In a conversation with a young adult who is in the process of adjusting to the work world, the subject became doing what you are told, or being asked to do. This young person said he has no trouble being asked to do something as long as he is told the reason for doing it. He then recalled when growing up being told by his parents when he asked why something needed to be done, “Because I said so.” To him, this was an unacceptable response as it was reasonable to want to know why something had to be done.
This raises the question of the role of autonomy, and the degree to which autonomous functioning is possible living in society with other people. The dictionary defines autonomy as being “self-governing, independent.” Autonomy means more than independence in the sense of being able to take care of yourself physically. Self-governing implies being able to take responsibility for yourself and for your own behavior.
The dictionary definition includes the phrase, “subject to its own laws”. This is intended as a reference to independent nations, but it is striking how well this idea could be applied to children, particularly at certain points in their development. It is just at the point that children decide they should be subject to their own laws that conflict can develop between parents and children.
Often two-year-old’s who had been easy to raise and manage, seem all at once to have arrived at a point of asserting their own likes and dislikes, their own ideas of what they want to do and don’t want to do, and their disinterest in their parent’s agenda. It is as if they had decided they should be subject to their own laws, not their parents’ wishes.
This is the behavior of emerging autonomy. All the children’s endowments, both innate and acquired through experience, have come together to produce the assertion of self that often is expressed as defiance of parents. As the butt of such expression – while struggling with the difficulties caused in simple day to day routines by our children’s resistance to our wishes and refusal to cooperate – we may see this as negative behavior.
There may be no better example of the difference in perspective between a still developing child and a parent whose responsibility is the further development of that child. Young children, still guided in some measure by the pleasure principle begin to assert their own wishes in defiance of parental requests. Parents, faced with the tasks and responsibilities of daily life, require children’s cooperation for basic tasks such as getting dressed, coming for meals, bath and bedtime.
Contemporary parents, trying to be democratic rather than authoritarian, often try to reason with a child, explaining often endlessly why what they are requesting is essential and is for the child’s own benefit. All to no avail. The problem is that the child’s motivation is to get to do what he wants to do while the parent is using reason to persuade the child to accede to the parent’s requests.
A child’s “why”, actually asked in the service of non-compliance, may seem like a reasonable question but to the parent who has already tried to answer it reasonably many times over, the only remaining answer is, “because I said so!” Summing up in frustration the whole area of parental responsibility combined with adult experience.
Growing up means finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. Supporting children’s emerging autonomy, while they learn to operate within parental and social boundaries is a major challenge for parents.
What I hear from many mothers is a determination not to be like their own mothers in the way they raise their children. They want to correct what they regard as the mistakes that were made with them, by which they usually mean things they didn’t like as children that then impacted on them as adults.
A mother said, “One of the things that happens after you become a parent is that it puts you back in touch with yourself as a child, and you don’t want to do the things that you didn’t like. But you find that it is a continuous struggle to avoid repeating these things.” What she is saying is that certain interactions with her children bring out feelings in her that are the feelings she had in similar situations when she was a child.
Why is it a struggle to avoid repeating the things she didn’t like? The problem is that her feelings put her back into the position of the long-ago child, while in present day reality she is the mother. As the mother she may identify with her own mother, but as the child, she would like to change what her mother did.
This identifying with your own mother – even when you didn’t like what she did – while also identifying your child with yourself as a child, can be a source of conflict for a parent. At times it can lead to a conscious decision to do the opposite of what your own mother did, while at other times you may not even be aware that this conflict influences your responses to your child. There are some familiar parenting issues that many parents can recognize.
One has to do with freedom from restrictions such as bedtimes, curfews when children are older, even questions about limits on independence as children reach different developmental stages. Often mothers say they want to give their children more freedom than they were allowed. (Children usually feel they should have more freedom from restrictions than they are allowed.) The problem that then arises is that if you don’t want to use your own parent’s rules as a guideline, you have to follow a different course that is uncertain. This can lead to doing the opposite of what your own mother did, and can create its own problems.
