Swimming Upstream: Choosing Trust over Fear

swimming upstreamIt is always so telling when I have a hard time constructing a blog post.  It’s not as simple as procrastination or trying to figure out exactly what words will capture the feelings and ideas I want to express.  Sometimes it is something more.  That’s what has happened here.

A couple of days ago, a mom in my Facebook discussion group had a question about a difficult decision she was facing, namely whether to pull her 2 year old out of a new preschool situation, because the adjustment had been so hard for him.   Now, there is no simple answer to that.  Adjustment to preschool takes time.  When a child is in preschool only two or three days a week, it takes even longer.  It is different for each child, depending on their age and developmental stage and history.  It takes each child a different amount of time.  It is different for each parent, as we have varying abilities to tolerate children’s distress, which is often a normal part of the adjustment to preschool at any age.  It depends on how they are after the initial upset and what the teachers or caregivers are reporting about the child’s day and engagement and adjustment.  Sometimes it’s not an option to pull a child out, especially if the parent needs to work.   Sometimes it’s not an option to pull a child out, because a parent badly needs that time to themselves (which is perfectly legitimate.)  Sometimes it is simply an experiment, and there is no particular reason or need that the child needs to stay in.  I could go on.  The factors are many, needless to say, and they are all worth exploring.   There is not a “right” solution and a “wrong” solution.  There never is.

But none of that is what this post is about.

What it’s about is what the mom asked further along in the conversation.  With her permission, I quote her question here:

“When I discussed pulling my son from daycare with the director she said that I am, setting him up to learn that behaving in “this way” will allow him not to do certain things. I.e if I am sad/crying etc mummy won’t make me do X thing. This has also been said to me by friends, that I am the parent and we all have to do hard things. Get used to it!

For me, I feel my son’s actions and demeanour are shouting that he isn’t ready. But I feel thrown by the suggestions that he is “manipulating me” 🙄 or that by taking him out I am permitting him to never fully commit to anything!”

This is the part that I want to respond to here.  And that I promised her that I would.  And that I’ve had a hard time getting down in words.

Why is it so hard?  Others responded in comforting, reassuring ways.  “Your child is not manipulating you.”  “You are not setting him up for failure.”

As for me?  These questions and worries are so deep, so foundational, so common, so much a part of how our dominant culture sees children.  And they are so intensely troubling and distressing to me, so much a part of what I feel I am “fighting against” every day, often against exhaustion.  So I had no easily accessible words of comfort or reassurance.  Because all I can do in response to these sorts of comments from others is…well…cry.

Yeah.  I cried.

That’s why I haven’t written.

I find it hard to respond even now.  It may seem odd to you, it’s such a “small” question, such a common warning that is expressed by other parents and teachers.  To me, it is THE question.

So why did I cry?  I cried because if I don’t cry, I will scream.  So that’s what I’m here for.  To scream.  (Lucky for you–in writing, the volume is more manageable.)

If I may, I’m going to take this one line or thought or comment at at time.

The director of the preschool says “setting him up to learn that behaving in “this way” will allow him not to do certain things. I.e if I am sad/crying etc mummy won’t make me do X thing.” 

Well, dear readers, that in itself is a sign.   Does the adult who is in charge of this particular preschool  have an orientation toward children that is grounded in empathy, emotional responsivity, and respect?   Forget all those kajillion factors that I mentioned above for a minute.  That in itself is a good reason to remove the child from that particular program.  The leadership of a child care center or a preschool is key–that person sets the tone for the caregivers.  I would not want my child in any program where a teacher, caregiver, or especially administrator sees two year old children as essentially manipulative, and whose philosophy relies on behavioral models of “training” children by refusing to be responsive to their emotions.   What is the matter with a 2 year old child crying when they are adjusting to a new setting away from a parent for the first time?  How do we come to see that as “behaving in ‘this way’?”  Crying is not “misbehavior” that needs correcting.  It is pain and distress that needs empathy.  A two year old does not need to learn “grit.”

Children don’t cry to manipulate us.  Children cry when they are sad or upset or frightened.   Real emotions.  Seeing their crying as manipulation is a framework that sees children as our adversaries.  The very idea of young children as our adversaries, people we need to make sure we “win” against…well…yeah, cue the crying again.  It breaks my heart.

Young children know how we feel about them.  They can feel it.  I sometimes say they are omniscient, which is a bit of an overstatement, but it is not an overstatement to say that they feel things deeply and they are very tuned in to our emotional valence in relation to them.  They know.  Even in infancy.   What sort of long term behavior or attitude should we reasonably expect from a child who we see as an adversary?  Um…adversarial behavior.  Which, of course, we then have to “correct”, because parents always need to “win”, to be “right”, to “let them know who is in charge.”  And we’re off, on an 18 year journey of tension and struggle, as we see our children as adversaries and in turn, they see us as the same.

No.  This is not the way it has to be.  Children are not our adversaries.  They are human beings with whom we are privileged to share our lives and our homes.  They are naturally primed and inclined from birth toward empathy, cooperation, collaboration, and unconditional love and regard.   It is ours to nurture those natural impulses–by offering them the same–or conversely, to let them know, at the tender age of one or two, that we consider them adversaries. Whichever we choose, they will respond in kind.  They learn how to be from us.

