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.

Differences Within Differences

In thinking about differences between children it is striking to become aware that even among children who seem different from their group, they can differ from each other in the way they are different. Two children who are different from the group may also be different from each other.

It was interesting to become aware of this during an observation of a group of preschool children as they moved through various activities that included music, movement and art projects. Two children who clearly were participants in the various activities drew attention because of the nature of their participation, both different in contrast to the group yet also different from each other.

Both children were girls and although there was a significant difference in their ages, the differences between them seemed more related to the question of personality than to developmental stages. A broadly descriptive though limited picture might be that one girl was more inner directed, the other more outer directed.

How was this expressed? One child seemed self-contained, focused on her own performance or achievement within the activity. The other child showed an ongoing need or wish for interaction – especially with a teacher. She did not seem to seek out a particular teacher but rather the interest or attention of one of the adults.

The self-contained child was watchful, aware of the behavior of others but seemingly apart even while participating. The other child would break away from an activity when unable to achieve the individual interaction she was seeking. Her behavior was not provocative but noticeable.

The most striking difference was during the art project when the two girls were so different from each other while both stood out in the group because of the nature and quality of their work. The project at hand was a montage like painting – that is the children had individual cups of paint but also an assortment of materials to use on their painting such as feathers or cut-outs of various kinds.

The work of both girls was noticeable for its originality and creativity but the way they worked was noticeably different. The child I call “inner-directed” was totally absorbed in what she was doing, working with great intensity and focus. Well after other children had finished their work and left the art project, this child continued with her own work seemingly unaware that she was working alone at the table.

The other child succeeded in capturing the interest of one of the teachers whom she sat next to and with whom she interacted the entire time she worked on her project. She elicited comments about her choices in the use of material and seemed not to be seeking approval but rather companionship. She did not linger over her work and seemed to be clear about when she was finished.

The finished work of both girls stood out and appeared to reflect the differences in their behavior – or personalities? The child who seemed always somewhat apart from the group produced a work with a definite style of form and dramatic, intense color. It drew the eye of the beholder. The other girl’s work was a catchy collection of color and shapes, appealing, though without clear form  projecting creativity in its composition.

What does this tell us about differences in children? A primary thing of interest is the consistency of a mode of behavior through different situations and activities. At times this has been called temperament, or personality. This sense of coherence seems to tell us who this child is.

When we seek to understand our own child’s behavior in a particular context, it is this knowledge of who this child is that can be most helpful – helpful in understanding differences from others and in offering support as parents.

Different Normal

Observing a group of two-year-old’s and their parents, one mother-child pair caught my attention. The little boy’s attention was drawn from one thing to the next making it difficult for him to stay focused on the project at hand. It was striking that the mom kept moving with him from one thing to the next without trying to limit or constrain him.

In a second group, a little boy at certain times would move away from the group into an alcove formed by an obsolete fireplace opening, as if hiding there. He later would move back to rejoin the group. His mother was upset by this behavior and tried to signal him to stop.

In both of these situations the behavior of an individual child stood out from the group, which often draws the attention or concern of a mother or teacher. Because we now have children in groups at younger ages than ever before, differences in children from others in their age group become more apparent earlier, at a time when differences in development can diverge significantly.

Differences in a child’s behavior from the group may be of concern to a teacher if the child’s behavior presents a management issue, such as aggression toward other children, or disruption of particular activities. One of the issues for education in having young children in group settings is the inadvertent pressure this may cause for conformity to group behavior. Differences in behavior can be a challenge in a group.

Differences in children can cause concern in parents about whether these differences are “normal”, or if they signify a problem needing attention. Although it is not unusual for parents to compare their children’s development to others, it is often disconcerting to a parent to see her child’s behavior seemingly different from other children in the context of a group setting. In general, parents often react to children seeming not to follow a teacher’s directions, or not participating in a group activity.  Often, expectations are not in keeping with what we know about children’s abilities at various stages of development.

Particularly, because of the usual range of development in preschool age children, it is difficult to evaluate or make judgments about the differences in behavior that may emerge in a group setting. The question of whether the behavior in question is “normal,” may be the wrong question to ask. In fact, the question really being asked is whether it is abnormal – something requiring concern or intervention.

Answering the question requires understanding the meaning of the behavior for the child in question. The examples of behavior given above point to the importance of understanding the purpose the behavior is serving for that specific child. It is not a question about the behavior itself but about the child.