Feeling our own mothers were too controlling can translate into giving children choices about everything. For one mother, who felt she was being too controlling about everything her child did, her correction became asking her three your old daughter what she wanted to wear, what she wanted to eat, or what to order in a restaurant. The mother thought this would help her child feel more involved, so that she wouldn’t feel as controlled as she, the mother, had.
In trying to correct things from our own childhood we actually play out an old conflict in search of a new ending. As a child we rebelled – or wanted to rebel – against our mothers, and now as a parent, without realizing it, we are continuing the rebellion. The trouble is that in reliving an old mother-child relationship you are turned back not only into the child you were, but the mother you had. As your mother, you can only do what she did. As the child, you are still rebelling. This is the struggle to which the mother quoted earlier was referring.
The real struggle, is to give up being either the child we were, or the mother we had. The task if to create a new mother-child relationship based on who our child really is, and on our adult selves as mothers.
Life seems to consist of taking developmental steps. The significant theories and the thinkers whose psychological theories are most often referred to, all use unfolding development as the context for understanding behavior.
Freud proposed that human personality development in childhood takes place in psychosexual stages. Sexual energy, or libido, by which he meant all pleasurable activity and thoughts, is discharged as we mature biologically in different ways and through different parts of the body.
Freud believed the first five years of life are critical in the formation of adult personality. Libidinal wishes for gratification must be directed into socially acceptable channels setting up a conflict that must be resolved before an individual can successfully advance to the next stage.
Erik Erikson, an ego psychologist who expanded on Freud’s theories, also believed that personality developed in a series of stages. His theory, however, centered on psychosocial rather than psychosexual development, the impact of social experience across the whole lifespan, how social interaction and relationships play a role in the development and growth of human beings.
Jerome Kagan, a psychologist and researcher who has written extensively on the nature of the child, differs in significant ways from earlier theorists. He believed that children are very adaptable and that their biology promotes a regular developmental progression. He questioned the belief that adult personality was determined by childhood experience alone, arguing against what he called “infant determinism,” the widespread belief that experiences and parenting during the first three years of a child’s life are the most important determinants of adult personality.
Gail Sheehy, the writer who contributed the idea of passages, was a social commentator rather than a psychologist or researcher. Her widely read book, PASSAGES: Predictable Crisis of Adult Life, refers to the transitions that people make between years of relative stability in their adult lives. The stages of children’s lives had been well known, but little had been written earlier about how adults develop.
Sheehy describes four predictable passages of adulthood drawn from in-depth interviews, concluding that all adults must navigate the same passages, either failing and becoming life’s losers, or succeeding and leading more fulfilling lives. Adults cannot skip a passage, jumping from a disturbed late adolescence to a fulfilled midlife.
Whichever theory you follow, taking steps in development can mean new challenges and satisfactions. It also can mean giving up or letting go of earlier gratifications. In a way this is true throughout life as hopefully we continue to grow as well as get older. The first steps in this process is true of a baby’s first steps. When you start to walk you don’t get carried as much. But you have the pleasure that comes from finding you can move on your own.
Starting school is a step away from parents, bringing new expectations. Children have some anxiety about taking this step having not yet fully mastered new skills and not fully confident that they will meet the expectations of new situations.
Adults might have such feelings starting a new job, new boss, new colleagues. As adults we don’t cry or try to leave – although we might want to. Maturity has given us tools with which to adapt and master new situations.
Anxiety experienced at all stages may be an expression of apprehension about our ability to perform as expected. Recently, many people express the feeling that a major decision or life change is imminent. Are these life passages that we are confronting or rather the suddenness of the transition as we emerge from the pandemic?
There are rewards and losses in these passages. Hopefully, the rewards can outweigh the losses.
Life itself is a process of transitions, beginning with those of moving through and mastering the developmental steps from infancy to adulthood. Yet the transitions required by the events of the last two years have demanded new and previously untested abilities of adaptation. All the familiar patterns of adjustment were interrupted by the advent of the pandemic, involving not only disruption but fear of the unknown and the loss of familiar sources of reassurance.
As parents, we are responsible for our children. That means we are trying to teach them how to live in the world – a world that has schedules, and often the need to comply with others’ requests that we may not like. Hopefully, as adults we have learned those lessons while growth and maturation have given us the ability to carry them out. Yet, we too, have been confronted with a changed world that has challenged our capacity for adaptation.
