Ideas about child rearing and do’s and don’ts to parents have changed over the years. Often we get a “flavor of the month” – meaning a new idea that takes hold and becomes an approach that parents “must” use. It is interesting how often these changes involve approaches to the bodily functions of children, namely eating, sleeping and toileting. And it is interesting to speculate about why these functions are such areas of concern.
After all, these are all part of the natural functioning of the body: in order to live we need to eat, sleep and eliminate waste. Although there at times may be other biological factors that interfere with the smooth operation of these functions, most of the time nature takes its course – children eat, sleep and poop. Perhaps it is because these bodily functions are tied to health and survival that they readily become areas of concern to parents. We worry if our children seem to be eating too little or too much, are not getting enough sleep or have unusual pee or poop.
At the same time, however, we live in a social world – not in the world of nature. Certain customs and manners over time have come about to guide the way the body’s functions take place. We eat with utensils, sleep in beds, pee and poop in toilets – at least most of the time. As children grow from infancy parents teach what is expected in all these areas. Children, in turn, have to give up drinking from a bottle, eating with their hands, sleeping in cradles and pooping wherever – transitions that do not always just happen.
Conflicts occur when children are not ready to give up doing naturally what parents want them to do socially. As in other areas of development, things work best when we are successful at matching what we expect to what children are capable of doing, physically and emotionally. Parents use various methods to accomplish their goals in all areas of children’s development which may create conflicts if parents seek to enforce their expectations and children resist. The difference when it comes to bodily functions is that parents cannot control them. You cannot make a child eat, sleep or poop!
Having worked with parents for many years, I have discovered that questions and concerns arise in these areas over all others. Parents worry about children not eating, eating too much or eating specific food exclusively. A recent article about the appeal of forbidden food discusses children highly motivated by food who are called by health experts “reactive eaters.” The question is raised as to whether children are born this way or whether they are created by parents who impose too many food rules and restrictive eating practices at home.
Along these lines in another area, a mother consulted me about her lack of success trying to toilet train her two and a half year old son. I learned that for a year she had been trying to accomplish this by having him sit on the potty for an hour at a time while she read books to him. The child obviously did not object to having his mother’s sole attention for an hour at a time while he listened to books being read, but this did not result in his using the potty for the intended purpose. Yet his mom was totally frustrated and while not punitive, undoubtedly communicated her disappointment in him.
Reviewing the history of advice given to parents about eating, sleeping and potty training, one can find recommended methods alternating between those that are coercive and those that are “permissive.” The famous guru, Dr. Spock, moved from advising parents that children would naturally perform as parents wished to the assumption of greater authority on the part of parents. In today’s worlds some parents take a laissez faire attitude while others are determined to accomplish their goals within a certain time frame. Often it is parental exhaustion that leads to a search for sleep methods, the approach of nursery school to determined toilet training and attitudes about food and weight to restrictive or coercive feeding.
Trying to coerce children’s bodily functions is destined to create resistance in children, which often has the effect of producing behavior that is the opposite of what parents intend. At times children set out to actively defeat parental wishes through oppositional behavior, such as children withholding poop, or sneaking snacks. In situations such as the child cited above, there may be passive compliance but the feeling about it is expressed in other ways.
The extremes of coercion or total permissiveness are apt to be counterproductive. We need to assess children’s readiness for certain developmental tasks which they show us in various ways through their behavior. Children show signs when they understand that poop and pee go in the potty. They often go where they won’t be seen in order to do it in the diaper. But understanding is only the first step. Exclusive food preferences can be respected while continuing to introduce variety. Children’s resistance to sleep involves many factors but understanding what they are can help the process.
At the same time, parents have to be leaders as well as followers. The challenge is to continue to set expectations knowing it may take time for them to be met. When children become clear about what parents expect and are given the time they need to meet those expectations, the outcome can be more rewarding for both parent and child.