Oh, Toddlerhood, Why Don’t We See You Coming?

toddler-tantrum2….or Why the Word “Proactive” is central in the title of my work with children and families.

As I’ve been gearing up to launch a set of Parent-Infant and Parent-Toddler groups, I have encountered something really interesting.  It’s nothing I haven’t seen before, but perhaps it hasn’t struck quite this close to home before.

As I am publicizing the groups, which encompass four developmental ages, I am finding more and more parents responding who want these groups–and want to embrace RIE® or similar philosophies–with children who are older than the population for which RIE was designed.  In other words, children over two.

Now don’t get me wrong.  RIE® principles and strategies do not suddenly stop working when children turn two.  Much of what RIE has to offer is highly applicable and useful, not only throughout the toddler years, but well into later childhood…and some would say adulthood as well. There’s some great stuff in there, and the numbers of people who are using it with great success during the preschool years is growing–and I couldn’t be happier about it.   I’m just saying that there are reasons that its emphasis is on children under two–and that that matters.

As I say, I’ve seen this phenomenon before.  In my requests for talks on respectful caregiving last fall, I spoke at length with a mom from the New York area, who was asking me to come and speak for a group of mothers who now have two and three year olds.  Her words, which I may not remember verbatim but can paraphrase closely enough, were “They were all doing attachment parenting, which they loved, but I’m hearing people say that it doesn’t seem to be working so well for them anymore, and they feel like they need something different, a different set of tools, and there’s a lot of talk about how RIE® is the sort of thing they need.”

Yes.  This is what i am hearing in my own community as well.  It makes sense, really.  Babies are little and seem very vulnerable.  The philosophies that say that carrying them close and picking them up and soothing them promptly whenever they cry and embracing their dependence on us as their emotional regulators make intuitive sense to new parents everywhere.  And then something happens:  A couple of years along, they become “people.”  People with strong preferences.  People with language.  People with running feet.

Again, don’t get me wrong.  I know lots of kids and read plenty of articles and group discussion boards that indicate that there are many many children who are being raised in an “attachment parenting” model who do beautifully throughout the early years and afterward.  It’s a good choice for some families, no doubt about it.  I’m not talking about the ones that its working for.  I’m talking about a phenomenon that I am personally witnessing in increasing numbers–the people for whom attachment parenting “worked” well in infancy, and who turn to RIE® or similar philosophies for solutions when limit setting, demands for independence, and other challenges become more prominent.

A few thoughts and observations.  Those parents–and most certainly those children–often find the transition to RIE-like practices (because again, the RIE® model was designed for children under two) a very rough one, sometimes so rough that people become convinced that it just “doesn’t work” the way that those crazy RIE folks say that it does.  I see it all the time.  “I tried “sportscasting” but he hates that.” “I set the limits clearly, but she’s still running the other way and laughing every time I speak.”  “I love RIE, but I’m giving up.”

I know.

Here’s the thing.  Infancy–in particular the first two years–are a miraculous period of life, a time of magic elixirs.  No, I’m not talking about eye of newt.  I’m talking about neurobiology.

Take a look at this:

dendrites 02

All brain development happens through the development of dendrites, which is what is featured in this photo.  Dendrites are the branches (that look a lot like roots in the picture) that send and receive messages from one neuron to another in the brain.  These messages are how brain development takes place.  Look at what happens between birth and two.

When I do talks on brain development in infancy, I use an analogy that often helps people make sense of all those squiggly neurons in a real hands-on way–namely, the development of roads.  When we are born, we already have strong neural pathways…but they’re not super fast.dirt road  They’re more like one lane roads or unpaved roads.  You couldn’t drive a car really fast on those sorts of roads, because of the dust and the potholes.   As we all know, as the roads improve, cars can go faster….and as cars go faster, and there are more sights and places to go along the road (outlet malls!), more cars start traveling those roads…and over time, they become highways.  Neural development during infancy and toddlerhood works in much the same way.  The process of neural development in inhighwayfancy is like a laying down of roads, and the myelin (the fatty substance that makes neural messages move more quickly) that develops during that time makes the messages move more and more quickly.  The pathways that are used the most become the most highly developed, in the same ways that roads that are most heavily used become improved and widened.  There is NEVER a time in life when these pathways or roads develop at this rapid or extensive a pace.  And while “roads” will continue to be built and improved throughout early childhood, building a new road in the midst of a system of zooming highways and overpasses is admittedly far more of a logistical challenge or puzzle than it would have been when the area was just open fields.  Making sense?