Transitions are hard – especially for young children. They often resist just moving from one activity to another, even when the change is to something they like doing. They as yet do not have the tools they need to be flexible moving from one thing to another. They get stuck in the moment – even a bad moment, as parents can attest trying to move children out of such a moment. They don’t yet have our sense of time or the ability to be future oriented.
Parental requests feel like an intrusion. It is not only that what we are asking them to do next doesn’t seem relevant, but it is also their frustration at having to leave something that is pleasurable. The frustration involved in making transitions is something they still haven’t mastered. Then at the point in development at which their wish for autonomy comes into it, they begin to rebel against being told what to do – being “bossed”.
Young children also have trouble calling up within themselves experiences or feelings they are not having at that moment. If they are disappointed, angry, or sad, that becomes the totality of what life is all about. It seems impossible that they will get over anything that is happening, or that they are feeling. They want to have and do what brings them pleasure and are not yet ready to defer, or give up what they want, in the service of a larger goal. It is also hard to wait for what they want, or to imagine that there will be other times of fun in the future. The concept of time is abstract – compared to now.
For these reasons, children often seem to regress whenever there is a significant change in their lives, such as a parent’s absence or even after an illness. The seeming regression reflects the fact that developmental steps are not yet firmly in place and are easily interrupted by changes in familiar routines and daily patterns of behavior.
Yet the changes that have disrupted all our lives over the past months may have brought about a regression in adults, too, in parents as well as children. We continue to be challenged by ongoing changes such as the need for masks and social distancing and now the relaxation of those rules. Many adults resisted complying with such rules initially and now find themselves resisting the interruption of adjustments that were difficult to make initially with hard-won compliance.
As we process the losses we have experienced during this time, school, work, graduations, weddings, children about to leave for college, perhaps we can gain a deeper understanding of the transitions challenging children just to grow up.
Young children are known to cry out at night, awakened from sleep by a ghost under the bed, or in the closet, who scares them and makes a parent’s protective presence necessary. Sometimes, a parent looking under the bed and reassuring the youngster that the ghost is now gone, will be sufficient for sleep to return. At other times, a parent’s continued presence may be needed.
Selma Fraiberg, social worker, psychoanalyst, and author of The Magic Years, gives us insight into the minds of young children, when fantasy is more developed than logic and children believe that their thoughts and behavior make things happen in the outside world. In their magical thinking their thoughts, behavior, and feelings are responsible for events around them. As we know, children often have angry thoughts and wishes about their parents, who often are frustrating and mean in their eyes. Then if a parent becomes ill, a child may imagine that his thoughts or wishes were responsible.
The ghosts and monsters that children see are stand-ins for their own frightening thoughts, feelings and impulses. They are frightening because in children’s magical thinking they are responsible for the bad things that happen. And sometimes they are responsible, as when children are punished for “bad” behavior. The struggle with these monsters and ghosts reflects children’s inner struggle with their own forbidden wishes and the untamed impulses that often lead to unacceptable behavior.
In her later work, Fraiberg wrote about other ghosts in the nursery. These “ghosts in the nursery” are things we experienced when we ourselves were children, which sometimes pop up to haunt us when we become parents. Those ghosts may have to do with relationships we had with our own parents, or things about ourselves that may have caused us difficulty. Without realizing it, those old ghosts can influence the way we see our own children and the way we interact with them.
Most of us as parents can think of moments interacting with our children when we suddenly thought we sounded just like our mothers, or were scolding our children in just the way we didn’t like when our parents scolded us. Often these ghosts turn up when something in a child’s behavior or development concerns us, such as times when a child is especially active, or rebellious, or otherwise difficult to handle.
We’re used to comparisons made about physical traits: he has his father’s eyes, she has her mother’s hair. But seeing a child’s behavior or personality traits through the lens of the parents’ childhood can interfere with our ability to know who our child really is himself or herself. Seeing certain things in our child that we identify with ourselves at times makes us feel proud. On the other hand, if it is something we don’t like about ourselves – or our mate – it can lead us to misread its significance for the child, and to respond in negative ways.
