In many of the issues I’ve written about there is a recurring theme that parents should use their judgment in making decisions about their children. This comes up especially in relation to research findings that seem to advise parents, or at least lead to a conclusion, about what is best for children.
I urge parents to rely on their own judgment in many matters because all children are different, are at different stages of development, and parents are the ones who best know their own child. Yet, I know parents often feel that there is a really right decision that should be made about something that concerns them about their children, and that is the answer they are looking for. The temptation is to look to some “expert” to give it to them.
Mothers often ask me such questions as, Is it time to move my child from a crib to a bed? Is it bad if my child comes into my bed at night? My child cries when I leave her at school, should I be staying there with her? My child protests that he doesn’t want to go to school, should I let him stay home? My child won’t join in group activities, should he be allowed just to watch?
These are not easy questions, and most of the time the answer seems to begin with, “it depends…..”. The point is, it may be easier to say use your judgment than to make that judgment. It is not surprising that we wish someone would give us the “right” answer, so we could be certain we are making the “right” decision. We don’t always trust that we really do know what is best for our own child.
One reason it is not easy to feel confident about our own judgment is that there are usually so many factors involved. For example, a child resisting going to school raises a number of questions. Once children are of legal school age, going to school is not a choice, so that is one kind of issue.
On the other hand, one mother I know was torn about the upset her nursery school age child was having about leaving for school because as she pointed out, he didn’t really have to go. Another mother was concerned about her son’s refusal to participate in an after school sports activity. She wanted to know if she should “make” him attend, or whether it was okay to let him drop out. In both these situations the concern was about giving the message that you can just drop out of something you don’t like, or that is hard to do. Parents have expressed that concern about a variety of activities that children may resist doing.
The fact is that these situations are not so clear cut; there are things to consider on all sides. It may seem pointless to try to force a child to do something he has such strong negative feelings about. Also, these negative feelings are usually expressed in behavior that is difficult to deal with. Yet in both these examples the mothers felt the children would benefit greatly, in the one case by continuing in the nursery program, in the other, by continuing in the sports program. Not only that, but in both instances the mothers reported that the children actually enjoyed participating once there.
There is no “right” answer as such to these dilemmas. So how do you arrive at your own judgment? Actually, you get the information you need by asking yourself questions about your child. Using these same examples, the first question would be, what is the reason for the resistance? In both situations, the moms had very clear ideas about what they thought were the reasons, but that was not what they were thinking about. They also were not giving enough credit to their own understanding of their children’s behavior. They were focused on what to do about it, rather than on what the children were actually feeling. For one child it was anxiety about performing well enough; for the other it was difficulty with the transition itself from home to school.
Once this was understood, it became possible to think about what could be done to help the children take the steps that were causing them difficulty. The focus shifted from how to “make” them take these steps, to how to help them take these steps. In both instances the parents knew they really believed it best for the children to move forward, even if that was hard. The conflict they felt was about whether their own insistence would somehow be damaging to their children.
We worry that we may somehow harm our children by making mistakes in our judgment. But children are very resilient and can survive many mistakes. Besides, we learn from our mistakes and become better parents as a result.
Perhaps the most important point is to put more trust in our understanding of the meaning of our children’s behavior. When our judgment is based on such understanding, our children become our partners. We’re not then doing it alone.