So, in last week’s post (Part 1 of 3) when I wrote that you’d hear back from me with Part 2 “tomorrow”, you knew I meant the metaphorical “tomorrow”, right? Truthfully, my apologies for the delay–life and work can get away from us, as I’m sure you know. In any case, here we are, all of us.
In that post, I wrote of what seems to me to be a disconnect for many parents between parenting decisions in the early years and potential corollaries in children’s behavior at older ages. Today, I want to begin to answer the questions that I asked at at the end of that post, namely “What do we do about it?” and “is it ever too late?”
The short answers to those questions are: There is another way…and no, it is never too late.
There is another way. There is a way that involves mindfulness and considered decisions, with an awareness of cause and effect, a way in which parents can begin to absorb the corollaries of the future, and make choices that are not solely in the now, but with a consciousness about what it is that your children are learning and taking with them into the next stage of their development.
Of course, it depends on your child’s age. Maybe you’re coming to this discussion when your child is three months or six months old. If so, you’re ahead of the game. Maybe you’re reading, and your child is three and pushing and testing limits and you are pulling your hair out and you are reading this and you are thinking “oh no, is she really saying that this is something I had to do from the very start?” I’m saying that it’s easier if you start in the early days. And I’m also saying that it’s never too late.
Now, I admit that this can get tricky, because this line of reasoning can sound as if I am advocating for something that I actually oppose. I am always the one sitting in the front row, raising my hand and waving wildly to object when anyone suggests that we need to “do it now, because the child is going to have to do it later” or “get them used to behaving a certain way” or “toughen them up, because we’re not always going to cater to their every whim (as we might in infancy)”. No, no, and no. My hand is still raised. I do not believe in making children sit still when they are three because they’re going to have to sit still in school when they are six (for that matter, I don’t believe in them sitting still when they are six, either, but that’s another topic.) I do not believe that there is value in teaching a child academic skills in preschool (or younger) because those are things they are going to need when they get to school.
Here’s what I’m suggesting. In a way, I’m actually not suggesting that you teach your child anything at all. I am suggesting that you teach yourself something, that you come into interactions with your child in a conscious manner, with intention and understanding…and that, with practice, that intention becomes a natural reality. This is about how we learn to interact with one another, far closer to emotional intelligence than to any sort of “training.” I am hoping that that distinction is making sense to you…still with me?
There is a way that is deeply sensitive and responsive to your child’s needs and communications at EVERY age, including the weeks and months in which they want more physical closeness or can’t be easily consoled other than in your arms. There is a way that does not involve running yourself into the ground trying to keep your baby from crying, a way that does not involve children having a death grip on your pant leg or making you crazy on a snow day. There is a way. You can do your best–between naps, snacks, and quick-as-a-flash PTA showers–to begin to parent, from the very earliest moments of life–or at any point in your parenting journey–in ways that reflect both your current expectations and your goals for the long term–ALL of your goals, not just your goals for a secure attachment. Do the unimaginable with me for a few minutes–dare to think a year or two ahead.
An example. I’m going to talk to the parents of infants for a minute. If you are a parent of children under the age of one, I’m going to ask you to consider age three (all of the parents of three year olds are chuckling–I can hear you). Three is a time of much limit testing. Language has blossomed so they can say what they mean (and argue), they are competent and fast with their motor skills (i.e. they can run away, and fast!), they are curious about everything, they are beginning to really understand cause and effect, they feel their power, their independence is increasing, and they have a lot of energy. It’s a tricky combination. So what do you want–not for your child, exactly, but for yourself as a parent–when your child is in that stage. It’s hard to know, isn’t it? Especially if you are a first time parent, how can you know what you want when your child is three? I’ll help you out.
I bet you’re tempted to say what you want for your child’s behavior. You want her to be able to control her impulses. You want her to be kind to other children at the park. You want her to cooperate with daily routines. Maybe you want him to be out of diapers. You want him to be the teacher’s favorite child at preschool. Nothing wrong with those desires. We all want those sorts of things. The reality is that she will sometimes not be able to control her impulses, she will not always be kind, and she will not always cooperate. He may or may not be out of diapers, and while he may be the teacher’s favorite child at preschool (though they will insist that such a thing does not exist, as they should,) there will be days when he will test their patience. So, you see, I am asking you a different question:
How do you want to respond when these things happen (in the natural course of development)? How do you want your children to respond when you intervene? And how does that dance between the two of you–the everpresent dance between parent and child–help your child to develop the skills mentioned above (e.g. kindness, empathy, cooperation.) Here’s the thing: the answers to these questions do not reside in your child–they reside in the interaction. And you are re half (and sometimes more than half) of that interaction.