This, my friends, is what I call an Opportunity.  Yes, with a capital O.

The behaviors that challenge us the most in toddlerhood and during the preschool years, the ones that make us tear our hair out, worry about people looking at us in stores, or that make us pray for their bedtime?  Those behaviors and patterns were laid down in infancy.  Yes, as I say, you can still build new roads.  It can be done–it’s never too late, and surely two and three and four are still times of rapid neurological growth.  At the same time, it’s valuable to think of it this way:  If you, as a parent, have, through your parenting in the first two years, built up patterns and expectations–and the accompanying neural pathways–that lead to a certain expectation or behavior on your child’s part, changing that when those behaviors become more problematic for you isn’t the easiest thing.  Possible, of course.  Simple?  No.

So what can you do?  Your child is two.  Or three.  And you’re reading, and you’re thinking that this respectful parenting sounds like a good way to go, like it would enhance your relationship with your child. You thought it sounded silly or not like a good fit when your child was an infant, but now you’re reading about the sorts of “fixes” for behavior that sound just like what you need and want.  Here’s what you can do:  Start.  And Learn.  Start with the understanding that you are building roads that you want to become “fast” and “automatic” from a dirt road on up.  It’s not going to be fast at first.  There may be some dangerous days, when you’re asking your child–and yourself–to sit at a stoplight on your wonderful little one lane road, waiting for a break in the speeding traffic on the highway, so that you can cross.  That’s not always going to go as smoothly as you might like.  And it will take a while, because the neuron connections that lay down those patterns are still rapidly developing, but not as quickly as they were when your children were six months or fifteen months old.  It will work, but you will have to drive this slower road over and over and over again, and get others to drive it with you (i.e. support!) for the road to widen, for that to be the automatically chosen route.  Adjust your expectations accordingly.  Acknowledge that you laid down a different set of roads during the first two years, and your children are not “out to get you”, they’re just cruising along on the roads you built.  And keep at it.  Connection, respect, trust…they always work…and when children aren’t accustomed to them, they do sometimes react like you just got out of the parent loony bin (they don’t know you might feel similarly!)

But you know what else you can do?  If you are reading this, and your child is an infant…say five months old…or nine months old…you can start NOW.  Now, while the roads are being built at lightning speed.  Now, when it hardly seems necessary, because your children are so easy to be with and live with, and everything seems pretty straightforward and intuitive.  Now, when you have the opportunity to establish patterns, connections, relationships…superhighways….that will result in the sorts of behaviors and outcomes in your children that you want when they are two, three, and four, and beyond.

This is why, despite the fact that it’s not “au courant”, I include “Proactive” in my class descriptions.  As a child development consultant and parent coach, I see it again and again.  We don’t think about these things–what to do, what to say, and why–when our children are very small.   We cruise along, and then toddlerhood smacks us right in the face.  Some of the behaviors are developmental, to be sure–they happen in all (or nearly all) children, no matter what idyllic (ha!) conditions they lived under as infants and young toddlers.  Every child–and every parent– has his or her own personality or temperament, and those play a big part in how behaviors develop and exhibit themselves.  And, of course, not every family is bothered by the same behaviors–some of us don’t mind crying, or whining, or endless questions, or children that sometimes seem like miniature emperors, with parents their loyal servants.

I’m not proposing that these respectful or mindful or proactive practices are a panacea, an “inoculation” that makes children slide through early childhood and into school entry with the greatest of ease and the most peaceful of lives for their parents.  No such thing, as any parent knows.  What I *am* proposing is that if you are reading this, and you have a baby…a newborn, a five month old, a 14 month old….do it now.  Think proactively.  Imagine what you want for your children when they are older, and lay down those roads in anticipation of the immense traffic that awaits.  You won’t be sorry.

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