The late educator and cultural critic Neil Postman, wrote a book he called “The Disappearance of Childhood.” In it he described our concept of childhood as a modern phenomenon connected to the invention of the printing press and the subsequent development of literacy. Prior to modern times, children were considered little adults and were not distinguished from adults in terms of dress, behavior, or activities, did not attend school, and were not shielded from the realities and secrets – including sex and violence – of the adult world.
Postman wrote that children became separated out as a group because the print culture made it essential that they learn how to read and write. “Childhood . . . was an outgrowth of an environment in which a particular form of information, exclusively controlled by adults, was made available in stages to children in what was judged to be ways they could assimilate psychologically. The maintenance of childhood depended on the principles of managed information and sequential learning.”
Postman was concerned about the growing impact of the visual media – television, at the time of his writing – and made the point that “language is an abstraction about experience whereas pictures are concrete representations of experience.” He made the further point that the visual media erodes the dividing line between childhood and adulthood because it is so accessible. It requires no instruction to grasp its form, does not make complex demands on mind or behavior, and does not segregate its audience. He wrote that electronic media find it impossible to withhold any secrets, and without secrets there can be no such thing as childhood.
“The Disappearance of Childhood” was written in 1994 and using Postman’s analysis we would have to conclude that childhood has actually already disappeared. What he attributed to the prevalence of television has multiplied a thousand-fold with the advent of new technology and the viewing – rather than reading – of previously unimaginable information available to children.
Now, the word is that the Disney Channel, with ratings that are declining as children reach puberty earlier, and have had access early on to “adult” media, is joining the fray with a new drama dealing with complex, emotional issues. Aimed at children ages 6 to 14, the story involves a thirteen-year-old girl raised by her grandmother who learns that the woman she thought was her sister is actually her mother. Aside from the issue raised about teen age pregnancy, the drama apparently also raises questions about sexuality and gender.
The point has been made that these are more authentic issues and apparently, the thought is that parents will watch with their children to interpret and answer questions that may arise. An immediate question relates to the designated age range of the targeted viewers. Are parents ready to have six-year-olds and teen-agers exposed to the same material? How will six-year-olds process these kinds of many faceted emotional issues?
Many years ago, at a conference on censorship, the late anthropologist Margaret Mead told a personal anecdote about her mother prohibiting certain books when she was growing up because she didn’t want her children exposed to bad grammar. Mead recalled that she would read those books at night by flashlight under the blanket. She contrasted that to the kinds of magazine covers and headlines children now see at the corner newsstands as they go to school.
Mead’s point was that there is a difference between surreptitiously reading prohibited material and having such material publicly available. The difference lies in the message being delivered and received. In one case, children know what is disapproved of by the adult world, in the other, the message received is that anything goes.
We are far from the idea that childhood means withholding secrets – meaning complex, emotional subjects – until children are ready to process them emotionally and psychologically. Parents are the ones best able to assess where their children are in that process and to impart their own values accordingly.
As in many other areas, parents confront the challenge of a social world moving in a different direction.
During a small, adult social gathering, the conversation somehow turned to individual memories of growing up in different parts of the country and in family backgrounds that differed from one’s own, both educationally and economically. A theme that emerged in the discussion was the difficulty encountered in trying to forge a path different from the one expected.
One person said that his memory of growing up was of getting the message from his parents that because of their age and experience, they knew better what was best for him than he did. Such messages discourage pushing ahead on one’s own to explore different possibilities.
What comes to mind is “Far From the Tree,” by Andrew Solomon. A gay man, he writes of his own difficulties growing up and says that while his parents were never derisive, they were uncomfortable with his difference from them and encouraged him to try to be straight. Interestingly, he began his research with parents of disabled children, in order to look at the process by which parents reconcile themselves to children who present significant challenges. He writes that he was on a quest to forgive – perhaps understand – his own parents for pressing him to be “untrue” to himself.
Solomon writes that our first task is to get to know, and to relate to who our own child is rather than the one we imagined or hoped for. He suggests that referring to the process of having children as reproduction promotes the idea that we are reproducing ourselves through that act. While that may be true for the species it is misleading in respect to individuals.