Now, to be fair, I understand what the director may be trying to say (at least I hope this is what the director is trying to say.)  They may be saying that a child’s distress at adjusting to preschool is entirely normal, and should not be a reason on its own to believe that a child needs us to “rescue” them, that we can can continue to express confidence in their ability and give them time to adjust without feeling distress ourselves.   That’s very true.  And that leads us right back to the list of factors, all of which matter.  It’s true.  This child needs time to adjust–if continued attendance is important at this point.  If it is not important, then the child does not need time to adjust.  At 2, a child faces countless future opportunities to “do hard things”–two is hardly the end of the road for such learning experiences.   To believe otherwise is to parent from a place of fear.

And then there are the other parents.  Our communities.  Our families.

You the parent and we all have to do hard things. Get used to it!

He is “manipulating you”

You are permitting him to never fully commit to anything!

So much fear. So much control.  These are the ways of the dominant paradigm in our culture.

Yes.  You are the parent.  You are the parent who, with the deepest knowledge of your child and connection to him as a person, feels that your “son’s actions and demeanour are shouting that he isn’t ready.”  Be the parent.  Listen to yourself.

We all have to do hard things.  At two?  Why?  Because there will be hard things we have to do when we are eight or fifteen or thirty?  This is fear, personified…and most of all, a belief in children as essentially incompetent.  If we don’t FORCE them to “do hard things” at two, they won’t ever be able to do hard things later.  Really?  We’re parents, our children’s source of unconditional love and support, not the overseers of a Dickensian workhouse.  They don’t need to be in training for the hardships of life.  Those hardships will come, and our children will come to them with the strength and confidence that comes from having experienced unconditional and responsive support when they were young.  As Teacher Tom says, “we don’t starve ourselves in preparation for famine.”  Hard times will come.  To all of us.  We don’t have to practice having those hard times to be able to survive them and thrive.

He is manipulating you.  No.  He is expressing his emotions.  He is feeling what he feels.  The answer is empathy, not boot camp.  Learn about child development at two or three.  Conscious manipulation isn’t even authentically possible.

You are permitting him not to ever commit to anything.  Again, I say:  Really?  Giving a two year old another year to mature and then trying again with a program that is more regular than two days a week is teaching your child to never commit to anything?  How do you figure?   Again, if the child must go, then yes, there are things we can do to best support them through the hard “commitment” (which is ours, not theirs, by the way, since they didn’t make the choice).  I dare you to find the child who went to preschool at three or four rather than two who failed miserably in school and could never commit to anything over the course of a lifetime purely as a result of playing at home and going to preschool a year or two later.  Sound absurd?  Yeah.  Because it is.

Listen up.  Sometimes, just sometimes, we can trust children.  (well, honestly, almost all the time, but hear me out).  I’m going to tell you a little personal story about parenting from fear.  Because I’ve been there.  As have we all, at times.  Anyone who tells you they haven’t been there is lying–we all have fear, it’s part of being human and part of staring down the immense responsibility and vulnerability of parenthood.   Conveniently, this is also a story about the wisdom of children.

When I was young, summer camp was one of the most important gifts in my life.  Even now, heading steadily toward 60, many of my dearest friends are still from camp.  The experience carries with it a value I cannot overstate.  And so, naturally, I wanted my child to have that experience.  I mean, it wasn’t just me.  Her friends were going (and I were seeing them have that same special bond and experience that I had).  My friends’ children were going.  I wanted her to go.  She didn’t want to go.  And when I say she didn’t want to go, it in no way expresses the ferocity with which she did not want to go.  So I compromised.  A little bit.  Once.  I decided that she would go, for only a week.  She was 9.  She would see.  She would see what a gift it was (even though a week isn’t long enough, as all of us who loved camp know.)  I can’t let her cry her way out of this because then she’ll never learn to do the hard stuff.  

And yes, I fell into fear.  And yes, I said it (more than once).  We’ve all said something like it at one point or another.  I said (actually, I probably yelled): “How will you ever go away to college for four years if you can’t even go to camp for one week?”  (yeah, not my proudest moment, but again, we all do it.)  That’s what fear sounds like.

You know what she said?

“I’ll be older then.”

(Stop here for a minute.  Breathe.  Take that in. “I’ll be older then.”)

I made her go anyway.  It was a nightmare.  It was a mistake that she never fully forgave me for.  It damaged our relationship in many ways–ways that have surely been repaired.  But it was a mistake nonetheless.  Because she was right.

That 9 year old is now 18.  A senior in high school.  With an early admission to a terrific school, her first choice, her dream school.  Ironically, a school that was “completely out of the question” because it is far away, which she was very clear she did not want, with some of the same determination with which she did not want to go to camp.  And then things changed.

And you know what?   She’s completely ready.  In every way.  She’s older now.

She never went back to camp.  That was a loss for me, not for her.  I had to mourn that and accept that my child was not me, and that it is not mine to shape her life, it is hers.  And she was right.  “I’ll be older then.”

Children are wise.  They know themselves. They can be trusted.  We can see them as partners, as collaborators, as fellow travelers.  Sometimes, things are necessary, for any one of a number of reasons.  And when that is true, we support them in doing the hard things.  And sometimes, things are not necessary.   Figuring out which is which, finding the balance, is the hardest task of parenting.  Making sure not to make those decisions based on fear is one of our most challenging goals, especially when so much of the world around us sees children as adversaries and embraces fear and control as the hallmarks of their relationships with their children.

We can choose otherwise.  We can choose to raise children with confidence, trust, collaboration, and responsiveness.  We can choose to be conscious and intentional.  We can choose to reject fear and control.

We all want to raise children who are strong and resilient and able to persevere and handle the hard things in life with grace and confidence.  There is more than one path to those ends.

They will be older then.


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