What do we mean by autonomy? The dictionary defines autonomy as being “self-governing, independent.” But 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”. Intended as a reference to independent nations, 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.
Parents often express concern about changes in their children’s behavior. Sweet, lovable children seem to turn overnight into willful, defiant little people. These children, usually two-year-old’s who had been easy to raise and manage, seemed all at once to have arrived at a point of asserting their own likes and dislikes, their own ideas of what they wanted to do and didn’t want to do, and their disinterest in their parent’s agenda. In short , they had decided they should be subject to their own laws, not their parents’ wishes.
This mysterious behavior 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 to be nipped in the bud.
Actually, there is a positive side to this emerging autonomy. Children’s increasing language skills, perception, memory, intelligence and mobility are all operating now to help them gain mastery of their environment. The potential for such mastery has been there from birth. Infant research in recent years has shown how even newborns with little capacity for mobility exercise preferences with regard to sensations they seek and perceptions they form. They are able to turn their heads from side to side and will turn to mother’s voice in preference to some other voice. They also prefer a human voice over other sounds.
Observing in an infant program, I watched as a mom put her baby down in one spot and then went across the room to hang up her coat. Like a shot, the baby took off crawling toward her mom. But it was not her mom she was after. She had spotted mom’s tote bag on the floor and began pulling things out seeming to be looking for something she knew was in there.
One can see toddlers’ pleasure in accomplishing simple tasks, such as throwing their paper juice cups into a waste basket. Two-year-old’s love to help the teachers carry blocks to be put away, or make choices about activities to pursue. Developing language skills play a big role in helping children gain mastery of their environment and pleasure in the feeling of mastery.
An important part of growing up is finding a balance between one’s own desires and the need to respond to the expectations of parents and then others. In this process children test out their own voices and assert their own wills. The kind of response they get can help determine how confident they will come to feel in their own point of view, their own values and their own ideals.
Children talk back in the process of learning to speak up. Our challenge as parents is to help our children express themselves, support their emerging autonomy, yet learn to operate within parental and social boundaries.
Fans of Gilbert and Sullivan may recall a lyric that says, “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.” The message here appears to be that the meaning of things may not always be on the surface. We may have to look at, or hear things in a different or deeper way, to understand what is meant by what is said or done.
This may be a useful way to think about children’s behavior. As parents, we look for meaning in our children’s behavior before they communicate verbally. We read the cries of babies, interpreting them to mean the baby is hungry, tired, or needs a diaper change. As they grow, their behavioral communications may become more complicated, conveying a wider range of feelings and wishes.
The challenge to us as parents is to consider the motives underlying our children’s behavior and emotional experience while taking into consideration a child’s perspective. Our ability to understand the world from a child’s, rather than from an adult point of view, is what enables us to respond in a more sensitive way to our children.
Some years ago, I was leading a group of parents whose children had little or delayed language and it was interesting to find that in getting to know the children it was possible to understand what they were communicating through their behavior. But just as speech itself can sometimes get garbled, the behavioral communications of these children were often indirect and not immediately clear.
At times, parents did understand what certain behaviors meant, and were able to respond to the children in meaningful ways. At other times, when a child’s behavior was provocative, or in some way unacceptable, the parent involved would read a negative meaning in the behavior. The behavior was seen as a sign of the child’s lack of comprehension or some other deficit of development. This would leave the parent feeling hopeless about knowing how to respond in a meaningful way.
A powerful example of this was a child whose behavior led his mother to believe that she had no meaning to him and, therefore, had no ability to influence his behavior. He often would scratch her and she felt helpless to stop this behavior. He would come into the room where the mother’s group was meeting and stand patiently behind his mother’s chair.
His mother viewed this as misbehavior and tried to order him back to the nursery school room. The other mothers, however, saw this as her child trying to be close to her and challenged her perception of his behavior. Once she could understand his behavior in a different way, it opened to her the possibility of responding to him in a way that would be more meaningful. Before too long, the child no longer needed to scratch her to get her to respond to him.
