When raising children, every step forward they take means more work for mother – these days fathers, too. What does that mean and why does that happen? When children start to try to feed themselves, food usually goes everywhere – except into their mouths. They often dump the food on the floor as they try out their new skills. In short, there is almost always a mess to clean up.
In the same way, when they start to dress themselves it can take forever – especially in the morning when everyone is trying to get out. Starting to walk and explore, means having to child-proof the house, putting valued things away and harmful things out of reach. Toilet training, of course, means accidents, clean-up, diaper changes and at times other areas to mop up as well.
Why does all this matter? Because invariably when children take developmental steps it creates more work for parents, we can find ourselves resisting enabling some of these steps as children move forward. Especially these days, with both parents working outside the home, with busy schedules and many responsibilities, even for at-home parents, it becomes easier to do many things for a child than to let or encourage him to do them him or herself.
We do the feeding and dressing, at times continue with diapers or pull-ups, and perform various other chores children are becoming capable of doing because it seems easier and takes less time. Mothers and fathers complain about children’s behavior in the morning, they resist getting dressed, are easily distracted by play and do not move along unless a parent is right there. It then just seems simpler to dress them yourself.
Of course, what seems simpler can be misleading. All of the steps that children take as they develop entail taking responsibility for themselves. Developing self-help skills means one kind of responsibility, which in itself is a step toward taking responsibility for one’s behavior. Parents become distressed when it seems to them that a child is not taking responsibility for his behavior, without recognizing that this is part of many other steps that may come first.
The mastery of developmental steps takes time, which can seem endless to a parent. Yet once children do learn to dress and feed themselves, to use the toilet and accept bedtime, it seems they have always done those things and it is hard to remember a time when they didn’t. Despite the way it seems, such steps are not firmly entrenched and numerous things in life can cause setbacks.
Illness, vacations, travel, a parent away, the move to a new home, can all cause children to regress to earlier patterns of behavior. Actually, this is just as true for adults as it is for children. Think about your own feelings faced with going back to work after a vacation or even a weekend. How about when sick? Do you just want to have someone take care of you?
The difference is that as adults we are further removed from those earlier years of dependence and have developed the ability to take responsibility for ourselves and our behavior even while recognizing the wish not to do so. Despite that, there are times we do need the care of others in order to resume our usual responsibilities.
The same is true for our children, except that their independent skills are so newly acquired that they are more vulnerable to events that may seem of lesser consequence to an adult. This time of year, is a case in point. Holidays are a time of great excitement and fun, with vacations and presents. Then, suddenly it is over, Christmas trees, menorahs and decorations are gone and real life resumes. Children often have a hard time accepting this reality and may express their feelings in a variety of ways.
This is when I hear concern from parents that their children are refusing to go to school, are having trouble going to bed or getting up in the morning. These setbacks in behavior can be difficult for parents. It is easy to feel resentful about being expected to provide a kind of care that we did willingly when children were unable to do for themselves. So at times we may be impatient with such setbacks.
It can help to know that such setbacks are temporary, and if we provide that extra help and support when needed without in the process giving up our expectations of our children, they themselves will want to assert their more independent behavior. It is pride in their mastery of independent skills that makes up for the loss of dependence.
As with us, their parents, a moment of support when needed can make all the difference.