New Old Ideas

Everything old is new again. Old ideas with a new look certainly seem to be making an appearance in theories related to child-rearing and education. The latest candidates in that regard are the “new” ideas about reading failure and methods of teaching children to read.

Recent national test scores showing that only a third of American students were proficient in reading, with widening gaps between good readers and bad ones, have prompted some educators to revisit the beginnings of reading instruction. As is known to happen in other areas of thought, educators are reacting to a body of research produced by linguists, psychologists and cognitive scientists.

The supposedly new approach called the “science of reading”, holds that eye-tracking studies and brain scans show that learning to read is the work of deliberately practicing how to quickly connect the letters on the page to the sounds heard. In contrast, the “balanced literature” theory followed today, holds that students can learn to read through exposure to a wide range of books they find appealing rather than an emphasis on sounding out words.

The struggle over phonics as the way to teach reading seems to have gone on as long as the effort to teach children to read. The something new that has been added now is the claim that the “science of reading” is based on – science! In other words, scientific technology provides the evidence proving the need for phonics as the method for teaching reading.

Supporters of phonics do not want to limit teaching reading to phonics alone and appear to seek including what sound like ideas from “balanced literature”, including using more advanced books so children are not stuck with low expectations and the boredom of earlier sound-it-out books. However, states have already passed laws requiring that schools use phonics-centric curriculums and screen students more aggressively for reading problems.

The problem is that the controversy leads various groups to become invested in a particular point of view, leading in turn to requiring the use of a specific method for entire school districts. Unfortunately, the claim that a method is based on science leads to a one size fits all approach, rather than an ability to address the needs of individual children. Actual classroom teachers often trust their own experience over brain scans or laboratory experiments.

This same dynamic can be seen in the world of child development research, theories and recommended methods. Research findings are based on numbers, meaning they apply to a group as a whole as contrasted to individuals. For a parent seeking a method or approach for her own child, research findings drawn from a group may not apply or be appropriate. Unfortunately, various theories become the basis for an entire approach to being a parent, such as attachment parenting, or for dealing with specific behaviors such as sleep issues.

In part, the current controversy about teaching phonics relates to methods, rather than theory. Researchers in the science of reading point to the lack of clarity in specific curriculum materials that will be most effective in teaching phonics. Much of the criticism of phonics as an approach relates to old approaches using drills and boring beginning reading materials.

In the service of full disclosure, I admit that my view of teaching phonics is influenced by being the mother of a child with reading difficulties. His school years coincided with the use of the “sight” method, in which children were taught to recognize words by looking at them. That seemed to him a kind of magic he didn’t have, leading him to take a book off the shelf, looking through it and announcing he had read it. It was only after being tutored with phonics that he owned the true magic of reading.

Out of Control

When someone behaves in a way that is socially offensive, observers often comment that he or she is “out of control.” There is a Talmudic saying that no one is the owner of his instincts, perhaps meaning that our instincts operate independently of our will. But living in a civilized society makes it necessary that we learn to control those instincts. Being out of control in that sense is offensive to others.

This idea is meaningful for us as parents. Childhood is a time when instinct, impulses and feelings are expressed so readily in behavior. Children go after the things they find pleasurable, acting in accordance with their desires and feelings without much awareness of the effect of their behavior on others.

Do we ever really lose the impulse to demand or just take what we want? At best we have learned to control the behavior those impulses give rise to and have pushed the wishes themselves down in order to fortify our control over our behavior. So there are strong reactions to others who don’t use those controls over their own behavior.

The same thing often happens in response to our children’s as yet unsocialized behavior. We accept that behavior in infancy but then begin to expect children to control themselves. The problem in thinking that children are out of control is the assumption that the controls are available to them but have not been used.

It is appropriate for children to start to learn about controlling their impulses, and for us to start to teach them to do so. The question is how to do that. Often this process involves our own self-control as much as it does our child’s. We find ourselves screaming in response to their screaming, at times even hitting in response to their hitting. A child’s lack of control can make us feel out of control ourselves.

The uncivilized behavior of our children peels back our own layers of civilization. So we get worried about their behavior – and our own – which can lead to a great feeling of urgency about getting everyone’s behavior under control. When that happens, it is easy to stop teaching and look for ways to make children stop doing what they are doing, or start doing what we want them to do.

One way of doing that is to express our disapproval by labeling such behavior “bad”. The problem is that children don’t distinguish between their behavior and themselves. If their behavior is “bad”, that means they are “bad”. Yet an important part of developing self-control is being able to tell the difference between feelings and behavior. Having certain feelings doesn’t mean we are going to act on them. Truly being in control means being aware of our feelings yet being confident that we won’t act on them.