Although this example is of a child with serious communication problems whose communications were, therefore, more difficult to understand, it actually points to a pitfall that exists for all parents at times. When a child behaves in a way that we don’t like, or embarrasses us, our own emotional reactions can get in the way of seeing the behavior as a communication. Then our response becomes one to our own feelings rather than to what a child’s behavior is actually saying.
Understanding a child’s behavior as his or her means of communication is empowering to parents. Most parents are good at it and are already doing it. The next step is providing the words a child can use the next time a similar situation arises.
More and more attention is being paid to the dangers of social media in general but particularly to its effect on children. Initially portrayed as a means of connecting people and bringing them together, the destructive use of these media in driving people apart has become apparent. The prevalence of fake news has been disruptive in elections and in maintaining a common understanding of basic facts.
The impact of technology on children has been discussed for a while now, the question having been raised as to whether its effect is good or bad. One area of research has been on how technology affects the way the architecture of children’s brains actually develops.
Another part of the discussion speaks to the fact that children’s interpersonal interactions are more and more becoming inter-technology interactions. The question asked is whether they will lose the capacity to relate to real people and things having been raised on interactions with a screen.
Now, however, the new concern expressed in experiments involving journalist and educators, is whether it is possible to teach students how to spot junk information online as part of a program of media literacy. France is coordinating one of the world’s largest media and literacy efforts and the French government has increased funding for courses about the downsides of the online world. Teachers and educational professionals receive government training on the subject, and in some places young adults are required to complete an internet literacy course to receive welfare benefits.
The French Education Ministry is adding an elective high school media course on the internet and the media to the national curriculum making it available to thousands of students. The head of the main program coordinating the effort says the younger you start the better and is pushing for more media education as a vital need.
Internet literacy programs are also growing outside of France such as the News Literacy Project in the United States, but these are funded by foundations and companies like Facebook and Google. European Union officials have called on countries in the bloc to expand education programs as part of a push against misinformation and election interference.
In this country, there has been growing awareness of the degree to which young people obtain their knowledge of the news from social media, with limited understanding of the validity of what they take in. There seems to be minimal attention given in school to discussion of current events. Students have noted that teachers stay away from anything that might be controversial and give the impression, whether accurate or not, that such discussion is not permissible.
France’s centralized strategy is said to be unique and Ms. Laffont, a French journalist has developed a program to teach students about journalism, social media and internet misinformation. Keeping lessons simple she incorporates Twitter and YouTube, sharing links to websites that students can use as references to check basic facts. She hopes that explaining the basics of how journalists gather and confirm facts may help reverse some students’ mistrust of the media, as well as help them develop a more critical eye for what they see online.
France appears to be ahead of many countries in seeing the need for expanded media and internet literacy. Efforts have been given new urgency after the most recent American and French presidential elections were targeted by Russian misinformation campaigns with misleading posts or videos that were shared thousands of times.
The new world of technology is here to stay and it is one in which our children will be required to function. Can we prepare them to do so?
Mothers matter whether they are stay-at-home mothers or working outside the home mothers. Yet an ongoing controversy flares up periodically about who is truly a Mother – capital M. This speaks to the traditional idea that mothers are meant to be home caring for their children and that children can only thrive with a mother’s care.
This embedded cultural ideal ignores the historical reality that mother care in its modern form only came into being during the industrial revolution with its new division of labor – men working out of the home to support the family, women as homemakers caring for the children. During the second World War, with men in uniform fighting for the country, countless women were employed while maintaining their roles caring for home and children.
Numerous factors have contributed to the discussion/argument about what children need and what makes a good mother. The issue has gained in intensity as women increasingly have become employed outside the home and rages periodically in response to the decision of some women either to be, or return to being, stay-at-home mothers.
An article by writer Caroline Hamilton Langerman, describing herself as miserable after becoming a stay-at-home mom, provoked considerable response, much of it critical. Her description of the neediness of young children for actual physical care is off-putting, creating in her a feeling of desperation at constantly being needed.
Ms Langerman reports that she became a stay-at-home mother for herself, not for her children and describes a feeling of martyrdom. Her fantasy of the life she gave up and her negative rendering of her current life nevertheless leads her to imagine there would be a positive outcome to her decision.
