Having to Choose

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.

Developmental Worries

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 Devil in Our Phones

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?

Personality Differences

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.

Magical Solutions

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.

Your Needs or Mine?

How does one balance children’s needs with one’s own needs? This is really a central issue with which many parents struggle. The reason it is a struggle is that there is no single, or “right” answer.

A mother of a young child who was a working professional told me she found the hardest part was the ongoing nature of the conflict she felt. She had thought the conflict was simply between deciding to work or being a full-time mother. Instead, she found that every day decisions had to be made about what she perceived as the needs of her child versus the demands of her work.

These decisions are influenced in part by the choice of parenting philosophy or approach one chooses to adhere to. Whatever it is that determines these choices, the choices themselves play a big role in determining one’s attitudes not only about the mothering-work conflict, but also about the daily interactions with children. All of the approaches to child-rearing have a point of view regarding the needs of children, the importance of these needs, and the nature and degree of response that is required from parents. Many of these approaches are prescriptive, so another influence on one’s behavior as a parent is the importance we ascribe to “experts” and authority.

As the mother I referred to above pointed out, she constantly had to decide what was more important in a particular situation, what her son needed or wanted, or what her own needs were. What complicates the question even more is that children can feel as if they really need something they want. And sometimes they really do. Do you take time off from work (if you can) to be the mom on the class trip? If your child doesn’t feel well, is she really sick? Can the sitter or nanny handle it? Should your child stay home from school if it means you have to miss work? If he begs you not to leave when you go out, should you stay home with him?

As one mother said, “there are a lot of things you really feel they should be getting but either they’re not getting or you have to scrape time to give it to them. And sometimes too – like they want too much. They can get over- demanding. But then you get guilty and think I shouldn’t say that, but I feel that she is because I’m at work and I can’t make it and she’s always asking.” This mom is not sure if it is her child who should not be asking or if it is she who should be able to give.

Some of these questions may feel easier to answer than others, but the answers do depend in part not only on what you know about your own child, but also on how strongly you feel about the importance of certain kinds of responses to your child. In other words, can you accept and tolerate a measure of frustration or unhappiness in your child? And even if you can, how do you determine what is an acceptable amount and what is not? A father asked me recently how many minutes was it all right to let a child cry – in this case at bedtime – but parents ask the same question about separations from their children.

There are no “right” answers to such questions, which is why balancing needs consists of an ongoing set of questions which parents have to answer in terms of themselves and their own children. Perhaps the real meaning of “mommy war” is the struggle within ourselves that we parents experience in trying to answer them.

Separation Struggles

At this stage in the school year there are parents and children for whom separation still may be an issue. This is especially true for two-year-old’s who only in recent years have been expected to go to school at this young age. While older children and their parents may experience some pangs when saying goodbye at the school room door, feelings may be more intense for those – both children and parents – whose emotional memories of babyhood are closer at hand.

Those intense feelings were expressed by a mother and her two-year-old son when she attempted to leave him in his pre-school separation group. His crying protests were so overwhelming that his mother took him out of the room. When they returned, the children in the group were seated around a table in preparation for an art project. The upset child was no longer crying but clung to his mother who sat down on a chair along the wall. The art teacher was handing out playdough and a place was made for the upset child but when he refused to join the others the teacher gave him some of the same material.

The mother tried to interest the child in the playdough and pushed him to join the others to no avail. He turned his back on the teacher when approached. Finally, the mom seeming desperate, physically moved the child to the table, kneeling next to him. The teacher encouraged her to sit down next to him, which she did while demonstrating to him how to start cutting up the playdough.

Gradually, the little boy began to give his attention to the playdough and was no longer clinging to his mother. At that point, another adult sat down next to the mother to talk to her. With that, the boy turned to the mother, weeping while climbing on to her clinging. Apparently, the child viewed the intervention as an attempt to have his mother leave and his earlier upset resumed. She calmed him by reassuring him that she was not going to leave and they remained with the child clinging to her side.

