I recently had a discussion with someone, having had their own experience parenting and now grandparenting a four year old, about children speaking up for themselves. As a teacher, I described to the grandmother how her granddaughter had spoken up for her rights in my classroom after she had been rejected in play by a group of kids. Her grandmother and I delighted in how powerful it was that she was able to speak up in such a potentially fragile moment. She had the skills and the practice to respond appropriately.
Her grandmother then shared a powerful message with me that I have been pondering ever since. “Her mother was the same way,” she said. People used to say to me, “you let your daughter speak forcefully to you.” My reply to them was always, “Of course I do. How will she ever learn to speak forcefully out in this world if she can’t practice it speaking to her mother?”
“A-ha,” I thought. This offered me a different perspective. Children usually save all their big feelings and tantrums to release onto their caregivers. As parents, we’re just lucky, I guess. We have earned their trust through attending to their needs through infancy and toddlerhood. They have learned to trust we will take care of their basic needs and set appropriate limits to keep them safe and guide them through the stages of development.
As kids grow and develop, so should our tools and parenting. Our children’s needs change from needing us to attend to their every cry to stepping back and letting them learn to problem solve. It is our job to have a place for them to fall when life doesn’t go they way they expect it to.
So what are your long term parenting goals? We are not just raising children we are raising adults. Is it important to you that your child “obeys” and listens the first time you request something? Do you want your child to obey in their adult relationships with co-workers, friends and partners? Or do you want your children to become adults that respectfully question authority? Do you want them to preserve their self care by being able to say no to friends and to communicate their needs to their partners?
Setting children up with the tools, experiences and practice for developing autonomy lets children know that we trust them. That we trust that they can attempt new challenges. Sure, it’s faster if we put their coat on them and zip it up so we can quickly get out the door. Giving them the practice to do it themselves let’s them know that we think they are capable Children feel good when they complete a new task, but they need practice. When we send the message that we trust that they are quite capable, it can lead them to taking more initiative and risks.
Does this mean we should allow our kids to walk all over us, make all the rules, and let them dictate our entire daily schedule? No. Doing so would give kids too much power. Our jobs as parents are to guide our children to be able to separate from us and to live in the world without us hovering over them. Setting appropriate limits and teaching kids social constructs gives children the guidance and feedback they need to be autonomous.
If something is not working, try changing it or changing your perspective. Think about what kind of adults you hope to raise. The interactions and relationship style we develop now with our children will influence and direct our experiences as we prepare our children to launch into the world.
…Amy Rudawsky, Co-Director