Expectations of children is one of the biggest areas of discussion, or should I say contention, in the parenting education groups that I facilitate.
When a mum complains about her two-year old wanting to sit on her lap at dinner time, after spending all day in childcare, I ask “what are your child’s needs?” She’s so busy pushing him away because he should be in his high chair, she can’t see his behaviour as a need to connect with her. When a mum says she walks away from her tantrumming toddler in the supermarket and threatens to leave him there, and I ask “what have you just threatened to do?” she can’t always relate to the fear that scenario creates.
Some parents don’t understand a child’s need for belonging first and foremost. And it seems to be the greatest source of conflict between parents and young children. Our society places such an emphasis on independence that young children are given a timeline for developmental tasks. We are so achievement orientated and intellectual, we lose sight of the ball because we’re focused on the goal posts.
Parents worry about the precedent it sets if they feed their three year old, or help their six year old get dressed for school on those days when she just can’t manage it herself, or the nine-year old that snuggles into bed with the parents in the middle of the night after a nightmare. I ask “do you think you’ll still be feeding him when he’s ten years old?”
I never have a tussle with parents over values. Diversity is wonderful. I’m simply available to parents to give them the current research on what is believed to benefit children’s development, as we know it at the moment. And the research says that if you have high expectations for children, as a parent or teacher or anyone else working with children, then you need to have a high level of warmth as well. Unfortunately, what I see is a whole lot of parents with high or unrealistic expectations for their children and scorn and indignation when the kids, little tiny kids, aren’t meeting the mark.
Underlying all of this angst appears to be the view that children are intrinsically lazy, manipulative, and out to make your life hell. Dr Bryan Post calls it fear based parenting. If I don’t have my child toilet trained by the age of two, how will it reflect on me? What’s wrong with my child?
“Parenting is a process not an outcome, the process dictates the outcome”. – Dr Bryan Post
Sometimes I still need to feed my six year old his breakfast, or help him get dressed. Some days it is all too much for him. It’s not that he can’t do it himself, he just needs some extra love and support. If he can’t get that love and support from his parent, where else is he going to get it?
Some parents say that when their walls of strict adherence to independence are broken down, it is such a relief for them to be able to tend to their young child’s need for love and care and nurture and belonging. They learn to approach parenting from a heart level rather than a head level.
I love having parents in my groups who have many children with a wide age range, from young adults down to toddlers. People who have been parenting for over twenty years. They always barrack for process. They have had the experience of being uptight about their older children and by the time the sixth or eighth child comes along, they have learnt to follow their child’s lead. They’ll let you know what they need.
“You don’t need an instruction manual when you become a parent, your children are your instruction manual”. – Dr Kent Hoffman
I have had the very good fortune to be able to recruit a parent from one of my parent groups last year, who moved from fear based parenting to love based parenting within a matter of weeks. She now helps me to facilitate my parent groups. Four months down the track her children are glowing, and she is the best advocate for positive parenting. She can talk to other parents about how miserable she was with her parenting and how she was seeking a diagnosis for the children because the four-hour long tantrums just had to be signs of autism, attention deficit disorder, and oppositional defiance disorder.
We had a lovely discussion yesterday in the group, where my co-facilitator talked about how beautiful her children are now that she is parenting them more positively – not yelling, having realistic expectations of them, creating moments of connection wherever possible. I said “they always have been beautiful”, and she replied “I just couldn’t see it before”. Parental state of mind is everything. What the parent thinks of the child, the child will integrate into his self (Dr Dan Hughes).
“Infants come to know, and be known by, mother’s mind, as well as to know their own minds.” – Dr Beatrice Beebe
Almost all of the parents coming to my groups are motivated by their need to fix their children. By the end of the course, they know it is themselves and how they are responding to their children that needs to change. Not everyone makes the transition, it’s really tough stuff to change one’s previous conditioning.
Dr Louise Porter, an Australian psychologist, and author of Children Are People Too uses the following tree diagram to explain to parents what children’s needs are.
When I talk about children’s needs, parents become confused. What are children’s needs? Like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, but in the form of a tree, once children’s survival needs are sorted out, they need to feel that they belong. Parents can create belonging through connection, acceptance, and empathy. Children go out to explore, and they come back to the parent for comfort and nurture. The safer they feel, the more confident they are about doing things for themselves – autonomy.
“Meeting the need extinguishes the need”. – Brian Cade
Fill your children up with hugs, descriptive praise, and connection. Some practitioners use the imagery of a ‘love cup’ to describe what fills children up and what depletes them. Some children have love cups the size of German beer steins and some have those little espresso cups. I remind parents to enjoy that difference too. My 6 year-old, who is a stein, is also the most loving and affectionate child, who will catch the kisses that you blow at him and put them in his pocket for later. From utterly frustrating to totally adorable, sometimes within minutes. What’s not to love?
“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.” -Nelson Mandela