Criticism has been offered of her somewhat dramatized portrayal of what it is like caring for young children. Although overwhelming to the writer, others have a different perspective on the behavior cited. Yet most would agree that caring for young children is a demanding job requiring continuous response to the needs of another too young to be responsive to one’s own needs. Most mothers would also agree that two is more than twice as many as one.
Another feeling described by the writer is that of having lost herself. This is a sense well recognized by mothers of young children, especially new mothers. Psychiatrist Daniel Stern describes what he calls, “The Motherhood Constellation”, a period which for new mothers determines a new set of actions, sensibilities, fantasies, fears and wishes: can she maintain the life and growth of the baby, can she relate to the baby to assure the baby’s development, can she maintain the necessary support system, can she transform her self-identity to permit these functions.
Dr. Stern points out that preoccupation with these questions varies individually in length of time but most mothers will recognize the self-identity question. Although new mothers are biologically and emotionally invested in caring for their babies, the period of primary preoccupation diminishes. Old interests and new interests assert themselves, in many instances leading to a wish or need to re-enter a professional or work life.
At the same time, mothers do not lose their concern for the relationship with their child and assuring his growth and development. It is the need and wish to maintain several identities that create the conflict about being a stay-at-home or working outside the home mother. The sense of loss of whatever is given up and the need to justify a decision made for oneself, has led to criticism of those who decide on an opposite course.
The fact is, mothers matter to their children whichever course they follow.
Are children today being overdiagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder? The rate of the diagnosis has almost doubled in the last twenty years with considerable variation in the diagnosis across states.
How is this to be explained? Does the reported increase reflect a real change in the behavior of children these days as compared to previous generations or do other factors enter into the changing statistics? This diagnosis is made based on the perceptions and reports of parents and teachers. Although psychiatric and psychological examinations are also part of the process, often children whose behavior seems to be of concern in group situations, like school, do very well in one-on-one visits with an examiner.
Recently, in a conversation with my 20-something grandson he referred to himself as an ADHD. Asked why he said that, he answered he had been given that diagnosis. Did he agree with the diagnosis? Actually, he thinks he has outgrown the hyperactivity part but agrees that he has an attention deficit based on his difficulty focusing and distractibility. His final evidence is that coffee helps him concentrate instead of making him jittery, this paradoxical reaction confirming in his mind that he has an AD disorder.
It was interesting to hear this given that there is a large subjective element in this diagnosis. Of course, at his age and developmental stage he is able to reflect upon his own behavior and apparently has also done some research on the diagnosis. Young children given the diagnosis are not participants in the perceptions and expectations of parents and teachers – or their tolerance level for behavior.
When does active become hyperactive? When does restlessness, become an attention deficit? What is the tolerance level of a particular parent or teacher? What are their expectations for behavior? Numerous factors in the world of education have had an impact on the answers to these questions.
Large classes make individual attention difficult, leading to a greater demand for compliance and conformity on the part of teachers. Teacher evaluations based on student success can mean less tolerance for a student who has difficulty keeping up with the class.
Children attend groups at younger ages and judgments are often made of their behavior in relation to expectations that exist for appropriate school behavior. Functioning in a group requires skills that young children have not yet developed or are still developing. Development of these skills is a process that takes place over time and proceeds at a different pace for different children. Not all children of the same chronological age are at the same place in their development.
When it comes to activity level there is great variation in young children. Sitting at attention in a circle or at a table or desk can be very challenging for some children. As they go forward in school, this may become a significant factor in their readiness to attend in the manner a teacher may require or wish for.
These factors are significant in light of recent studies showing a correlation between an ADHD diagnosis and birthdate. School entry has a cutoff date in September. Those children born in August become the youngest in the class while the September children who just miss the cutoff become the oldest.
The significance of being the youngest in the class is striking to an observer. Often, when concern is expressed about the behavior of a particular child, it emerges that the child is the youngest in the class. Behavior that may seem deviant in an older child can be developmentally appropriate in a younger child. Those extra months of development make a big difference.
One more factor to consider before applying the ADHD label.
Women today have many more choices than did earlier generations; whether to work or pursue a career, if and when to have a baby, whether to be a stay-at-home mom or to work outside the home, and the kind of child-care to pick if they work. So many choices – or so it seems.