While parents may have a need to see themselves in their children, this applies also to what they would not like to see repeated about themselves. In part, too, there may be a wish on the part of parents to correct in raising their children what they did not like about the way they themselves were raised. There is a tendency to hold our parents responsible for our own faults.
These factors may all be part of the issue of parental expectations and the way this impacts on children as they develop. But for parents, the question becomes one of their changing role as children grow. The human infant begins life completely dependent on adult care. Parents are responsible for an infant’s very survival and can begin to feel that everything they do is of great significance in that regard.
Gradually, the infant grows and develops new skills that allow for some independent functioning. This emerging independence is enhanced by the ability to walk and talk. Cognitive development means that children begin to form ideas about things and to express them.
In this process, the push toward autonomy begins to assert itself and children may protest or rebel against parental wishes or expectations as they express their own wishes that may differ. For parents, the story of development becomes one of protecting or letting go. In other words, at every stage as children push for new freedoms, parents have to assess how safe it is to let go. Are children really capable of the freedoms to which they aspire?
There are no universal answers to the questions that arise in this process. A parent has to know his or her own child and make a judgment accordingly. It involves taking a risk – including the risk of making a mistake. For parents the risk is their responsibility as protectors. For a child, or young adult, the risk may lie in taking responsibility for one’s own decisions, good or bad.
Parent may feel they have the experience to know what is best for their child. The challenge is to know the child as well as they know their own life experience.
Just a little two letter word but a word with so much power. When children are beginning to talk that is often one of their first words. A word of defiance letting parents know they have their own wishes, different from those of their parents. For parents, it is a word of authority intended to stop certain behavior, or as a response to a child’s demands, as in “no,” to candy before lunch.
Advice to “just say no,” has been promoted as a method young people should use on their own behalf as a way of rejecting drug use or early sexual behavior. This of course depends on their ability to use the internal controls that parents provide externally while children are developing.
Why is “No!” so powerful? Does it accomplish any of its intended purposes when used by parents or children? It certainly can be effective with young children as a way of interrupting potentially dangerous behavior – such as a child about to run across the street or touch a hot pot. It may be less effective if a child hears no all the time and it becomes something to tune out.
It is a powerful word for little children in particular, who often feel powerless in the face of their big, strong parents. Saying no becomes a way for them to assert themselves. Defiance is part of a process of establishing oneself as a separate person, different from one’s parents. Defiance may be part of that process for teenagers as well, although by then the “no” may be acted out in more ways than words.
The ability of young adults to use “no” as a way of rejecting self-destructive behavior depends on many aspects of where they are in their development. Some of the things known about adolescents are their inability to judge risk, and their belief in their own immortality, which can get in the way of their ability to monitor their own behavior.
Parents often complain about the fact that saying no doesn’t accomplish their goals. Children continue to engage in behavior they have been told not to, or to demand things after parent have told them no. Apparently, the word begins to lose its power when used by parents although not by children when refusing to comply with parents’ wishes.
For this reason, saying no does remain powerful as a provocation for confrontation. Parents get frustrated when children don’t comply with their wishes or requests. They then have to find a way to deal with the unacceptable behavior, but they also may react to having their authority challenged. This often can lead to an escalation of the conflict between parent and child as parents seek stronger ways of asserting their authority – such as punishments or time-out.
Since saying no is so often counter-productive there are alternatives to be tried. For young children, distraction – interesting them in something other than what they want at the moment – is often successful. As children develop greater cognitive and language skills there are other ways of saying no without sounding like you are the boss. Showing compassion for their inability to get what they want is almost always a good first step.
Although finding a compromise is not always possible, even letting children know that you understand what they want can help them feel that there is a possibility that their wishes may be met – if not now, perhaps at some point.
Is no in a direct form ever useful? I heard from several parents about children who are now young adults expecting the kind of support from their parents – financial and otherwise – that no longer seems appropriate. In many ways. this is a replay of the same kind of conflicts that existed earlier – except that now expectations of the grown children are different.
What is the same, is that parents who may have no trouble saying no to their children about certain things, find it hard to say no when it comes to withholding a kind of support to their children. As parents, we want to give to our children and this can get us into trouble with little children as well as big ones.
Saying no is emotionally loaded, both in its power and lack of power.