In the instance of the child withdrawing from the group, observation made it clear that the withdrawals occurred in response to specific activities. This child removed himself whenever the teacher went around the circle seeking responses from the children individually. It was interesting that the child was avoiding individual attention yet his solution was actually drawing individual attention of a different sort.

The example of the child with seeming short attention requires answering questions about other life situations and general development. He was the youngest child in the group and perhaps unready for the expectations of group participation. His mother seemed unfazed by his activity level and it would be important to know how she perceived his activity level. Did his behavior interfere with other experiences important to development?

The point is that in both instances intervention meant understanding and then helping a child master those situations that are causing him difficulty. In some instances that may mean changing the situation rather than trying to change the child.

Sibling Feelings

During a visit from a mom and her two-year-old, I gave the little boy a child’s rocking chair I had rescued from my attic. I also gave the mom who was pregnant, a tiny rocking chair which we jokingly said would be for the new baby. With that, the two-year-old pushed himself into the little chair – too small for him – saying, “No, it’s mine.”

A young boy once told me that his parents explained having a second child by telling him that he was so wonderful it made them want to have another one. He said he never believed them because if he was so wonderful why did they need another one? This seems to sum up the feelings of older siblings toward younger ones. Parents often report their children telling them after the birth of a second child to throw the baby out.

Parents may have a hard time hearing such feelings expressed by their first-born, as if they are to blame for having a second, or are at fault for any difficulty a child is having with a sibling. When pregnant with a second, mothers express concern about taking attention away from the first child, and wonder if they will be able to care for the second as they do the first.

Two children can seem more than twice as many as one. With age and developmental differences between the two, caretaking can present challenges. Next steps such as toilet training, giving up a bottle, or moving from crib to bed may be close in time to the arrival of a sibling, provoking in the older child what may seem like regression – demanding the bottle again, or toileting “accidents.”

Angry feelings toward a younger sibling may become more acute and expressed more directly as a new baby becomes more of a presence, smiling and becoming more physically mobile. That’s when parents become concerned about the older child’s aggressive behavior toward the younger one, such as taking toys away, pushing and acting “mean”. Parents seek to protect the younger one, which can end up seeming to always take the younger one’s side, or turning the older one into the victim who always gets blamed.

At times we have to intervene physically to keep one child from hurting another. But as with other kinds of behavior we don’t like, it is helpful to think about what it means. The fact is that children compete to be the favored one, to get the most attention from Mom and Dad. That is what the rivalry is about.

Parents often want to prove how much attention they actually do give a particular child. But the feelings of children may have little to do with reality, and they express their anger or hostile feelings through their behavior. We can help them with negative behavior by accepting that there is nothing bad about the feeling. Reproaching or punishing them for the behavior without acknowledging and accepting the feeling behind it, gives them the message that the feeling, too, is bad. Yet feelings are acceptable – it’s the behavior that is not.

It is not acceptable to hit your little brother even when you hate him. But children often need help in controlling their impulses when they are angry. If one child is having particular difficulty, he needs help from you to be taken out of the situation. The younger child is not always the innocent victim. But just as he may need comforting, the older child needs your understanding and help.

Angry feelings are part of close relationships. It is the behavior children must learn to control.

Truth or Consequences

A mother reported a conflict with her daughter about the amount of “screen” time that would be allowed each day. The question used to be about TV time but life is more complicated these days with iPads, computers and other “screens” to be watched. Mom knew the child had used up her time in the morning but the girl denied it, saying she had been reading when mom thought she was watching.

The issue had very quickly turned into a dispute about whether the child was telling the truth – which mom was certain she was not – rather than about her wish to watch something more at that time. Mom got caught up in trying to get the child to acknowledge the truth – that she had indeed used up her time.

This is actually a very familiar situation which arises often as children try to talk their way into getting what they want – or what they don’t want to do. “Go brush your teeth.” “I already brushed them.” “It’s time to do your homework.” “I did my homework on the bus.” Children turn into lawyers arguing their case while parents insist on determining the facts of the situation.

Children often feel powerless in the face of parental rules and unilateral decisions. So they deny facts, forcefully assert their innocence, or at times throw themselves at the mercy of the court – namely the parent. Part of being a child is to fudge the truth at times, evade the rules and if all else fails, beg and cry.

It can begin to feel to a parent as though the only alternatives are to enforce your rule in some way or to “give in” to the child. In this case it seemed to mean trying to prove to the child that she was not being truthful in order to justify mom insisting the rule had to be followed. Otherwise she would have to give up the rule.