During this entire scene, the mother while more controlled than her child, was visibly upset, searching for some direction. Later, in a conversation with the program supervisor, she expressed great concern about his upsetting the group. Told that it was fine for her to remain in the group with him indefinitely, it was not clear to what degree this was reassuring to her.

It is not unusual for a mother to feel conflicted in response to a strong protest about separation from her child. A mother herself, may have some concerns about leaving her child. The early attachment between mother and child is strong, and feeling ambivalence about the end of dependence and emerging independence is understandable. Is my child ready to be without me? may be the unspoken question. A child’s protest speaks to that question.

At the same time, parents are overly sensitive to the thought that their child is not adjusting – as they see it – as other children seem to be. Unfortunately, that may lead to concerns that there is some problem with the child, or that they themselves may be doing something wrong.

The process by which children accept being without a known caregiver varies from child to child. Children need time to build relationships with new adults and peers that help them feel comfortable in a new situation. In the example described both mother and child need support to help the child engage with interesting activities while connecting to the teachers.

The Feelings of Others

How early in life are children capable of empathy – the ability to identify with the feelings of another person? Parents are often faced with this question when wanting to correct a child’s hurtful behavior to another. How do you think that made her feel? How would you feel if someone did that to you? Questions often asked when trying to correct a child’s behavior.

Child development researchers have been interested in this question and have made videos of various situations in order to study children’s behavior. In one video, a little girl between two and three years of age observes an adult sitting on a bench crying. She goes over and tries to comfort her. When that doesn’t work, she tries to get her mother who is sitting nearby to go over and do something to help.

Observing groups of two-year-old children it is not unusual to see a child take a toy over to a child who is crying and offer it to her. Sometimes a child will put his or her arm around another child who is upset. There are times when an entire class seems transfixed by a child who is very upset, and the teacher needs to help the children process what is happening.

When one child begins to cry after her parent has left, her reaction almost 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 still another video, a little boy is playing with a workbench toy hammering pegs through a hole. His mother helps by holding the bench steady. As instructed by the researcher, the mom pretends that the child has hit her finger with the hammer and cries out in pain. The child reacts first with laughter and tries to hit her finger with the hammer. When Mom responds with anger and disapproval, 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 – one that is often misinterpreted by adults.

In such a situation a child is often unclear about what actually has happened. 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? How did this come about? Kissing her finger clearly seemed an imitation of a set response he had learned. The equivalent of, “Say you are sorry”.

This little scene points up how we can be off the mark if we respond only with disapproval. 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. Children also need help in identifying their own feelings as well as those of others.

There are many kinds of experiences that help children develop empathy and a concern for others. The roots seem clearly to be there from a very young age. As with so many other areas of development, learning plays a big part, and parents play a big part in the teaching that goes with it.

More About Marshmallows and Strategies

What has been taken from the findings of the research in which children were rewarded for their ability to wait, is the idea that some children have a natural capacity for self-control, have achieved early the ability to defer gratification, and that these are the children who will be successful in life. In recent years there has been much focus on these traits, particularly their absence, in discussions of educational difficulties and problems with children’s behavior generally. Parents are frequently implicated as a source of the difficulty.

By temperament and physiology some children are more easy-going than others and may have a natural greater ability to achieve self-control and wait for what they want. However, it is a characteristic of young children generally to seek immediate gratification of their needs and wishes. As with other skills, the ability to wait, to tolerate frustration, to control impulses, and to defer gratifying wishes, is in large part a matter of development, maturation and learning. Also, as with other skills, there is greater variation in the speed and ability with which children achieve mastery.

The fifteen-minute wait time of the research is a long time to expect young children to sit and wait – particularly alone in a room with the tempting treat in front of them. It is an unrealistic expectation for children under five years of age. Researchers have studied the techniques used by the children who were successful in waiting, such as closing their eyes, turning their backs on the marshmallow, pushing it away and purposefully thinking about other things. Problem-solving in this way is itself a developmental matter in which children are moving ahead differently.

