The question of children complying to adult wishes and how to “make” them do that, has been around as long as there have been adults and children. Of course, in ancient times there were no children as we know them today – only infants and adults. Having been kept in infant clothes in their early years, children then became part of adult company with nothing to protect or distinguish them from adult demands and behavior.
The idea that children should be seen but not heard and parents as authority figures were part of the cultural attitude toward child-rearing in the earlier years of this country. With the advent of new theories of education, and child development research in particular however, children began to be seen in a new way as requiring special protection and care.
Part of the idea of special protection and care is that children have needs different from adults that have to be met in order for their development to progress to maturity. The other side of this idea is that if those needs are not met there will be negative consequences in development. In a sense this had the effect of changing the relationship between parents and children.
Children’s needs became the counter weight to parental authority. It was no longer a matter of children complying with parental wishes but instead a matter of parents taking children’s needs into consideration when expecting their compliance. Part of this shift in the source of authority is the implied threat that parents can damage their children’s development if they do not meet their needs appropriately.
The conflict between parental wishes and children’s behavior, between adult expectation and children’s compliance, is a major theme of the issues that arise in contemporary child-rearing. Unchanged is the reality that children are initially unsocialized, do not start out considering the needs or wishes of others, and are not yet in control of their impulses. Their behavior as it reflects their own wishes and impulses conflicts with those of the adult world.
The reality that has changed is that increasingly, today’s children live in an adult world. With both parents at work, much of the available child care involves young children in groups. The need is greater for children to follow an adult work schedule in terms of getting dressed, eating meals, leaving home and other routines of the day.
As more children are in group settings, teachers also confront a question of classroom management with young children who do not have full control of their bodies or impulses. To what degree does compliance then become a more valued behavior with adult judgements formed accordingly.
For parents this question arises in many routines of the day but two areas of conflict emerge in particular, both having to do with separation. Children often protest separating from their parents at school, and then again at bedtime. Conflict around bedtime is such a familiar theme that it has given rise to various approaches involving children “crying it out.”
The same issue arises with school separation with some programs allowing time for parents to remain with their children and others believing parents should just leave, that children get over it after a short upset. Underlying both situations is the conflict between parent or adult authority and meeting children’s needs for development.
Children protest when required to do things they don’t want to do or that are really too hard for them. Their protests take various forms and parents try to determine which it is in determining how to respond. The strong feeling persists that life means doing things you may not like and that children need to accept that. Equally strong is the feeling of wanting to protect a child who may be feeling real pain.
A challenge of child-rearing is responding in the face of this conflict. There is no general answer – only the knowledge of your own child.