A favorite anecdote of mine is about my then four-year-old son telling me that my problem is that I “overblow.” Asking him what that meant, he explained that I don’t get mad when I am mad and then I get so mad that I “overblow.” Since then I have learned that while “overblowing” does often apply to parents, it applies as well to children.
No one likes being the target of someone else’s anger, especially if it is someone close to you. Children’s anger sometimes feels like an accusation – as if they’re saying you are a bad mother. Sometimes they even say as much. A child may be angry because he couldn’t have something he wanted, or do something he wanted to do. His angry behavior is his way of protesting, but instead of it sounding like something about him, we hear it as being about us – his behavior is our fault. And we want to feel – and our children to feel – that we are “good mothers” even when asking children to do things they don’t like.
Children’s loss of control can make us start to feel out of control ourselves. Because the behavior is unacceptable, we too often get focused on trying to stop it. Often this ends in an escalation of the situation. Not able to control our child’s behavior, our own anger takes hold, and it sometimes seems as though we are getting down to our child’s level.
The problem is that because children have not yet developed inner controls, but act out their feelings, feelings and behavior seem to be one and the same. The feelings take form in behavior, and because the behavior feels threatening we label it “bad”. Young children are unable to tell the difference between feelings and behavior and so begin to believe that it is the feelings that are bad.
The fact that angry feelings are joined emotionally to attacking behavior in childhood seems to color our response to anger throughout life. We were all children once, and sometimes still have trouble separating angry feelings from behavior, both in our children and in ourselves. We may still be afraid that the intensity of our feelings will be matched by the enormity of our actions. It can begin to feel unsafe not only to express anger but to feel it.
I think that is what my son with four-year-old wisdom was trying to tell me: if you don’t express anger when you feel it, the anger just grows until you then “overblow.” Perhaps, without realizing it he was also explaining why he, too, would sometimes overblow.
In fact, our job is to help our children learn that their feelings are acceptable, but hitting, screaming and throwing things are not. We can only teach this, though, if we can feel that our child’s anger is not dangerous, does not make us bad mothers, and does not have to be wiped out in order for our own wishes to prevail.
To accept your child’s anger and teach him to express it differently, you have to be ready to hear disagreement. You have to be able to tolerate the fact that your child doesn’t like something you are doing – in fact doesn’t like you at that moment. In other words, you have to risk feeling like a “bad” mother. If you can accept this you don’t have to counterattack with your own anger, or give in, making you feel helpless and your child’s anger seem powerful and frightening – to him and to you.
In other words, you won’t have to “overblow.”
A familiar question from parents is, when is it appropriate for children to be given various degrees of freedom and to receive certain privileges? Children’s push to do things on their own begins at a very young age, increasing along with the acquisition of skills that make independent functioning possible, such as walking and other motor skills. Often conflicts that arise during the “terrible twos” are a result of a child’s demand to “do it myself.”
The problem is not only that children’s reach exceed their grasp – that is they often are not yet really able to do on their own the things they think they can do. It is also that parents are not always clear about children’s actual capabilities and are mindful of their responsibilities as parents for their children’s safety and well-being. Parents lean toward being protective, but they also are often unsure about which expectations are appropriate at various developmental stages.
Another major issue that arises, is that along with children’s emerging skills is their immaturity in frustration tolerance. They find it hard to wait for what they want, or to achieve what they might like to try to do on their own. This impatience is a familiar characteristic of youngsters and for a long period of development may be out of synch with the development of other skills, emerging for example as a renewed source of conflict in adolescence.
In today’s culture one sees typical areas of conflict between children and parents with regard to the acquisition of various material things both when viewed as a privilege of adulthood and as requiring a mature sense of responsibility. This is especially true with respect to the world of technology and all the electronic “toys” it has spawned.
The iPad and iPhone are good examples – following what seem to be various games and aps that even very young children play on their parents’ phones and electronic devices. One parent who had very clear ideas about material things and values had refused to get her son an iPad. She then discovered that he was, in fact, the only child in his class without an iPad and she was then torn between her own values and the social pressure of peer groups.
Many parents of teenagers have talked about the iPhone in particular having become the designated birthday gift for thirteen-year old’s and the competition relating to individual birthdates to which this has given rise. The issue apparently is not just the phone itself and the ability to talk to friends, but also access to the larger internet which raises many other questions also raised by the computer.