Even when strong, loving bonds exist between parents and children, ghosts as intruders from the parental past may break through and a parent and child may find themselves reenacting a scene from another time with another set of characters.
Fraiberg was interested in understanding more about those situations in which ghosts imperil relationships. Her own work pointed to the idea that it was the pain experienced in the past that was too painful to confront, making it impossible for a parent to identify with the feelings of a young child,
Ghost moments are familiar to all of us, but fortunately children are resilient and most ghosts don’t threaten the relationships that exist.
Research videos can raise some questions. The most recent one I saw had to do with the reaction of young children separating from their mothers. This is an issue that at times looms large, such as when children start school. Or even earlier when left with a baby sitter. When children react with major protests this sometimes gets labeled separation anxiety – perhaps creating parental anxiety as well.
The issue of separation brings up questions about attachment. When do infants begin to show attachment to a specific caregiver? How to they behave if that caregiver does not respond? How significant is this for later development? The British psychologist John Bowlby, played a major role in thinking about these questions as well as what the basis is for attachment behavior.
A major theory early on about the basis for attachment in infants was as a response to the survival need to be fed. Babies became attached to the feeding caregiver – at that time the mother – who was responsive to its needs. Bowlby rejected that formulation and instead wrote of a lasting psychological connectedness between human beings who have an innate need to form an attachment.
Bowlby’s theories about attachment were developed further by Mary Ainsworth, a developmental psychologist whose work included an elaboration of various types of attachment behavior. She developed a method called strange situation assessment, which describe categories of responses by children to being left by their parent with a stranger.
Theories about attachment have more recently been incorporated into something called Attachment Parenting, a parenting philosophy that proposes methods aiming to promote the attachment of parent and infant not only by maximal parental empathy and responsiveness but also by continuous bodily closeness and touch. This seems more like a digression from Bowlby and Ainsworth rather than a continuation of their work.
Ainsworth’s Strange Situation Assessment has been used by numerous researchers to explore or refine and elaborate on her major categories, which she described as secure, anxious-avoidant, and anxious-resistant. These refer to the behavior of young children left temporarily with a stranger upon reuniting with mother. The research video referred to above is such an example.
The categories used in the assessment were intended to describe styles of attachment, or the nature of attachment behavior. However, inevitably value judgements have been made, and it often becomes a matter of “secure attachment” being the good attachment with the others being problematic.
As has been the case with other kinds of research, the secure attachment is attributed to sensitive, responsive behavior by the mother. In other words, the “good” mother. Some theorists have disagreed with that interpretation and have seen attachment behavior determined by a child’s temperament or personality.
A broader interactive interpretation expands on that by positing that a pattern of behavior evolves between mother and child based on a child’s responses to which the mother reacts.
In the video referred to, it is interesting to note the role of the researcher who directs the scene. After the stranger has been in the room a short while the mother is directed to leave. She does so abruptly, without a word to the child in preparation. The child notices almost immediately and erupts in crying protest.
It is worth considering the possibility that the mother’s departure does not reflect her usual behavior upon taking leave of her child. In other words, perhaps it is the nature of the research set-up rather than the mother’s typical mode of response that elicits behavior from the child that fits one of the attachment style categories.
Does research find ways to prove its point?
Recently I watched an old research video involving a visual cliff. The set-up is a specially constructed table with what appears to be a glass top covering a patterned cloth. Half way across, the patterned cloth drops to the bottom although the solid top is actually still there. The illusion created visually is that of a cliff, or dangerous drop.
A crawling baby is placed on top of the table as the mother sitting opposite looks on. The baby starts crawling toward the mother but stops when reaching the “cliff” and looks questioningly at the mother. As instructed by the researcher the mother gets a horrified look on her face as though signifying danger at which point the baby starts crawling back.
In a variation of the research, when the baby reaches the cliff, mom smiles encouragingly in approval and the baby continues to crawl forward. The point of both examples is to show not only the baby’s capacity for depth perception, but significantly the significance of the mother’s reaction in determining the baby’s behavior.
