There is a perplexing theme that I’ve been noticing a lot these days in my work with parents of young children, and even in my participation in parenting groups. It’s a disconnect of sorts. It goes something like this:
Parents of infants ask: Am I doing enough to provide stimulation and the right sort of activities for her? She cries, and she is so little, she needs me to fix it for her! How many classes or activities should I take him to?
Parents of toddlers ask: They won’t leave me alone, they cling to me like glue, all day long. I can’t even go to the bathroom by myself! How do I get them to play so that I can take a shower? I try to set limits but they freak out!
Parents of preschoolers ask: Those snow days! Stuck at home with my kids for 15 hours at a stretch…what DO you do to entertain the kids for that long? They get so bored, and they’re driving me crazy. I can only come up with so many ideas!
It is natural, to be sure, in those early days of parenting…even the whole first year…to be focused on the necessities of life: getting enough sleep (or venting adequately about the lack of it), getting to eat a meal, perhaps getting a shower now and again. We all do it. It’s an overwhelming time. The idea that we would have the luxury to think about anything with a long term perspective just sounds like frivolous luxury. But hey, since you’re here anyway, let’s talk about it for a minute.
When you read these questions from parents there, what are the thoughts that come to mind? Do you think “Yup, that sounds familiar”? Do you look back on those days when your toddler clung to your leg all day long and sigh with pleasure (and perhaps a little nostalgia) that, like all things, those days passed and are no more? Are you nodding when you read of the strain of having young children at home on snow days, with their constant demands for screen time, activities, and entertainment? Something else?
I’ll tell you what comes to my mind when I read those statements: They’re three versions of the same thing.
In times like these, I am haunted by the wise words of our wonderful developmental pediatrician, speaking to us when we shared that we did not discourage our toddler from “questioning”, including “questioning authority” (for lack of a better description). The pediatrician sat there, smiling, laughing a little, shaking her head slightly. Drawing upon years upon years of working with young children and families, she said to us: “You reap what you sow.” Of course, she was right. In our case, we were (for the most part) prepared (as best you can be) for the downsides of encouraging children to think critically about all things. Let’s just say it doesn’t always make for easy parenting. We did know what we were getting ourselves into–and we decided it was worth the cost. And still, the pediatrician’s words ring in my ears.
The child you have at twelve is the child you have at seven is the child you have at three is the child you have at 14 months is the child that you have at five months. Yes–different abilities, different needs–but the same child.
Every experience in early childhood has a corollary in later childhood. To me, this is the greatest conundrum of parenting children from birth to seven. For many parents, the behavior they expect out of their children changes–sometimes dramatically–over that span of time. For many of us, we expect those changed behaviors and capacities to come with development and maturation, and many of us are thrown for a loop when they do not “automatically” progress and shift in the way that we may expect. I see a huge amount of this in my work with parents; they made one set of choices in infancy and toddlerhood and are finding themselves at a loss in later years, when they expect that their child’s behavior will be substantively different from how it was when they were tiny. The reality is that patterns and behaviors are laid down powerfully in the first three years of life, and then repeat, in somewhat different–and often increasingly challenging–forms throughout childhood.
We focus–sometimes to an extreme–on stimulation and activities in infancy and toddlerhood. We take our babies to highly stimulating environments filled with activity, noise, music, and people. Mommy and Me. Music Class. Parachute Play. Gymnastics. Then, when our children are five, we are frustrated with them because they constantly demand stimulation, activity, noise, music, and people, and we think they “ought to be able to attend an event and behave themselves.”
We–many of us–believe deeply that infants need a great deal of physical contact with us. We “wear” them, we take them everywhere we go, we try our best to meet their needs and desires as quickly as possible so that they don’t experience emotional distress. When our children are two and a half, we feel suffocated by their constant hanging on us at birthday parties, inability to let us go to the bathroom without a tantrum, and refusing to eat what we provide. We worry that they are delayed in their social development or lacking appropriate independence (which is ironic, since refusing to eat what we provide is independence.)
As our children get to preschool and elementary school, we pack our lives (and theirs) full of structured activities and excitement. Fully scheduled weekends–the zoo, the park, museums, library hours, playdates, playgroups, plays, music events, art classes, music classes, swimming classes, junior soccer, professional sporting events, math and science enrichment. We fear that without these things, our children will be “behind” or “missing out.” When our children are eight or nine or ten, they (and we) have many snow days in a row (as happened in the Boston area this year) so no one can go to school or work, and we are either exhausted or, in many cases, we are short tempered with our children because we need and expect them to occupy themselves “even for just a while!” while we get our work done. We are desperate for school to reopen so that someone else is occupying our children and we get our time back–even those of us who do not work outside the home. “What do you DO to entertain your children all day??” was the most common post on local parenting groups during this snowy February, and the post most certain to get the most sympathetic “likes.”
Troublemaker that I am, I only responded once, when I just couldn’t hold it in anymore. My response? “I’m wondering why you feel like you need to entertain your children all day?” Of course, while it was a serious question, it was also rhetorical. I know why we feel like we need to entertain our children all day. In some cases, we feel the need to entertain them because THEY feel that we need to entertain them. That’s what many children have come to expect…and thus it is what they demand. Since their youngest days (perhaps even more so in infancy and toddlerhood, when SO many pathways and habits and expectations are laid down, as if in cement) we have bent over backwards to make sure that they’re not “bored” or frustrated, that they always have sound and music and images and people things to do and “stimulation.” And even when we have not provided those things, we have worried about whether they’re getting enough…which of course, they pick up, since infants and toddlers are basically omniscient…they know EVERYTHING, at least everything that we feel. “Mom is nervous when we’re not “doing something.” I get it. Not doing something is bad.” These are messages that children build and carry from the earliest days of infancy…and carry around in their suitcases throughout childhood.
What is wrong with this picture? How did we get to this place in which we lay one set of patterns in place and expect another pattern to spontaneously emerge? Most importantly, what do we do about it? And it is ever too late?
Tomorrow: Planting Differently.