Of course, the questions parents are facing are actually those of our society itself. Those who follow the business world and writers about economics, refer to a theory of behavioral economics used to explain our consumption habits. This theory holds that there is a tendency to choose short-term rewards over long-term gains.
There are reports in business news about the push in the world of technology toward automation within the home. Apparently, Amazon, Google and Facebook are all working on variations of a personal assistant who can not only take over many functions such as keeping bank accounts, controlling appliances, or making purchases, but also seemingly will anticipate one’s every wish – and do it faster.
What comes to mind is a famous experiment by Walter Mischel at Stanford in the 1960’s. A child was seated at a table with a marshmallow in front of him and told he could eat the marshmallow when the examiner left but that if he waited until the examiner’s return, he would get two marshmallows instead of just one. The results of this experiment were later used to connect the ability to wait – to delay gratification – with later academic and other success.
It appears that a trait parents are encouraged to foster in their children – the ability to delay gratification – runs counter to the move toward immediate pleasure in the world of consumption. The implication of this is something that confronts us all – not just parents.
Recently, I came across a personal reminiscence someone wrote about her relationship with her two male siblings. She recounts being asked at a function they all attended what the secret was of their close attachment to one another, which the guest hoped to achieve with her own children. Her brother responded both seriously and with tongue-in-cheek, that the secret was the bitter divorce of their parents.
Although the response was hardly what the inquirer expected, the question itself is a familiar one. Over the years, I have heard that question raised by many parents. It often is expressed in relation to the expected arrival of a sibling and more often in connection with concerns about sibling behavior.
The creation of a new family of siblings with oneself as the parent, arouses many feelings about one’s own history with one’s sibling – both positive and negative. Parents may hold up their own sibling relationships as a model they seek to achieve, or the opposite, describing terrible feelings and behavior they would like to avoid.
Parents locked in hostile battle is certainly not the solution new parents are seeking. Yet, at the same time, it may come as a surprise to recognize that often sibling behavior is more about them than about the sibling themselves. After all, sibling rivalry means rivalry between siblings for the love and/or attention of their parents.
We think of siblings as meaning children having the same parents. But in fact, every child’s experience growing up is different from that of his or her sibling. Listening to the conversation of adult siblings, it is striking how often they remember family experiences in different ways, as if not having had the same experience. And in fact, they haven’t.
The expression of feelings of rivalry can be most acute with the arrival of the first sibling. The first child, having been the king or queen of the manor, is suddenly seemingly dethroned by one perceived as an interloper. It is not surprising to hear some of the things that children say about new babies, such as instructing parents to take the baby back to the hospital, or better yet to be thrown out with the garbage.
At times, parents may be distressed by these comments and try to persuade a child that these are not true feelings. Such expression may run counter to an image I often hear from parents that a child can’t wait for his new brother or sister’s arrival and is more than accepting of the idea. In fact, many mothers in particular, are more in tune with the feeling that they are usurping the place of the firstborn with a sibling and express guilt about doing that. It is as though they are betraying the first child by having a second.
The point is that our behavior toward our children’s sibling behavior, is very much influenced by our own family history, and the feelings elicited by the treatment of one child toward another. At times, it may be difficult not to feel protective of a younger child and view the older one as the aggressor, even though little ones can often be most provocative.
The difference in developmental stages of two siblings can make for challenges in management as each may interfere in the interests of the other. More challenging still, is helping children deal with a major task of the early years, which is to learn to distinguish between feelings and behavior, to accept the feelings but control the unacceptable behavior.
That is why a major task for us as parents is to accept the negative feelings that children have for each other at various times. Of course, we protect our children from hurting each other physically, but that doesn’t mean their feelings are wrong, or that they are somehow bad for having such feelings.
It is pointless to try to respond to children’s requests that they be loved most or best, or to quantify feelings of love for each child. The truth of the matter is that a family encompasses different relationships, with different feelings at different times, and that part of the benefit of being in a family is learning how to accept that reality. Much of sibling behavior is a reflection of the difficulty in learning.
We can best help children learn when we accept that reality ourselves.