I wondered if they ever had a baby who despite the mother’s fearful reaction proceeded to crawl the rest of the way. I was remembering my son when little plopping down on the sidewalk while we were walking, refusing to take another step. Despite cajoling and starting to walk on myself, he was undaunted, refusing to budge no matter how far ahead I might walk.
Recounting this to my adult son now a parent himself, he asked if that behavior was willful or stubborn. I said it might have felt that way to a mother needing to move along, but in light of his future personality development it seems more like self-assertion.
So much research and theorizing about development has focused on the impact of mothers’ attitudes and responses on children’s behavior. This was especially true a generation ago when the influence of psychoanalytic theory on child-rearing was predominant. These days advice for parents on social media is filled with caution about the damage to be inflicted by mothers not doing things the recommended “right” way.
What gets left out is the fact that a child is a partner in his or her development. A famous psychiatrist used to talk about visiting newborns in the hospital nursery and being able to identify individual personalities. He spoke about the “executive” baby who seemed to manage the nurses’ attention, getting what he wanted.
The point is that babies do arrive with a distinct temperament or personality that influences their behavior and to which parents respond. Some babies are self-soothers, able to comfort themselves if they awake during the night. Others may be fussy, crying more readily, seemingly needing less sleep and more attention. It is easy to see that during infancy, the sleepy, more placid babies are easier to care for – especially for parents needing a good night’s sleep.
In the same way, a child’s innate temperament expresses itself at various points along the way in development. It’s not just that some children are easier to care for, but also that some personalities may better match a parent’s. To be successful, a parent may need to modify her expectations, or adjust her responses to the personality characteristics of her child.
It would be interesting to see if there might be a baby in the research experiment whose impulse to explore might be stronger than the need for mother’s approval at that point, leading her to crawl beyond the visual cliff.
Children are partners in their development. They influence parents’ responses, which then in turn, influence them.
Despite the educational interruptions brought about by the pandemic, another school year will soon be ending. For many current high school seniors this will mean moving on to college. It also means having to decide on next steps without the opportunity for visits to schools as part of the decision-making process. It also entails a next step in the separation process between parents and children.
This process may also involve differences in the way parents see what is best for their children as contrasted to children’s own ideas about their wants and needs; in some ways a continuation of a process that begins early on. Mothers have definite ideas about what their children were like as babies and will describe them as easy, difficult, active, having a mind of their own and so on. Do such descriptions match up to their personalities as they develop?
There are many reasons that 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. There are genetic connections as well. Children look like this or that member of the family. Perhaps similar personality characteristics or behavioral traits. As development progresses it’s easy to get mixed up and think that you and your child are the same person.
We ourselves 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 and without realizing it we may repeat the same thing our parents did – treating our children as though they are us, fixing our own lives or realizing our own ambitions through our children.
What makes it difficult is that not only do we want the best for our children, but we are responsible for them for many years. Children are entitled to make their own mistakes, just as we did, but it is understandable that 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. But 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 judge about which is which.
Perhaps what is most challenging is not so much understanding the personalities of our children when they are young, but accepting their behavior when it is consistent with who they are. A child who is cautious in social situations, “slow to warm up,” may become a cause for concern if mom was like that and feels it was a handicap. Wanting to correct in her child a part of her temperament or personality, she has trouble accepting who her child is, rather than who she wants her 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 need to help them achieve their goals without trying to change who they are.
How early in their development are children able to identify with the feelings of others? What we think of as empathy has been receiving considerable attention these days. The widespread experience of loss caused by the pandemic has been added to by recent loss due to racial violence. Notice has been taken of President Biden’s ability to be empathic toward others who have experienced loss.
Teaching children to consider the feelings of others is a concern of parents. Children are asked if they strike out at someone, “How do you think that made her feel?” Sometimes a parent who has been hit may do the same to her child, with the idea of showing him what it feels like. Their idea behind these responses is to help a child identify with what someone else is experiencing.
There has long been an interest in determining how early in life children are capable of empathy – the ability to mentally enter into the feelings of another person. Observing two and three-year-old children in groups, it is fascinating to watch their faces while listening to a story. They register not only the emotional content of the story but also the emotions projected by the teacher as she is reading.
