A group of mothers was discussing a child in their children’s nursery school group. This particular child would scream when he wanted something. The mothers were concerned that their own children would copy this behavior thinking that this was the way to get what you want. One mother who had been listening said, “I think if a child screams in school he came to school with a scream in him.” What she meant was that the child’s screaming said something about him and did not mean that others would take on this behavior.
This incident came to mind when a mother spoke to me about her four year old son. His nursery school teacher told her that he had become somewhat aggressive in class, talking back to her and pushing another child. In exploring this further it seemed the mother had experienced some of this at home. As an example he had demanded his cookies “NOW.”
The mother reported that the boy and his sister, who is close in age, have always been close and content pursuing the same activities. More recently, however, the girl had become more interested in “girl” things. A further description of this child’s behavior sounded as though the little boy was looking for ways to assert himself and differentiate himself from his sister. He appeared to be trying out various ways of doing that at school and at home, which were not working out too well for him in either place. Being aggressive in school led to social difficulties and rejection along with reprimands from the teacher. His attempts at self-assertion at home were seen as a problem requiring correction of some kind, worrying his mother about what the cause might be.
As children develop new skills, this can involve a process of trial and error as they explore how far these new skills can take them. How high can they climb, how fast can they run, and how many things can they do by themselves? Asserting their own wishes is part of this process and children often try out various ways of being heard. Getting hurt physically as a result of expanding exploration usually elicits concern and compassion from parents and others. Demanding to be heard often provokes a different kind of response.
Learning to express our own needs and wishes while taking into account the needs and wishes of others is a major challenge of growing up. Many of us as adults still struggle with finding that balance. We all have a scream within us – meaning the need to be listened to when we feel we are not being heard. Often the solution is to demand having our own way or simply to yield to the wishes of others. When children try out the demand approach the response they get is most often a negative one.
As parents, it is a challenge to help children learn how to work their way through this process when as children ourselves we may have met with harsh response to our attempts at self-assertion. When children try using what they may think is an adult voice to get what they want, or resort to unpleasant behavior, the reaction is most often disapproval, criticism or even punishment. At the other extreme, there may be adult capitulation as a way of avoiding or ending “bad” behavior.
In either case, children fail to learn appropriate ways of being heard. The challenge for parents and teachers is to untangle the child’s acceptable need for self-assertion from the unacceptable words and behavior giving voice to that need. This means being able to let a child know that we hear what he wants, will do our best to provide it if we can, while at the same time teaching a better way to communicate those wishes. Like all teaching and learning, this takes time, effort, and repetition.
Our job is to modulate the scream without suppressing it – both for our children and ourselves.