A mother told me about overhearing her daughter and friends playing with their dolls. She was stunned to suddenly hear, “Hurry, hurry. Have to hurry up now. You can’t go, if you’re not ready.” It was her daughter speaking but she was hearing herself. It always comes as a shock to discover how we sound to our children.
Often what is jarring in the playback we get from our children is the bossy tone. When you hear them correcting or instructing their pretend children, the authoritative and critical voice is greatly exaggerated – at least we hope it’s an exaggeration. But what it tells us is that even if we don’t sound quite like that, it feels like that to them. One of the conditions of childhood is that you get told what to do a lot. And since children don’t do what they are asked or told to do as quickly as we would like them to, the scolding voice probably surfaces more than we imagine.
Our attempts to move children along during transitions, often seem to provoke a rebellious response. They are either openly defiant or seem not to have heard us. They are engaged in what they are doing – even when it seems as though they are doing nothing – and are determined to move at their own pace, not ours. They don’t like our insistence on our schedule, not theirs.
If you want to identify with your child’s feelings and behavior, imagine the following scenario: you and your spouse are going out, and after first having to do a number of chores you are trying to finish combing your hair, or putting on makeup. Then you hear from your mate, “What, you’re not ready? We have to leave right now or we’re going to be late.” Instead of being able to finish in your own way, someone is standing over you, telling you with great annoyance to hurry up.
Did you ever find yourself saying, “Don’t treat me like a child!”? That seems to be saying, “I’m an adult – don’t boss me around the way you would a child”. Does that mean we think children have to be treated that way? Actually, children would like to be treated the way we would like to be treated. When children are angry about being told what to do, a familiar battle cry of theirs is, “You’re not the boss over me!”
Of course, we are responsible for our children. That means we are trying to teach them how to live in the world – a world that has schedules, chores to be done, and often the need to comply with others’ requests that we may not like. One difference between us and our children is that we, hopefully, have learned those lessons. Also, growth and maturation have given us the ability to carry them out.
Young children do not yet have the skills needed to switch focus, to move readily from one thing to the next. They don’t yet have our sense of time or the ability to be future oriented. They are not thinking ahead about the next thing on the agenda, even if it is something that we know they would like. And they definitely are not yet multitaskers!
Leaving play to have lunch or take a bath feels like a real intrusion. It is not only that what we are asking them to do next doesn’t seem relevant. It is also the frustration at having to leave something that is pleasurable. One of the difficult tasks of childhood is mastering the ability to tolerate such frustration.
So what seems like a simple matter of following routines really presents a number of difficulties: making transitions is in itself hard for children, and the frustration this involves is something they still haven’t mastered. Then at the point in development at which their wish for autonomy comes into it, they begin to rebel against being told what to do – being “bossed”.
Once we recognize what some of the factors are that lead to our own frustration with children and routines, it becomes easier to see what we might do to ease the pain. Most basic, is to accept that children really do need help as they are learning to master following the routines that we take for granted. That means literally helping them move from one thing to the next. Giving repeated verbal commands with escalating annoyance is not going to do it.
The most obvious kind of help is giving lead time whenever possible. “Soon it will be time to leave” or “Time for one more game before dinner.” Giving those signals at several intervals before you “really mean it” can help. Most nursery schools use signals of one kind or another such as switching the light off and on, to alert children to the fact that it is time for the next thing.
But very often what is most helpful is actually being there to help your child move along; to help her start getting dressed or to help him start putting toys away. Your presence becomes the bridge that enables your child to shift gears. We sometimes resent doing that, feeling that children “should” be able to do what we ask just because we’ve asked them. That may be the goal, but words by themselves may not get us – or them – there.