I spend a lot of time in my head, and one of my favorite ponderings is nature vs. nurture. How much does parenting matter? We toil and we fret. We read the latest round of confusing, conflicting studies and opinions. We stimulate, teach, parent the way we were parented because it worked just fine, or do the radical opposite because it didn’t. We hover, free-range, stress and (according to the New York Magazine article “All Joy And No Fun”) mess with our happiness. And for what?
If we can believe the many “twins studies”, our child’s future is largely dictated by genetics, mapped at conception. So why not jump into the passenger seat and just enjoy the ride? Because most of us sense that we do have a role besides worrying, loading and unloading babies in car seats, and embarrassing them by the mere fact of our existence when they become teenagers.
My own experience leads me to believe parents have an enormous influence on our children, especially in the areas of self-confidence, security, sense of self. We are the ones who help our children to “feel comfortable in their own skin”, to stay inner-directed, intrinsically motivated. We encourage our babies to know themselves, to stay in tune with their genetic propensities, their talents and desires. We can’t change our children’s nature, but we do have the power to help them feel connected to who they are and feel satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) with that person.
Here are some ways to encourage a baby’s secure and positive sense of self…
A place and time to nurture baby ideas.
Soon after our baby is born she is capable of making choices, initiating thoughts and activities of her own. If we give our infant uninterrupted time and unrestricted movement in a safe place, she can begin to “have a life” between sleep, feedings and diaper changes — a life that is hers – one that is not centered around, or dictated by her parents.
This taste of independence will develop into long periods of play that our child will use to learn about herself and her world. The ability to find comfort and joy playing independently is a gift that keeps on giving for her parents, too.
We encourage our baby to be herself when we quietly observe and are responsive during her playtime, rather than directive. This sounds easier than it is. Resisting the urge to point our baby to an object she may not have noticed yet, or teach her how a particular toy works can be an interesting and rewarding challenge.
Infant specialist Magda Gerber guided parents to allow a child to be the writer, director and lead actor when she plays. Parents are best designated set designers, responsible for creating a baby’s play space, and then asked to take a seat on the floor in the front row. Relinquishing any parental agenda sends our baby a powerful message of trust and acceptance, “Whatever you choose to do when you play is interesting to me. It’s ‘enough’,” rather than, “Don’t do what you feel like doing, do this.”
Acknowledgements, rather than praise or rewards.
Our babies aim to please us, and it is a challenge, albeit a worthy one, to protect their intrinsic motivation. It’s key to fostering a connection with self. Sometimes it is as simple as acknowledging, “You did it,” when our child accomplishes a task while looking into our baby’s eyes with a proud smile and restraining our impulse to applaud, or give an automatic seal of approval “Good job!”
The goal is for our child to own his accomplishments (like learning to walk, completing a puzzle, reading, or using the toilet), rather than feeling pushed or bribed to do those things to please others.
We also want our child to continue to choose the activities he enjoys — and enjoy the activities he chooses — just for the sake of doing them. In his book, Punished By Rewards, Alfie Kohn advises against the use of rewards because they can teach children to stop enjoying a “process”. If a child is given a prize for the amount of books he finishes, it can make him distrust his love of reading. “Why am I being bribed to read? It must not be fun.”
Trusting our child to keep choosing.
As our child gets older, we encourage her sense of self when we remember to allow her to make choices whenever she can, especially when involving play and extracurricular activities. My husband and I have taken this approach to an extreme, and it’s worked wonderfully for our family. We wait until our children ask to try a specific sport, hobby or lesson, don’t push our preferences on them, and allow them to quit when they are done. By waiting for an idea to come from our child we can be assured that the interest is hers, not ours, and can also trust that she is probably ready for whatever it is. Some parents would disagree with this approach, but our theory is that our children know themselves and therefore what they need to work on much better than we do. And we want to keep it that way.
It’s common for parents to give labels, or stake out specific territories for children, especially if they have more than one child. Parents believe it encourages their children’s individuality when they identify Jenny as the soccer star, Robert as the trombone player, Molly as an ace at math, etc. But these roles are limiting, and instead we should give our children the freedom of all options being open — they can all be soccer or trombone players, whether or not they have a special aptitude, or at least explore those things as they wish.
Accept all feelings.
It is a parent’s job to give a child loving, but firm boundaries and limit inappropriate behaviors, but not the feelings which cause those behaviors. Since our emotions are our core, parents must be careful not to punish, judge or even correct the emotions that cause misbehavior. If a child’s darkest, most unreasonable feelings are acceptable to us, he doesn’t have to detach from, deny or bury those parts of himself and can retain his healthy self-image.
Many of us can relate to a feeling of disconnect with self and a struggle to regain intrinsic motivation. As parents we have the opportunity to offer our child a different experience. When we nurture our baby’s individuality by allowing her to stay in touch with her true self, she can grow up feeling comfortable and proud of the person that she is, more able to trust her instincts, accept her feelings and those of others. Surely, this is one fundamental key to happiness.
“I yam what I yam and tha’s all what I am.” -Popeye
I share more suggestions for raising self-confident, happy kids in Elevating Child Care: A Guide to Respectful Parenting