about it. It somehow makes everyone feel better, as though the problem – now identified – is now solved. This may be true if it is the measles, but not so true when it comes to developmental issues in childhood.
Yes, real developmental problems do exist, and we certainly want the interventions that can help. But often it is not that clear what the problem is and what will help most. The result, at times, is a “more is better” philosophy. Children may then be overloaded with therapies which in turn put more pressure on them and their parents, and tend to overlook or ignore their more general needs as growing children.
The point is that too quickly labeling behavior – and looking at it in terms of a diagnosis – can prevent us as parents or teachers from first trying to understand behavior as something a child is telling us about himself. What is he saying about himself and his life experience? Are our expectations in synch with his abilities? Are some behaviors consistent with his overall personality? Is something going on too stressful for him? Is this developmental stage more bumpy for him than others?
As parents we know our children best. We need to think through our own answers before accepting too readily the opinions of friends, family – or even teachers. Mothers should trust themselves. You know more than you think you do.