Choice was meant to be liberating. It became the mantra of an earlier generation in the woman’s movement. But choice means making a choice, having to choose within the limits imposed by reality. Choice turns out to be not always as liberating and empowering as everyone had hoped. Choice seems to bring with it many conflicts, both internal and external.
Many women are struggling to meet the competing demands made of them. The most difficult balancing act has become the one between family life and work. Men, as well as women, trying to find that balance have found that the work world is such that getting ahead – even staying in place – does not permit giving the consideration they would like to family life.
Even the choice to work is in itself not always a choice. Economic reality is such that the need for dual incomes has become a fact of life. Yet many choices are involved in making that decision, such as where people want to live, what kind of education they choose for their children, what material benefits are important to them. What one values becomes a major issue in the choices made.
But the conflict that has arisen for many women in trying to decide whether to work outside the home, has to do with feelings within themselves. Individual care, and especially mother care, has long been idealized in our culture. We’ve all been exposed to these beliefs and they permeate our feelings. We fall in love with our babies and are loathe to turn them over to someone else’s care. That doesn’t mean they can’t do well without our being there 24/7. It means that we feel that they won’t, and start to feel guilty if we are not there.
These feelings often lead mothers to feel they must give every available hour they are not at work to their children. Not only the realistic demands of work and family, but the kinds of demands they make of themselves can become overwhelming, demands stemming from an unrealistic picture of children’s needs. In many cases, when financially possible this has led to a decision to give up one’s work life.
Everyone tries to make the decision that is best for her own situation, but too often what propels such decisions are not just the reality factors, but the conflicted feelings that are stirred up by the choices involved. Conflict within ourselves creates the feeling that something is wrong, or we wouldn’t feel this way. We want to rid ourselves of this feeling that causes anxiety, and think that the right decision would take care of it.
As mothers and citizens, there are things that we can work to change, such as better and more available child-care, more parent-friendly conditions in the work place. But conflicted feelings are always going to be with us. They are part of life, because hopefully we have all learned, nothing is perfect. We may choose one thing over another, but that doesn’t mean the conflict will be resolved. Instead, we have to learn how to live with contradictory needs and wishes – just as our children do.
Choice can be a good thing – as long as we remember that choosing something almost always means also giving something up.
During a meeting with the mother of a preschooler she received a call on her cellphone. Looking worried she recognized the number as that of the director of her son’s school and immediately assumed this meant something bad had happened. She explained that her son had been having difficulties with impulse control and questions were being raised about attention and hyperactivity disorder.
Such concerns have been raised with increasing frequency in recent years. Has there really been an increase in these disorders or are there other factors leading to an increase in the diagnosis being made? In fact, there is a large subjective element in this diagnosis. When does active become hyperactive? When does a high activity level, or restlessness, become an attention deficit? What is the tolerance level of a particular parent or teacher? What are the expectations for behavior of the children about whom there is concern?
While it is important to acknowledge that there are children who are clearly having a hard time managing their bodies or their behavior and do not seem able to meet appropriate expectations, there are numerous factors that have blurred the answer to the questions raised above.
One factor certainly, is the pressure on teachers to meet designated requirements in their classrooms for achievement standards that ultimately relate to funding for schools and often to their own personal advancement as well. Large classes make individual attention difficult and this leads to a greater demand for compliance and conformity.
Another factor is that in recent years children attend groups at younger and younger ages. Once children are in a group – no matter how young they are – there is a tendency for adults to think of them as being in school. Judgments are often made of their behavior in relation to expectations that exist for appropriate school behavior. But functioning in a group requires skills that young children have not yet developed or are still developing, like impulse control, frustration tolerance, separating from caregivers, turn-taking, and most of all acquiring language with which to express needs and feelings.
The development of these skills is a process that takes place over time and proceeds at a different pace for different children. As a consequence, not all children of the same chronological age are at the same place in their development. Unfortunately, this fact of a developmental range within any group of children has been lost, leading adult expectations for behavior to be based on a misleading standard of norms.