Your child will challenge you. How will you respond? Will you feel prepared and confident? And what will you be teaching in that moment?
The reason I say that parents of infants are ahead of the game is that they have a unique opportunity to “plant well,” not in relation to skills, but in setting the stage for cooperation, independent play, and limit setting. The beauty of starting young is simply this: It is easy to practice these skills and interactions with an infant, while the “stakes are low,” which simply means that infants don’t typically test us or push us into discomfort or leave us at a loss for words. There are few limits needed, but they do exist, so we can practice respectful ways of setting those limits at a time of life when following through is relatively easy. We can practice being calm and mindful, breathing deeply, and responding slowly when we become agitated or frightened by something our child is doing, without fear of the repercussions that may make the situation higher stakes when they are older (running away in a parking lot, for example). You can practice viewing and understanding behaviors in developmental context so that you will have the advantage of that sort of “lens” when they are three. Again, it doesn’t mean parents can’t begin to be mindful in this way regardless of age, only that it is wonderful to establish a relationship early that will serve you well and smooth your path at later ages.
We’ve been talking a lot about corollaries, and preparing, and practicing. But what are they? For purposes of illustration, here are a few examples…you can extrapolate to others:
- Infants who have space and time to play independently →toddlers and preschoolers who can occupy themselves for a short (or sometimes a long) time.
- Toddlers who experience calm, respectful and consistent limit setting→preschoolers with more internalized behavioral control
- Preschoolers who are responded to with empathy based in a behavior’s emotional and developmental context→school age children with greater empathy and self-control.
- Children of all ages–from infants through teenagers–who are allowed to feel the full range of expressive emotion→older children who are better able to handle stress and emotional upset.
These are just a few examples. Now, for the purposes of clarity and illustration, let me highlight the inverse, the other side of the coin:
- Infants who receive the message from us that they are not able to cope with emotions without our active assistance→toddlers who may be less likely to calm themselves when upset.
- Toddlers who experience a wide range of limit setting strategies and styles→increase in testing behaviors throughout the toddler and preschool years.
- Preschoolers who are punished in response to problematic behavior→school age children who may have difficulty with self-control or peer relationships.
- Children of all ages whose emotions are dismissed or restricted→older children who will often either bottle up emotion or express it inappropriately in social settings.
Let’s take a common example. A toddler, perhaps 18 months old, clings on to the parent’s pant leg, almost without stop; the parent finds it impossible to go to the bathroom, make a phone call, make a meal, or give their attention to a sibling, and is growing frustrated. What would you choose to do in such a situation?
Surely, our response has to do with our own beliefs and practices about parenting. Some parents would say that if the child needs that much physical contact throughout the day that the best option would be to put them in a sling or a carrier and “wear” them; if you are a parent who believes that to be the best option, it is likely your belief that by providing your child all the physical contact they might want or need, they will be better able to be independent when they are older (my own experience has not borne that out, but there are those who disagree.) Some parents would say that children need to learn to respect those limits, and that parents’ needs matter too. Some parents would say that the child has an unmet need for focused attention from the parent. Some parents would wonder if the child’s attachment to the parents was disrupted in some fashion during the first year. Some parents would say that it is about an individual child’s sensitivity and emotional development, or a response to stress. Some parents would say that their child is going through the normal developmental stage of separation anxiety, they should be welcomed and comforted, and that it will simply pass. They are all valid responses in different ways, and there is probably a grain of truth in them all.
The piece that is missing from all of these is the role of the interaction. Let’s take a look at the last suggestion…that the behavior is simply a natural result of developmental separation anxiety, and so should “indulged” and that it will pass.
Yes. It is absolutely true that pretty much all children go through a pronounced separation anxiety phase–it’s developmental. It usually happens between around 8 months and 18 months or so (though it does not typically last that entire time), and it sometimes surfaces more than once. Yes, children can be much more clingy during that period of time. Yes, it’s developmentally normal. It is also true that the length, intensity, and reoccurrence of separation anxiety is intimately related to the ways in which parents respond to those anxieties, and that “giving in” to all of their demands for closeness exacerbates rather than relieves the anxiety. Separation anxiety is largely inevitable, but it does not logically follow that, since it’s developmentally typical, it’s our job as parents to fully embrace and allow them to cling to us throughout the day and give up all hope of taking a shower or going to the bathroom alone for that period of time. There are ways to help children through separation anxiety, much in the way that you will later help them through other things that make them scared or nervous. Many of those strategies are the same strategies involved in encouraging age appropriate independence. That which allows you to speak to someone on the phone for 30 seconds when a child is 18 months is the same thing that allows you to enjoy a relaxing bath while your children play happily in the living room on a snow day. Yes, no kidding. They’re the same thing.