The fact is that education as well as physical maturation plays an important role in the development of these skills. Teachers and parents teach these skills in various ways even when they may not realize it. Teaching is involved in the way expectations are set for children and in the readiness to offer support in meeting those expectations. Since young children do seek immediate gratification of their wants and have limited tolerance for frustration, daily life offers many opportunities for such teaching.

A recurring example is children wanting treats between meals or a toy they see in a store window. Too often, when children seem demanding, adults are judgmental and react critically to their requests. But our job really is to help them through the difficulty of waiting or of not getting what they want. We offer support by sympathizing with how hard it is to wait but also by being realistic about what we expect of them.

Observing in nursery schools when children are asked to wait in line, it is always interesting to see the different results reached by teachers who help them by offering distraction or talking to them about something, as compared to those who are more critical and reproach children who are not managing well.

As parents of young children, it is difficult at times to be patient with children’s recurring demands. At times it feels easier to either just give them what they want or to scold critically. But real learning takes place through repetition and success. If we help them through the times that are difficult for them, they can begin to experience what that is like and to eventually accomplish it on their own.

Two marshmallows instead of one may be a reward for waiting, but the larger goal is for children to learn that deferring gratification is a requirement of growing up that can bring other kinds of more meaningful rewards.


The death of psychologist Walter Mischel focused attention on the famous marshmallow test which he created at Stanford University in the 1960’s. Critical of prevailing theories of personality he was interested in studying how actual life situations shape behavior. This meant looking at the context of an individual’s interactions, what a person’s goals are, and the rewards and risks of acting on impulse.

To this end he led a research team in a series of experiments with pre-school-age children. A child was presented with a marshmallow and told he could eat it, but if he waited until the examiner returned he could have two marshmallows instead of just the one. The children were videotaped during the time they were alone with the treat so it was possible to determine the range of time that a child was either able to wait or to eat the treat they were given.

Essentially, this was an experiment in delayed gratification and the videotapes made it possible to study the various things children did to enable them to wait. Looking at these videotapes one sees children closing their eyes, picking up the marshmallow and putting it down, picking pieces off the edges to taste, poking at the marshmallow, and various other creative moves. In one sequence, a child who has successfully waited for his reward stuffs both marshmallows into his mouth at once as if to compensate for the deprivation of waiting.

Mischel emphasized that the focus of the research was to identify the specific cognitive strategies and mental mechanisms, as well as the developmental changes that make delay of gratification possible. For example, between the ages of 4 and 6 years the older kids could delay their gratification longer. The executive function of the maturing brain was better able to override the impulses characteristic of younger children, a major challenge of development during the pre-school years. The research sought to identify the cognitive skills that underlie willpower and long-term thinking and how they can be enhanced.

The marshmallow test became famous when decades later Mischel was able to locate a number of the children who were in the original experiment and compare their later records to their behavior in the original test. A correlation was found between their earlier ability to delay gratification and later achievement both academically and in their achievement of other goals. This created a major focus on the importance of early impulse control and ability to delay gratification with the implication that one road led to success, the other to failure.

More recent studies that replicated the marshmallow test with preschoolers, while finding the same correlation between later achievement and the ability to resist temptation in pre-school, have interpreted the findings somewhat differently. The correlation was found to be much less significant after the researchers factored in such aspects as family background, home environment and the like. The conclusion was that the ability to hold out for a second marshmallow is shaped by a child’s social and economic background. It is that background, not the ability to delay gratification that is behind a child’s long-term success.

Mischel, himself, was less interested in the predictive value of early delayed gratification than he was in the strategies that can promote will power and the ability to delay gratification. Having been a heavy smoker for many years and having tried to no avail over time to stop, he was especially interested in what it was that could enable someone to succeed. The question he raised was, “how can you regulate yourself and control yourself in ways that make your life better?”

Finding and reinforcing those strategies for the individual child may be a better approach than marshmallows.