Actually, the seeming “truth” of the situation was not the point at all. The issue was really that the child wanted to watch something on her iPad at that time. To make a decision about that did not require getting into the question of lying or breaking rules. The mom felt if she didn’t prove the child had used up her time there was no basis for not allowing her to watch then. But mom could have decided to let her watch without reference to the “truth” or the rule.

There is no child-rearing manual that can tell you the “right” thing to do. Parents worry that if they go along with the child they give up their authority for the future. But authority as a parent means making decisions about what is best for your child. There is no rule that applies to every situation.

Parents give up their authority and no longer stay in charge when they become drawn into an argument on the child’s level. Children can wear you down every time. It may seem easier at the moment either to just do what they want or try to be the boss. It is this abdication of real decision making by a parent that leads to the undermining of authority next time around.

Real authority lies in doing what you think best in each situation, even when it is what the child wants. If you make a real decision it is not “giving in.”
Wanting your own way is not a crime.

Children can’t always have what they want – but let’s not get too caught up in arguments about their misdemeanors.


The issue of privacy and social media has become a matter of increasing concern raising questions about the need for legal constraints of some kind. One aspect of this has been whether children are able to appreciate the risks involved in their self-exposure on sites such as Facebook. What seems “cool” now may come back to haunt them later on in college or employment applications.

Of increasing concern to parents, has been children’s exposure to others on the internet, which leaves them open to cyber-bullying, or vulnerable to undesirable, inappropriate approaches from others.

A leading children’s advocacy group has challenged the educational technology software industry to develop national safeguards for the personal data collected about students from kindergarten through high school, to use student data only for educational purposes and not for marketing products to children or their families.

Schools have used digital technologies to collect a great deal of information about students, with the goal of achieving personalized, data-driven education that may improve graduation rates and career prospects. But in reality student assessment software has been used without placing sufficient restrictions on the use of children’s personal details; school districts may share student’s details with vendors who perform institutional functions without notifying parents or getting their consent.

Targeting advertising to children has for some time been a problem for parents, leading to struggles around children’s requests for products that are made to seem so appealing on TV and elsewhere. However, increasingly the concern about privacy for children entails matters of security, protecting them from their own immaturity as well as the commercial motivations and behavior of others.

Now a new book, “Sharenthood,” introduces a new word, sharenting to mean “the publication, transmission, storage, or other uses of private information about children through digital channels by parents, teachers, or other adult caregivers.” The term may refer to parents’ actions or be focused on social media.

The author, Leah A. Plunkett, a law professor and Faculty Associate at the Berkman Klein Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University, is concerned that children today grow up within a circle of trusted adults who routinely share details of their lives through an ever-expanding range of digital tools with an ever-growing number of other people and institutions. Although parents play a uniquely important role, they are not the only grown-ups with their fingers on the tech buttons.

Plunkett points out that adults give up valuable information about children to get devices and services, information then used by tech providers in various profit-oriented ways. It is startling to become aware of the many seemingly harmless things parents share about their children on Facebook and Instagram as social sharing that are actually an invasion of children’s privacy and may impact negatively on their lives later on.

Starting with those first sonograms during pregnancy that some post, to the many behavioral anecdotes that are shared with pleasure or at times concern, parents are unwittingly building a social media profile for a child that may be to his detriment later on. Increasingly, college admission officers and potential employers use google for background checks on individuals. A child’s reputation may have unintentionally been created by images from various earlier stages of development.

Underlying the author’s concern about the negatives of “sharenting,” is her strong belief in her vision of childhood, that “kids and teenagers should have room to play, to mess up, and to grow up better for having done so.” She asks how our children can discover who they are when “adults are tracking them, analyzing them and attempting to decide for them – based on the data we gather – who they are and should become.”

Plunkett raises provocative questions, important for parents and all who care about children to reflect upon.


New Age Childhood

Starting school these days is not your grandmother’s school entry. Preschool is old hat with children now starting school in pre-preschool – some even in baby groups. Many factors brought about this change, among them mothers at work out of the home and consequent changes in family life. With provisions for childcare lagging behind, schools and various kinds of groups for children are filling the gap.

These changes have also brought about a need for children to enter “school” without the presence of a parent or caregiver at younger and younger ages. The problem is that children’s development hasn’t changed – it is the world they live in that has changed and we are trying to help them adjust. An early focus of attention in that adjustment has been the separation process of children from their parents.