When a child’s behavior annoys, or hurts another, whether on purpose or accidentally, one often hears the adult on the scene instruct the offender to “say you’re sorry.” Yet, at times, the seeming offender is in his or her mind retaliating for an earlier injury received from the supposed victim.
It is a common reaction to feel that a child must be chastised and corrected in order to be taught appropriate social behavior. Parents are often chagrined, feeling that their children’s behavior reflects poorly on them. It is true that our goal is to help children learn how to express how they feel about something in a way that does not hurt or offend someone else. The question is whether being made to apologize helps children learn what we want to teach.
In a recent book, “Why Won’t You Apologize,” psychologist Harriet Lerner discusses apologies that are meaningless, namely those that are self-excusing, and what a meaningful apology involves. She writes that the hurt party wants us to listen to their feelings, to validate their reality and to feel genuine regret and remorse.
How does it feel to have to say you are sorry if you feel that you are the one who was wronged? Whether you were actually wronged is not the point. Feeling that way and being made to apologize just means that your side of the story has not been heard or understood, so now you feel doubly wronged. If a child complies under duress, neither the cause of the conflict or a better way to resolve such conflicts has been addressed. It doesn’t feel fair.
An apology empty of genuine feeling is quite meaningless. To mean it requires empathy – the ability to know and identify with how the other person feels. At times that ability can even help you put your own feelings aside for the moment.
Empathy, like many other abilities, develops as children mature. We play an important part in that development by helping children become aware of the feelings of others. But first, we have to show empathy for their feelings. An adult sometimes will say, “How do you think it made him feel when you did that?” But a child whose own feelings have not been addressed is not ready to think about how someone else feels. It is by understanding and clarifying for our children what they themselves are feeling that they can begin to identify with what others might be feeling.
Insisting that a child apologize as a means of reparation for behavior he thinks was justified simply says to him that you are taking the other child’s side. Besides, since the apology is not sincere, the message is that using empty words is the way to gloss over conflict.
Conflicts between children are most often caused by both, not just one. They arise because children have not yet mastered social interactions and negotiating conflict. They also have not yet mastered the control of their emotions necessary to express feelings in words rather than physically.
We can help by clarifying for a child what it was that happened. “You were angry because he took the toy you were playing with”. Or, “You wanted her to play the game your way”. In doing that we are both acknowledging our own child’s feelings and also making a connection between the feeling and the way it was expressed. Having acknowledged the feeling, we can now talk about better ways to express it.
But the next step is to help children figure out how to resolve the conflict. A major problem with the empty apology is that it doesn’t teach children how to do that – and that is really what they need to learn. Whether it is by sharing, taking turns, or compromising on the rules of the game, they often need the help of an adult while learning.
“I’m sorry”, sometimes may be useful to say last, but almost never, first.
When children begin nursery school or any early group experience that entails separation from a parent or caregiver, the issue of separation itself often predominates for both parents and teachers. Inaccurate judgements are made at times of both children and parents on the basis of responses of each to this issue.
There is often too little awareness of the challenges confronting children in their first experiences of group participation and hopefully, learning in and from a group. We tend to think in terms of the positive aspects for children of group participation, primarily opportunities for socialization and play. But for a group to serve such a purpose, children first have to feel comfortable in such a setting.
What does that require? First it means forming a relationship with a new adult and learning that this person can be trusted to respond to their needs. Most children are cared for by a primary caregiver even if not a parent. Usually, the caregiver is someone they have known over time and even if caring for a number of children are able to respond on an individual basis to a given child. In a group, children may be required to wait longer for the attention they need or wish.
The waiting required for attention or for one’s turn, a measure of frustration tolerance, is a developmental step the achievement of which varies considerably from child to child. The same is true of impulse control, which means the ability to hold in check the behavior arising from feelings of frustration or impatience. Children’s reaction to separation from a caregiver is often a measure of how secure they feel about the ability to control negative behavior in the absence of a known adult.
Beyond the ability of individual children to master the behavior required for functioning in a group, other factors come into play in creating an environment in which children can enjoy learning. One of these factors is the interaction between children and whether such interaction serves or disrupts group functioning. In this regard, one can see the role of both individual children and teachers themselves.