Children need help and time to develop those controls. Time means not expecting more of them than they are capable of. Help means providing the control they don’t as yet have. When a baby is crawling toward a light socket, we don’t depend on words to help her stop. We’re there to stop her. In the same way, it doesn’t help a child to keep telling him not to hit his sister. We have to provide the intervention that will help him actually control those impulses when they are getting the better of him.

Feeling an impulse and not acting on it is what gives one the experience of self- control. Our children may never “own” their instincts, but hopefully we can help as they begin to master them.

Are You Listening?

A child told me how much she liked her school counselor. I asked what she liked about her and the answer was, “She really listens to me when I talk to her.” She further explained that when she talks to her parents, they always start to tell her what she should do about whatever it is she is talking about. The school counselor just listens to what she has to say.

Listen is a word that can have different meanings. As parents thinking about children, it can be a request that they pay attention – as in “Listen to me.” It can also be a reprimand such as, “You’re not listening,” which may really mean you are not doing what I tell you to do. Listening is a big part of children’s life since it is a major way they learn and develop.

Listening is also a big part of being a parent. Children may think we are not listening when we don’t do what they want, and at times we would rather not listen to them. But even when we do listen, we don’t always hear them. That seemed to have been the complaint of the young person quoted. She felt her parents were more interested in telling her what to do than in hearing what she had to say.

Yet hearing our children is part of learning about them and how to best respond as parents. Hearing children means trying to understand what they are telling us, which in the early years is mainly through their behavior.

Sometimes that behavior is not to our liking, such as not sharing, or pushing another child. But especially in the early years, such behavior can tell us that they need our help in learning social behavior. They may be saying that sharing is still too hard, or that the other child was too close for comfort. Such behavior tells us where children are in their development and how we can help them learn.

Behavior is children’s means of communication, and it helps in various situations to ask oneself if a child could express what he means in words, what would he be telling us? Sometimes the meaning is quite clear as when young children express anger physically by striking out. Too often our response may be to correct the behavior in which the feelings have been expressed rather than address the feelings themselves.

When we let children know that we do hear the feelings behind the behavior, they feel understood – meaning their feelings will be considered. This in turn helps them hear our correction of the behavior in which their feelings were expressed. Beyond that, it helps children begin to identify their feelings, a first step in the ability to control the way they are expressed.

As children get older and more adept at verbal expression, they may tell us more directly what they are feeling – at times even saying things we may not like to hear. Even then, our response may be to the words rather than to listen for what may be the real meaning. Like the old saying, “what I said is not what I meant.”

Children’s behavior can tell us if our expectations are too high, if something is too hard for a child who may be telling us he needs help. It is by listening and hearing what children are trying to tell us through their behavior and later in their words, that parents learn where they are in their development and what is needed from them as parents to help children learn.

Baby Shortage

So much is written and discussed about parents and children these days that it comes as a surprise to realize that a similar preoccupation can be found with the apparently declining birthrate. Various surveys have found a precipitous drop in fertility rates throughout the world, in middle-and low-income countries and even more so in rich ones.

China has received particular attention because its previously enforced one child policy has been amended to permit the birth of second children. Despite this, the birthrate has barely changed. The Chinese government had sought to engineer its population to reduce quantity in order to improve quality. This meant raising and educating children who could compete in the world economy.

This led to the “professionalization” of child-rearing shaped by the theories of educators, health and child psychology experts. Raising a “quality” child became a matter not only of keeping up with the latest child-rearing advice but a commitment to spending whatever it takes such as special lessons, tutoring, playing an instrument or whatever.

Those studying the lack of interest in having second children attribute this to the economic pressures on young couples. The competition is intense for education and enrichment in an economy where setting a child down the right path can mean life-changing opportunities while heading down the wrong one means insecurity and struggle.

Although Chinese parents have been described as trying to duplicate the American experience of raising children, factors in both countries have contributed to the pressure on parents. In China, as access to college has expanded, the value of a diploma is worth less than it once was and competition for places in top schools has gown. The need to invest heavily in a child from early on had become more compelling and arranging the details of a child’s education has become almost a full-time job for mothers.

This certainly sounds like a description of child-rearing challenges facing American parents. There definitely is a preoccupation with seeking child-rearing information and advice perhaps driven in part by the increased competition children face for educational and job opportunities. What the Chinese have termed “quality” is simply one way of describing the attempt to raise the most successful child possible in a hyper-competitive environment.

Various other factors have been offered as an explanation for the pressures preventing larger families. One is the changed role of women and the resulting issues of child care and family management with two working parents. This puts a focus on the lack of affordable, quality child-care, and the dearth of family friendly policies generally in the workplace.