Particularly when it comes to activity level there is great variation in young children. Motor activity plays an important role in the early years as children gain increasing mastery of their bodies and of their environment. Sitting at attention in a circle or at a table or desk can be very challenging for some children. As they go forward in school, this may become a significant factor in their readiness to attend in the manner a teacher may require or wish for. It is here that a teacher’s ability to allow for such variation plays an important role.
Variations in development in the context of school expectations is challenging for parents as well as children. Professional and work commitments for mothers as well as fathers have led to a greater reliance on early group child care and school-based programs. The existence of early intervention while desirable has also led to a focus on disorders, with fewer resources within classrooms to deal with individual differences in children that may require more individualized attention.
Bumps on the developmental path are not what you expect when you are expecting, making unexpected demands of, and creating stress for parents.
The technologists of Silicon Valley who gave us technology’s many forms, are reaching a consensus that the benefits of screens as a learning tool are overblown, and the risks for addiction and stunting development are high. Parents, increasingly concerned about limiting screen time for children, have also created a new job for nannies, that of screen police.
Concern about tech from those working in technology is not new. Those like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs sounded alarms and banned cellphones and iPads for their children. But the past year has produced many findings about the negative impact of cellphones, computers and social media, particularly about what these technology gadgets do to the human brain.
Those who developed the uses of technology thought they could control it but now find it is beyond their power to control. The failure of recent attempts by the leaders of social media to correct various aspects of the technology involved in the more egregious fallout from their sites is a case in point.
Parents fear that their children are being manipulated by techniques that go directly to the pleasure centers of the developing brain. Psychologists working for the companies make the tools phenomenally addictive, being well-versed in the field of persuasive design – influencing human behavior through the screen.
Facing the difficulty of limiting screen time – especially cellphone use – for their children, parents are confronted by their own involvement with these devices. Those who strive for no screen time at all may find the rules harder to follow themselves. Nanny agencies across Silicon Valley report that parents are asking nannies to sign no-phone-use contracts.
At a time when many working parents use cellphones as a way of keeping track of their children, losing that means of control is another source of anxiety. Those with the means can hire someone else to do it – hence the new nanny contracts. But there are many for whom that is not an option. It is clearer than ever that technology in its many forms has become a kind of child minding in an era of parental stress.
Anxiety about screens also points to a more extensive difficulty parents may have about setting limits for their children. It is parents who provide the cellphones, computers and other tech gadgets, yet they seem to feel a loss of control over the rules they want followed. Part of the difficulty is the peer group influence both on parents and the children themselves. A mother who resisted making an iPad available for her son found that he was the only one in his class without one.
The new concern about children’s screen use points to yet another potential signpost of economic inequality. Only recently the concern was that economically advantaged children would have access to the internet earlier, gaining tech skills and creating a digital divide. Increasingly, children have been asked to do homework online, while only two-thirds of people in the country have internet service.
Now, with the increasing panic about the impact of screen time on children, there is the possibility that the children of poorer and middle-class parents will be raised by screens, while the children of those well off will go back to appropriate toys and greater human interaction. The companies that make technology products compete to get these products into schools and target students at an early age. Unfortunately, many schools do not have the resources for extracurricular activities and the use of screens fill the gap.
Is the devil in the screens themselves, or in the way the content is designed and provided?
At a mother’s request, I observed a two-and-a-half-year-old girl in her preschool group. The mother wanted to make sure that her daughter’s functioning was on a par for her age. Thinking about nursery school ahead, she wondered if the child was ready for separation and had reached the appropriate level of skills for her age.
In exploring the mother’s own picture of her child, her questions seemed really related to behavior rather than to skills. Although she was inquiring about her daughter’s level of competence what clearly emerged was a description of personality and temperament.
Often, when mothers ask me about a child’s behavior about which they have some concern, the question that almost always comes up is whether the behavior is “normal”. What they are really asking is whether the behavior is “abnormal”, meaning, “Does this mean there is something wrong with my child?” The question often arises when a child’s behavior doesn’t fit a mother’s picture of what is appropriate, or creates a problem for a parent.
What does “normal” really mean? Sometimes mothers mean, “Is this typical of all children?” Another meaning can be, “Is it natural for a child to do this?” The implication is that if it is “typical”, or “natural”, the behavior is o.k. If it is not, then something is wrong with the behavior and possibly with the child who is behaving this way.