Some children by nature seem to have leadership qualities and seem to draw the interest of other children. They have good ideas when participating in activities – often innovative in nature. When teachers use this to serve the purpose of the activity, the group is well served. On the other hand, if a teacher is too invested in her own agenda to incorporate a new idea, the result can often be disruptive.
At other times, individual children may engage in behavior that draws other children away from the group in a way that defeats a teacher’s plan. This can happen when the behavior of the individual child seems more interesting than that being offered by the teacher. Experienced teachers may see this as a need to move into a new activity for all. But this may also be an ongoing issue for a given child, requiring thought as to how best to understand and approach the behavior of that child.
At times, there are intangibles that come into play enabling some groups to function more successfully than others. One group observed many times, presented such a puzzle. Although led by an experienced teacher, an observer did not have a sense of group cohesion but rather a collection of individual children. While some of the children did present individual issues that were challenging, and for the most part children were all participating in activities, they did not seem connected to each other or to a group as a whole.
At a certain point, the assistant teacher left and was replaced by a different assistant. What followed was striking. Gradually, individual children drifted over to this teacher until there was a cluster of children around her, interacting with her and with each other in the activity. For the first time, it felt like a group. Obviously, there was something in this teacher’s manner that drew children to her, in the same way that individual children draw other children to them. She was filling some need for these children that was not being filled earlier.
Perhaps this is the undefinable something that creates the most talented and successful teachers, and speaks to the ongoing discussion in education as to whether it is an ability that can be taught.
The history of child rearing is filled with theories that in their time were put forward as scientific truths. Inevitably, they were replaced by other theories supposedly reflecting newer scientific truths. As the interest in child development grew, so did the dissemination of these theories in popular form – one perhaps related to the other. Prescribed child rearing methods changed based on these new “truths” in what might be called the “flavor of the month” or year approach.
Looking back, the incorporation of various theories into recommended methods, at times seems to reflect a need in society rather than science. For example, there was a period in which it was thought harmful to development to pick up and hold babies, either for comfort or play. That was a time before antibiotics when there was a great fear of germs and infant mortality, but the message given to parents was that picking up and holding babies would lead to spoiled children.
As social needs change, so do the uses of particular theories in applied methods of child rearing. At times, old theories are given a new life when something in the social environment seems to make them particularly relevant. It often seems as if everything old is new again. This seems to be the case in the recent revival of attachment theory.
John Bowlby, the British psychologist who introduced the theory of attachment in the 1950’s, described an innate need to form a strong bond with a caregiver that has an evolutionary basis. He viewed attachment as a psychological or emotional connection not based solely on feeding by a caregiver. Bowlby was influenced by studies of animal behavior, and rejected the Freudian theory of attachment based solely on the caregiver serving as a need satisfying object.
While not widely accepted at the time, most parents – especially mothers, have always been aware of the special bond between their children and themselves, and understood that it was of greater significance than merely providing food. Fortunately, many mothers have always used common sense in their use of theories raising their children.
Unfortunately, the way theories are incorporated into popularly prescribed methods seems to carry with it a threat. Bad things happen if you don’t follow the prescribed method. The theory and the method to which it gives rise, carries with it a description of the various problems to be found in children who are not “securely attached.” In part this is due to the later work of Mary Ainsworth who developed a research method that would establish various categories of attachment and their significance for later development.
Attachment theory has found its way into a particular method of child rearing, extreme in its application and seemingly defying common sense. The recommended co-sleeping is but one aspect of the level of required attention from parents. An experienced nursery school teacher who used the attachment method with her now four-year-old son, reported that her husband says he wants no more children – he doesn’t think he could go through that again. Her son is protesting going to school, saying he and mom can just stay home and play.
The problem is not with attachment theory, which has great validity. It is rather when methods based on theories are taken too literally, giving total weight to one idea while ignoring both life reality and the importance of all else that is known about child development.
It is interesting to speculate about why at this time, when more women than ever are employed outside the home or pursuing careers, a method has been put forward interpreting an important theory to mean total attendance to any perceived need or wish of a child. Women today are having a hard enough time finding the appropriate balance between their own needs and the needs of children and family, without the additional burden of theories used in a way that promotes guilt and anxiety.
Perhaps the real truth lies in the use of judgment and common sense when it comes to raising children in the real world.
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.