Another aspect of this change is the delay in child-bearing by many women who seek educational and work opportunities. This reinforces a focus on the nature of the American workplace, which is still based on an older model of gender division of labor.  While true, also noted is the fact that the declining birthrate is also true in countries that are a model of policies supporting family leave, long maternity benefits and government supported child-care.

Perhaps most interesting as an explanation for the decline in child-bearing is a sense of generalized anxieties around parenthood in our precarious era. To many it feels risky to bring a child into the world as it is today. This overlaps the increased concern world-wide about the fate of the planet and environmental sustainability.

This concern can be found in the anxieties expressed by parents about the unnamed dangers their children face in a world over which they have no control. Yet the role children are playing in demanding attention for threats they perceive in the environment, such as guns in schools and raging fires, speaks to our success as parents in raising responsible children ready to play a role in the future of the planet.

Declarations of Independence

Are any of you parents of children taking drivers ed, or those newly licensed to drive? One such parent informed his daughter she was not to confuse having a license with parental permission to drive, or to take the car out alone. Learning to drive and then passing the driver’s test seems in many cases to be a precursor to leaving home for college. It also awakens parental anxieties about children off on their own.

Despite obvious differences in size and various skills, there are startling similarities in the developmental issues that arise between parents and children during the two to three-year-old period and adolescence. These issues relate to the emerging feelings and assertion of feelings around independence characteristic of those periods. Also, the feelings aroused in parents about increasing loss of control over their children’s lives and behavior.

Listening to these concerns, I was reminded of watching the youngest preschoolers as they zip around on scooters these days. In the past, a familiar sight was that of a two-year-old running ahead of mother to get to the street corner first, with mom calling out reminding her to stop at the light, not at all sure if the child would be able to stop herself on time. Now this scenario takes place with scooters, which move children along faster than a parent can keep up.

Although driving a car may seem to present a higher level of potential danger than zooming ahead on a scooter, the issues they present to parents are very much the same. In both instances involved is not only the level of competence of the child or adolescent but the young person’s judgment in assessing that level of competence. The child’s self-appraisal as well as the parent’s appraisal of the child are called into play.

It may seem as though the more fully developed cognitive and emotional skills of the adolescent would make for more mature and reliable judgements of ability. However, also understood about adolescent development is that adolescents are well-known as risk takers who deny the possibility of harmful outcomes for themselves.

Preschoolers have a more limited ability to assess both risk and their own skill level, while the developmental push for independence is a driving force. At the same time the ability to control impulses is in a state of flux and a young child may perceive the need to stop without being able to bring it about.

The question that remains for parents is the same in both situations, namely how much control over a child’s behavior can they exert in order to keep the child safe while supporting the child’s drive toward independent functioning?

While this formulation might seem to suggest rational decision making, in reality strong emotional factors are at work. For children, the strong emotion is the push for independence that can lead to rebellious or defiant behavior. Parents, however, while supporting the idea of independence, are more motivated by their wish and need to keep their children safe. At times that parental need conflicts with a child’s need to assert his independence.

A byproduct of parents’ wish to keep their children safe is the attempt to keep a child from making a mistake. Parents think of their own mistakes they have come to regret and can become invested in trying to prevent their children from doing the same. But parents are handicapped in their responses to their children when the goal is to prevent mistakes. Mistakes are part of learning. Children need to learn from their mistakes just as we did – and continue to do as parents.

Making mistakes doesn’t make us bad parents. We use our best judgment in assessing our children’s capability and when their or our judgment is wrong, we are there to support them and hopefully help them learn from their mistakes.

Leaving Home

With the new year, high school students are entering a new semester and for upper-classmen thoughts of the impending applications and decisions about college. For some there may also be visits to, and tours of various college sites, adding a note of reality to the process.

Some students to whom I have spoken, look forward eagerly to entering a wider world and what appears to them to be greater independence from parents and early school years. Others express attachment to their school years and communities, and feel a pang or two in anticipation of leaving.

Numerous parents, however, have talked to me about their sadness and anxiety about the impending separation from, and departure of their children. Although pleased that their children are doing well and moving forward in life, the sadness comes from endings, the endings of childhood and one’s life as the parents of young children.

I remember once telling my younger son a reminiscence from earlier years. He said maybe I wished they would not grow up. I told him that I was pleased with who they were currently but also missed those people they used to be.

Such feelings accounts for some of the sadness. But the anxiety reported is something else. What I have heard from many mothers in particular, especially those with college freshmen, is worry that there is no one available with responsibility for their child. If anything was wrong, who would know about it? If the child needed help who would be there to provide it? How is a parent to know if everything is alright?