As I say, there is another way.
No, this is not where I am going to say that you should not pick up an intensely crying baby so that they will be independent. That is not only silly, but downright neglectful. Emotional responsibility is THE hallmark of successful parenting in infancy and toddlerhood, regardless of which parenting “philosophy” you favor, including “none of the above.”
No, this is not where I’m going to say that you need to make sure that your infant spends a certain amount of time alone every day, from the beginning of life, while you go about your life, because “they need to be alone/independent” and they need to respect your needs. The idea of a “certain amount of time” (like those who suggest an hour a day, or “independent playtime”) is not respectful to the notion that every child is different, and is not responsive to the ongoing communications, personality, and internal schedule and needs of your child.
This is about balance. This is about allowing space. This is about being present, loving, supportive, and responsive and still not “trying to keep them from crying.” All of these. Yes, from the beginning.
Let me say what I say to my clients about finding balance between your child’s needs and your own needs and obligations in your daily life:
- If you have a solution, you feel perfectly at ease with this arrangement, and you are satisfied with the long term corollary, more power to you. If it’s not a problem for you, it’s not a problem for me. If it works for you, and it works for your child, that’s great.
- You matter. Self-care is integral to being able to parent peacefully. You do not need to feel guilty for wanting to take a 10 minutes shower by yourself, even every now and again. And maybe you don’t have those feelings right now. And maybe you never will. That’s okay. Know that some of the people who are reading this do want those ten minutes…and they also love their children deeply.
- Your child can do this. I promise. He can do it without falling to pieces. He can play happily and you can shower and you can both get what you need.
- Crying is not evidence of trauma. Taking a shower or walking into the kitchen to make yourself a cup of tea is not abandonment–yes, even if a two year old feels like it is for a short time (and lets you know.) Strong emotions are a perfectly normal part of being human, for all of us, toddlers included. There are ways to respond to crying and upset that are empathic, supportive, loving, and validating that do not involved “fixing” or stopping the crying. Trauma happens in the absence of all of those supports, when a painful experience is repeated without comfort, understanding or responsive resources. As painful as it may sound, even if your child were to cry for the entire ten minutes that you were in the shower, that would still not constitute trauma.
The examples are endless. If you want a six year old who does not frequently come to you complaining of boredom and demanding “What are we going to DO?” then you might consider providing plenty of opportunities, from the very earliest days of life, for calm, quiet, low stimulation play in which their brains and their senses are creating the “entertainment” rather than it coming from external sources. Babies don’t need parachute play, fingerplays, songtimes and storytimes (though they do no harm.) Babies don’t need playgroups (though, again, they usually do no harm). Parents often need playgroups–for connection, for company, for healing that “stuck in the house with a baby” feeling that many of us have–and that’s perfectly legitimate. So go to a class or two–be clear that it is for you, and that there is nothing wrong with that. The value to the child is in the time spent together, enjoying one another’s company. Better yet, find a class that offers them that calm, quiet, low stimulation play that they DO need–and offers you connection with other parents as well. Teach your infants and toddlers NOW–not with your words, but with your behavior and by letting go of worry about “activities” and “being behind”–that boredom is not a bad thing, not a thing to be dreaded, but the doorway to tremendous creativity.
If you want a child who will happily find things to do on a long snow day inside when they are 10–a child who will gather himself and his favorite toys and be lost in activity until he is called for lunch (and no, I’m not just talking about video games)–then you might consider providing opportunities, in smaller and age appropriate “doses” for that same child to “independently find things that interest him” when he is six months old, 18 months old, 3 years old.
Remember your part. Toddlers are following patterns laid down–mostly by you–in infancy. Preschoolers are following patterns laid down during infancy and toddlerhood. School age children are following patterns set throughout their early childhood. If we teach them to need us above all things, they need us above all things. If we teach them that we are certain they are competent and capable and able to be self-directed, they see themselves as competent and capable and able to be self-directed.
Now or later. Now and later. You reap what you sow.