In fact, normal does not mean good or bad. It means in the nature of things. It may be in the nature of a young child to want his own way, to get angry about things expected of him, even to have a tantrum when frustrated. But that doesn’t mean the behavior is acceptable, or is not something the child may need help mastering. At the same time, behavior simply may reflect a child’s personality that is different in ways from other children or from a parent’s expectation.
Children are born with certain distinctive temperaments or behavior styles which emerge in various ways early in life. These innate characteristics develop over time into distinctive individual personalities. Children are partners in this development. Their native endowments elicit from parents and others certain responses. The interaction between parent and child is possibly more significant than either of their personalities individually; yet their individual personalities have a big impact on the way they interact with each other.
At times there can be a mismatch of personality or behavioral styles between a parent and child. Parents often talk about children pushing their buttons. This may refer to children carrying things too far and provoking their parents. But it may instead reflect an aspect of a child’s behavior that is particularly intolerable to his parent yet not affect someone else the same way.
Another example is an outgoing parent with a slow to warm up child who becomes clingy in social situations. For such a parent it might be particularly difficult to accept a child’s different personal style. The lack of acceptance and attempt to modify the behavior may actually reinforce the behavior that upsets them as children become aware of failing to meet a parent’s expectation.
In the instance of the mother described above, she identified elements of the child’s behavior with aspects of her own personality of which she was critical. Yet the differences between them were significant and were not affecting the child’s interactions in the ways that concerned the mother.
It is useful to understand how differences in style or temperament between our child and ourselves may cause conflict. If we can accept the differences between us we can play an important role in helping a child be successful within her own style of behavior.
A mother told me she had spent several hundred dollars on sippy cups after being told by her doctor that it was time for her son to be weaned from the bottle. The child had protested the loss of his bottle by refusing to drink milk at all and the mom thought the right sippy cup might solve the problem.
Another example of various attempts to solve developmental issues is that of trying different potties or toilet seats in order to accomplish toilet training. Still another has to do with sleep issues and cribs. While different products might be useful as part of a thought through plan, more often the sippy cup, toilet seat or new bed becomes part of a power struggle between parent and child. The product itself becomes for the child a symbol of the change he is protesting, and can actually strengthen his or her resistance.
In addition to the search for the magical product, these days social media provide magical methods for such things as sleep and toilet training issues. One mother told of using the “potty training in three days” method for her first child without success. Currently, a familiar request from parents is for a method of sleep training for infants and young children. With both parents working and the consequent pressures on family life, the search for shortcuts to solve these issues is understandable.
But parents need to beware of getting into a struggle with a child over bodily functions such as eating, sleeping or toileting. This is a no-win situation since a parent cannot control a child’s body in that way. But more important than winning or losing is to understand what a child is letting us know through his behavior about where he is in his development. Such understanding can give us a clue about how to help the child and achieve our goals.
Most often, resistance is a form of protest about the next step being expected of a child. A child may not be ready for that step, or not happy about giving up his bottle, his diaper, or his crib. Part of our job as parents is to determine how significant the protest is. Many times, it reflects an understandable ambivalence about giving up a pleasure in exchange for growing independence. A parent’s emotional support and understanding of the feelings involved will help a child make the transition.
A strong protest that begins to turn into a power struggle is often a clue that a child is not ready to take the step a parent may be ready for him to take. Or it may reflect too abrupt a change, which carries with it the threat of permanent loss, and ignores the mixed feelings that change can bring. An example is the mom and the sippy cups. Her idea was to go “cold turkey”, which meant for the child absolute loss with no possibility of salvation. He used the only power available to him by refusing milk altogether.
This does not have to mean mom’s capitulation. Introducing the sippy cup more gradually, before the total loss of the bottle, might have had a different outcome. Mastery is involved in using a sippy cup, and this can usually hold great appeal for a child – especially if it doesn’t at the same time hold the threat of the immediate, total loss of the treasured bottle.
Magical solutions seem tempting, but gradual transitions and assessing where a child actually is developmentally (not where some chart says he should be), is probably a better rule of thumb in making “next step” changes.