This concern seemed to echo the current commentary on the degree to which parents use cell phones to keep track of their children and their movements. This has been part of the fall-out from two working parents with no means of supervision of their children’s after school activities. This kind of monitoring has also involved children themselves having cell phones at younger and younger ages and participating in the monitoring that is taking place. Part of the concern when children are away at school is the resistance some have to this kind of monitoring and parents’ awareness of the pushback and children’s demand for space.

In many ways this is a replay of the early struggle over separation in the preschool years. Two-year-old’s becoming more aware that they are separate people from their parents, become assertive in expressing a sense of independence, often to the consternation of parents who recognize that children’s reach may exceed their grasp. Children seek to do things themselves that are often beyond their still developing skills and conflict may ensue.

For parents, the challenge is to support the young child’s emerging independence while intervening to provide the protection that is still needed. When this struggle is replayed in adolescence or young adulthood, the challenge to parents is greater as children now have greater skills and may assert themselves in ways less available to parental intervention. Yet the task remains the same, namely gaging the abilities of the young person and providing support when possible.

From the moment of a child’s birth, mothers feel a particular responsibility for ensuring the survival and well-being of her infant. That feeling of responsibility is a hallmark of parenthood, which may not diminish as the child grows and is able to assume more responsibility for his own well-being. It also may not diminish when a child leaves home and is no longer under the protective surveillance of parents.

Leaving home is a major step on the path to independence. It is not surprising that all the feelings about separation on the part of both parents and children are replayed when children go off to school.

Baby Makes Three – Or More

A new mom told me that not having been married very long she was still adjusting to being part of a couple. She was still getting used to the “we”. Now, with a newborn, the “we” had turned into three and she was feeling somewhat overwhelmed.

At the same time, the mother of a three-year-old with a newborn was describing feeling unprepared for the sleepless nights and baby schedule despite having lived through it all before.

The first few months of a newborn’s life can be stressful for old or new parents. The infant is becoming adjusted to life outside the womb and all the life systems – breathing, eating, sleeping – are gradually becoming regulated. It takes a while for the baby’s own patterns to start to emerge, and even longer to begin to shape them into some sort of workable schedule. In the meantime, new parents watch their baby and try to figure out what everything means.

The key is to try to get to know your own baby. But sometimes parental anxieties – and sleepless nights – makes that difficult to do. It is easy immediately to feel that something must be wrong if you don’t seem able to comfort your baby, or his crying seems to go on forever – or baby screams whenever you put him down in his crib. Babies eventually do find ways to soothe themselves, but sometimes our own anxiety and fatigue make it too hard to wait for that to happen.

There are also babies who are not self-soothers, and often it takes some creative experimentation to find out how we can help without creating some other potential difficulty for the future. Taking the baby into your bed is a case in point. One of the things about child-rearing is that what may seem like an easy solution to one immediate situation turns out to create its own challenges at some future time.

“Baby-in- the-bed” is sometimes one of those solutions. People often get emotional about this subject, at times even judgmental. Just as in other cultures it is simply the way it is done, attitudes in our culture differ. Americans believe in individualism, standing on your own two feet, and being independent. Value is placed on children’s ability to play on their own, sleep on their own, and, if possible, have a room of their own. But children don’t necessarily start out that way. Many parents have reported their children saying in protest, “You each have someone to sleep with, why do I have to sleep by myself?”

It is not at all strange that a child would rather sleep with his parents, or have a parent with him in the room when he goes to sleep. As a child gets beyond babyhood there also may be added the wish to get between mom and dad – maybe having one or the other all to himself. Besides, who wants to go to sleep when mom and dad are still up and about.

But whatever the reason, getting a child into his own bed after sleeping in yours is a process that will take time, since of course he will protest this ejection from such a warm, cozy spot. Who wouldn’t protest? Once again, it will take patience and perseverance, which means letting him know his parents’ expectations, and following consistently whatever plan they decide on.

A song most parents know, “There were three in the bed, and the little one said, ‘roll over, roll over’. So, they all rolled over and one fell out – “
But which one will fall out?


What is Balance?

A mother of two preschool age children asked what I thought about mothers working outside of the home. How important is it for mothers to be home with their children and until what age of the children? Although earlier this seemed to be a burning social question, it seemed to have faded in the face of the reality that mothers today are working outside the home.

On the other hand, that reality has also led to much discussion about balance. How are we to arrive at a balance between work and family life? Although this discussion involves fathers as well as mothers, the issue for mothers has been the weight of the traditional role of motherhood, or the value of full-time motherhood as against the value of other kinds of work or self-expression in addition to the need to supplement family income.