Impressive is how often one can see a child attempt to comfort another child who is distressed, such as taking a toy over to a child who is crying and offering it to her. Sometimes a child will put his arm around another child who is upset. At times an entire class seems transfixed by a child who is very upset, and the teacher needs to help the children process what is happening.
If one child begins to cry after her parent has left, her reaction seems contagious as one child after another begins to cry, too. In such situations, the first child’s crying arouses in the others feelings of loss at separation that are still only just below the surface. The crying of others is not so much identification with the first child as the arousal of similar feelings of their own – a step toward empathy.
In a video made by a researcher, a little boy is playing with a workbench toy hammering pegs through a hole, helped by his mother holding the bench steady. Instructed by the researcher, the mom pretends that the child has hit her finger with the hammer and cries out in pain. At first laughing, the child again tries to hit her finger with the hammer. When Mom responds with anger, he looks confused and worried and tries unsuccessfully to resume the play. Finally, he kisses her finger and they make up. The child’s first reaction is not at all an uncommon one.
What happens in such a situation is that a child is often unclear about what has happened to produce the response that follows. He repeats the event in order to try to figure it out. In this case the child was not sure whether or not this was part of the play with his Mom. Were they having fun?
In situations like this we may interpret the child’s behavior as anger or aggression, when in fact it may be a question: “What happened?’. Often what is needed is to clarify with your child what he did that caused the response he got.
The roots for developing empathy. seem clearly to be there from a very young age. As with other areas of development, learning plays a big part, and parents play a big part in the teaching that goes with it.
Over this past abnormal year shaped by the Covid pandemic, those at all stages of the life cycle have felt the impact of the changes that brought loss in many forms. Necessary safety restrictions have kept children out of school, parents out of work, and an end to usual socialization and recreational activities.
There has been much discussion about the effect this has had, and is having on various segments of the population. Much has already been written about mothers carrying the brunt of life changes in the Covid era, forced out of work due to child-care responsibilities or attempting to work remotely while supervising children’s remote education in addition to all other household responsibilities.
Less has been said about adolescents and young adults, except in connection to college applications and the infection spread on college campuses. Yet adolescence and adolescents have at times played a major role in effecting cultural change in society.
Erik Erikson, the renowned developmental psychologist and psychoanalyst described adolescence as the fifth psychosocial stage of development, playing an essential role in developing a sense of self and personal identity which continues to influence behavior and development for the rest of a person’s life. He wrote that in adolescence all continuities relied on earlier are questioned again because of a rapidity of body growth and the new addition of genital maturity. Faced with this physiological revolution within them, “young people are now primarily concerned with attempts at consolidating their social roles.”
Erikson also pointed out that the long childhood of our species, exposes adults to the temptation of thoughtlessly exploiting the child’s dependence. “.. we make them the victims of tensions which we will not, or dare not, correct in ourselves or our surroundings.” Adolescence has been known as a time of rebellion and protest and it is in the attempt to correct their perceptions of adult failings that some are making their mark.
In recent years note has been taken of several young people such as David Hogg, the then high school senior caught in the Parkland, Florida school shooting who was saved by hiding in a closet. Using his cell phone to record the scene, he interviewed the other students hiding in the closet to leave a record in the event that they did not survive the shooting. Hogg emerged as a leader in gun violence protests, talked to the media to voice his opinion on gun control and called on elected officials to pass gun control measures.
Another example is Greta Thumberg, a sixteen-year- old from Stockholm, Sweden nominated for a Nobel prize after inspiring an international movement to fight climate change. Her voice is heard regularly in protests and ongoing public attention being paid to this issue.
It is also interesting to note the attention now in the culture at large to former protest movements and rebellions. Figuring in the recent Golden Globes award and promoted for an Oscar is the current film, “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the seven defendants who were accused of conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago. All were protesting against the country’s participation in the Vietnam War.
From a developmental point of view, identity refers to all of the beliefs, ideals and values that help shape and guide a person’s behavior. Despite the pressures of the pandemic, many young people are finding their identity in protests and movements that may seem to adults like rebellion.
Hopefully, in establishing their own identity they will ultimately both live by society’s standards and expectations, and perhaps change them for the better.