Thinking about early separation of children from their parents has been somewhat distorted by the specter of separation anxiety. A developmental step that is part of normal development has become a sign that something is wrong – something to worry about. Infants express stranger anxiety at around eight months of age as they become aware of the difference between mother and others. They may become upset or withdrawn when approached by a “stranger.”

This can also become apparent in the two – three-year-old period as children struggle with the realization that they and mother are separate beings. The behavior that children show when separated from mother is often an expression of anxiety about control over their own impulses. Children at that stage are involved in a struggle between their own wishes and the wishes of their parents. They still need the presence of a parent to reassure themselves about their own behavior.

How will they behave in this group of strangers? Will anyone there know what they want or need? How comfortable are you as an adult walking into a cocktail party or other group of strangers and entering into the mingling or conversations? What a relief to see someone you know. That process is challenging but as adults we have learned how to deal with such situations and have strategies for coping or prevailing. Two-year-old’s are at the start of that learning process.

Programs which are geared to the development of young children understand this. They generally allow for a gradual separation process and/or permit parents to stay longer as needed. As children form relationships with teachers or group leaders, they learn that other adults will also help them and are better able to function in a group setting without a parent or familiar caregiver present.

This process will differ from child to child. One of the side-effects of having your child in a group is comparing the behavior of your child to that of others. However, children differ from each other in all areas of development. Some children talk earlier than others, some are more physically agile. Personalities differ – some children are more outgoing, some more reserved, some more assertive, some children are watchers who learn from observing before doing, while others plunge in.

The same is true of readiness to separate from a parent. This readiness is not a sign of how smart or well-adjusted a child is or how successful a parent is. Often children who seem to separate without any difficulty express the stress they feel in other ways, such as night wakenings or resistance to leaving home in the morning. That, too, is just part of the process and children can move forward with parental understanding and support.

Even children who protest separating at first, separate at last.


It’s that time again – back to school. The start of the school year is a new beginning, for many children a new classroom, a new teacher, for some even a new school. For very young children who are just starting nursery school – or even a pre-nursery group – there will be many new things to learn, for parents, too.

Children may be apprehensive about the start of the new school year – about the unknown and the challenges they may face. Parents of children starting school for the first time have some anxiety about separation; will their child be upset or protest their leaving? “Separation anxiety” seems to be one of these ideas that have become fraught with meaning. Where did this come from and why do parents worry about it?

It is only recently that we put children in groups at younger and younger ages, and then expect them to separate from their mothers or caregivers. In ancient times babies were sent away from home not to return until they were seven – supposedly, the age of reason. But in this age of psychology we presume to know more about where children are at various stages in their development.

As soon as children are put together in groups, we begin to think of it as school and expect them to behave accordingly. But young children are just beginning to develop the skills they will need to get along with other people. They must learn to share, take turns, tolerate frustration and control their impulses, among other things. It is a kind of learning that is very demanding, and children often need to feel the support of familiar and trusted people while they are still getting to know new adult authority figures.

This is a process in which individual children may be in different places and respond differently. The expectations for behavior are often unrealistic for young children and some children may be readier to meet them than others.

Mothers often think that a child’s reaction to separation is a test of their ability as a parent – if your child is having some difficulty it means you did something wrong. If there is no upset at your leaving, it means you are a success. Or the opposite – any difficulty with separation means there is something wrong with your child. Mothers ask me all the time if their children’s protests are “normal”.

A child’s protest in the form of crying or clinging is his way of saying he has some concern about the situation and is not quite ready to deal with it without you. What he needs is some reassurance that these feelings are o.k., that he will be able to master the feelings and the situation and that you are there to help him while he does. Your acceptance and reassurance make the situation he is in less threatening. This is a process which may take more – or less – time.

Despite protests, children are able to master some feelings of anxiety. The challenge for you as a parent is to make a judgment about where your own child is in this process of mastery. Often, a teacher can help you make that judgment by letting you know what happens when you leave.

Working parents may not be able to give as much time as they would like to this process. That is a reality of life which children can learn to live with. This learning may take longer than we would like, but can be helped by understanding and sympathizing with our children’s feelings – as well as our own.


More About Limits

Years ago, at a conference on censorship, the discussion touched on the need to protect children from exposure to certain material – an even more pressing issue in today’s world of the internet and cable television. Margaret Mead, the famous anthropologist, reported that when she was growing up her mother censored Horatio Alger stories because the grammar was bad.