Whether working either by choice or financial need, the central issue with which many parents struggle is how to balance children’s needs with one’s own needs. The reason it is a struggle is that there is no single, or “right” answer. A mother of a young child told me she found the hardest part was the ongoing nature of the conflict she felt. She had thought the conflict was simply between deciding to work and being a full-time mother. Instead, she found that every day decisions had to be made about what she perceived as the needs of her child versus the demands of her work.

How one responds to these every day questions is influenced by the choice of parenting philosophy or approach one chooses to adhere to, and one’s personal history plays a large role in such choices. Whatever it is that determines these choices, the choices themselves play a big role in determining one’s attitudes not only about the mothering-work conflict, but also about the daily interactions with children.

All of the approaches to child-rearing have a point of view regarding the needs of children, the importance of these needs, and the nature and degree of response that is required from parents. Many of these approaches are prescriptive, so another influence on one’s behavior as a parent is the importance we ascribe to “experts” and authority.

As the mother I referred to pointed out, she constantly had to decide what was more important in a particular situation, what her son needed or wanted, or what her own needs were. What complicates the question even more is that children can feel as if they really need something they want. If your child doesn’t feel well, is she really sick? Should she stay home from school if it means you have to miss work? If he begs you not to leave when you go out, should you stay home with him?

Some of these questions may feel easier to answer than others, but the answers do depend in part not only on what you know about your own child, but also on how strongly you feel about the importance of certain kinds of responses to your child. In other words, can you accept and tolerate a measure of frustration or unhappiness in your child? And even if you can, how do you determine what is an acceptable amount and what is not?

There are no “right” answers to such questions, which is why balancing needs consists of an ongoing set of questions which parents have to answer in terms of themselves and their own children.

Perhaps the real “mommy war” is the struggle within ourselves that we parents experience in trying to answer them.

Pain, Preference and Protest

A mother reported on the separation difficulties of her three-year-old daughter. The child cries when mother has to leave the house, tries to leave her at school or on a playdate, although not when father or babysitter takes her. The mother herself becomes very upset at the child’s upset.

This mother blames herself for the child’s problem with separation describing how during infancy she carried the baby around much of the time because she cried and seemed so unhappy when put down. Although she makes a connection between her own behavior and the child’s later difficulties, she also attributes to her feeling that the baby was really in pain and suffering the source of her responses.

This child was also described as being “slow to warm up,” a category used among others to define temperament, or personality. Parents recognize differences in children which seem inborn and are often used to explain certain kinds of behavior. On the other hand, these differences sometimes lead to behavior not to parents’ liking, leading to the feeling that it is a problem needing correction.

An example may be children who learn by observing as compared to those who learn by doing. Parents may be concerned about a child who sits back from participating freely in group activities, comparing her unfavorably to the children who seem to be more actively involved.

Children are growing up in an adult world and their own preferences can be expressed in behavior that makes life more difficult for the adults around them. Their protests about adult expectations can take the form of crying, meltdowns, or withdrawal. Grown-ups also have preferences but in the process of growing up we have learned how to modify our own behavior in order to live with other people. As adults we have also developed strategies for dealing with situations that make us uncomfortable.

Watching children holding back from entering a group of playing children one can be reminded of a cocktail party scenario. That is as an adult, finding a way to enter into a cocktail party in full progress, with clusters of small groups in conversation, drinks in hand – the drinks helping to smooth the path.

Because children express their likes and dislikes in unsocialized behavior, we often view this as misbehavior rather than as a strong expression of likes and dislikes. Or as in the example given above, children may react with such unhappiness as to suggest true pain and suffering. The child’s behavior suggested to the mom something beyond protesting what the child didn’t like.

It is this lack of clarity about the meaning of behavior that leads to confusion in adult responses to children. The idea that a child is misbehaving evokes old cultural feelings about adult authority, that children are simply bad and need to be punished in some way for their misbehavior.

Rising against this feeling is the fear that a child is truly suffering and that by not responding to this suffering a parent is inflicting damage that will injure the child in other ways. Such confusion often leads to inconsistency in responding to a child’s behavior, at times punitively, at other times “giving in” to the child’s wishes.

The reality is that a child’s protests say either that something expected is too hard. or is something he doesn’t like. In either case a parent is in a position to help by offering support in taking a developmental step. In one case, acknowledging a child’s feelings without judgment can be the sugar that helps the medicine go down.

When something is too hard, we may have to back up rather than back down. That is, move more slowly through a developmental step without giving up our expectation that a child can learn to do it.

Pain or Protest?

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.