Mead went on to say that she used to read the prohibited material under the quilt at night with a flashlight. Her point was that children will always find a way to subvert adult rules, but that this was far different than a newsstand displaying magazines with sexual material on its covers that children passed on their way to school every day. The distinction she made was that in one instance a parent’s values are made clear, in the other society seemingly gives approval to those kinds of displays.

I thought of this in connection with the question of parents setting limits on children’s behavior. So often the issue becomes one of parental authority, concern about enforcing limits that have been set, how to do this and whether failure to do so will diminish parents’ authority.

Of course, the question becomes more intense when possible safety issues are involved. Little children who are bent on exploration will often reach for that which is beyond their grasp with limited understanding of the dangers parents perceive. Parents may have to intervene physically when young children’s limited impulse control makes attempts at verbal control inadequate.

The situation is more complicated when children get older and may rebel, disagreeing with the parental assessment of danger in what they want to do but are beyond the kind of physical control that was appropriate when small. Parents search for effective responses and often consider the threat of punishments as a means to limit behavior. When children seem undeterred by such threats the situation can escalate with full blown confrontation as a result.

A more familiar outcome often is parents setting limits on children’s wished for plans and children grudgingly seeming to accept the ground rules but then finding ways to circumvent the parental limits. A familiar example is a child being told to call home or return home at a certain time which then doesn’t happen, followed by a range of excuses such as the bus was late, my phone’s battery died, it wasn’t possible to call, etc. etc.

Children’s evasive behavior in response to parental limit setting is part of the normal process of growing up, spreading one’s wings and testing the parameters of independent functioning. Parents may find it hard to start letting go as children get older and children pushing back is part of a process that ultimately leads to independence. It is in this regard that Dr. Mead’s point is relevant.

Through this process children are learning parent’s values even when they seem to be ignoring them. While seeming to rebel, they nevertheless internalize the standards for behavior that are being set and hopefully, at some point those standards will become their own.

Not fully appreciated when children appear to be defiant, is that many times parents are saving children from themselves. Particularly in adolescence, young people can get caught up in a plan with peers about which they themselves feel some anxiety – an activity that seems a little threatening even to them. If parents disapprove and refuse necessary permission, the young person can vent his fury at a parent while feeling relief at being prevented from engaging in a somewhat scary course of action.

Parents can take heart in knowing that “mean” parents can mean safe children.

Getting to Know You

We often have definite ideas about what our children were like as babies but do such ideas match up in any way to their personalities as they develop? We seem to read so much of ourselves or our own histories in our children.

Why do we find it challenging to see our children as their own people separate from ourselves? Mothers carrying babies in their bodies begins a very strong connection. We imagine even before birth what the baby will be like. Sometimes it is hard to shift from the imagined baby to the real baby, since they are rarely the same.

There are genetic connections as well. Children look like a member of the family. They may have similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. Your mother or mother-in-law may say that you or your husband were just like that. It’s easy to get mixed up and think that you and your child are the same person. If we expect that kind of identification and instead a child seems very different, that can become a cause for concern, or of feeling disconnected from one’s child.

We may have childhood memories of not having felt understood by our parents. Sometimes as parents we set about trying to correct whatever we didn’t like in our own growing up. In trying to do that, without realizing it we may repeat the same thing our parents did – namely treating our children as though they are us, correcting our own lives through our children. Or realizing our own ambitions through our children.

What makes it difficult to separate our children from ourselves is that not only do we want the best for our children, but we are responsible for them for many years. Someone said that children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did, but instead as parents we want our children to learn from our experience, to try to keep them from the mistakes we think they are making or about to make.

It is often hard to know when children need to be protected from their own behavior and when to leave them alone to learn from their own mistakes. We don’t try to stop children from walking because they fall down while learning. We pick them up and help them keep going. On the other hand, we do intervene if they are trying to climb way beyond their ability and are likely really to get hurt. It can be hard at times, to make a judgment about which is which.

Perhaps what is most challenging is accepting children’s behavior when it is consistent with who they are. For example, a child who is cautious in social situations a mother may aptly describe as “slow to warm up”. Yet the behavior itself becomes a cause for concern because mom herself was like that and feels it was a handicap. She wants to correct in her child a part of her temperament or personality and has trouble accepting who her child is, rather than who she wants her to be – or not to be.

The same is true for other behavior, such as when children are self-assertive, willful, observers more than participants, or loners rather than joiners. Because children are still learning how to function in the world, they may not always moderate their behavior in ways that serve them well in various situations. As when they were learning to walk, we now need to help them achieve their goals without trying to change who they are.

But first we need to know who they are.