As a developmental psychologist and professor, I love your website and blog. You do a great job explaining an approach to child development that is accepted by many in the academic community (at least in my area of research).
One issue that has been on my mind lately is how to determine what appropriate expectations are for a child of a given age. My son is approaching toddlerhood, and I want to try to prepare myself for what is to come. So how do you decide what is an appropriate expectation for a child of a given age?
For instance, recently we had some friends over with their 3-year-old. On their way out, she decided that she wanted to wear her mom’s shoes to walk out to the car, which meant that it would take a lot longer and she might trip. What would be an appropriate response in that situation?
In another recent outing, a friend’s toddler started banging his head against the floor, throwing a tantrum. What should she have done in response?
Thank you for your note and questions. You definitely got me thinking. At first, the only commonality I could see between the two examples you gave me was the need for a calm parent. “Appropriate expectations” threw me off a bit until I realized you were asking about appropriate behavior, which is a little different.
How do we know what to allow and where to draw the line? What are our children’s true needs? Here are some general guidelines I put together using your examples:
Say YES to:
Always. Children need freedom to express their deepest, darkest, oddest, most outrageous or inappropriate-seeming feelings.
Emotions are deeply connected to “self”, so from infancy onwards our children need to know we will patiently hear and accept all their feelings and try our best to understand them. The challenge is not to squelch the feelings (with distractions, punishments or other invalidating responses), and also not to let the emotional outbursts impact us too much — to hear and support our child without absorbing her moods.
I’ve found it helpful to remind myself that we can’t control another person’s feelings. We can only control the freedom our child feels to express them. Encouraging the expression of feelings and acknowledging them is the key to our child’s emotional health and also to self-worth.
Toddlers have tantrums because they reach a tipping point and need to release intense emotions that are way beyond their control. The child who falls to floor and bangs his head in anger, rage or frustration needs a calm, understanding parent to allow him to express these feelings fully — not punish him or even “comfort” him to make this outburst stop.
The tantrum has to run its course to be an effective release for the child. Then we acknowledge the situation and offer hugs. “Wow, you were so upset that I said you couldn’t have another piece of that yummy cake. You really wanted more.”
If head-banging becomes a frequent habit, definitely consult a professional, but the typical child will not deliberately hurt himself. A calm, accepting attitude, while perhaps slipping a pillow under the child’s head (“I’m putting this here to keep you safe”), is our best response.
If we become frantic, punitive or agitated (in other words, we let the behavior push our buttons), the child might consciously repeat it.
Safe exploration, self-directed play
For young children play, exploration and experimentation should be predominantly self-chosen. Our children’s choices will surprise us and not always look like “play” as we might perceive it. Facilitating and observing self-directed play is one of the biggest joys of caring for babies and toddlers. And for our children this freedom is an essential need (and it helps them accept our boundaries more readily). Ideally, we provide the opportunities and materials and let children take it from there.
I see no problem at all with allowing children to play in mom’s shoes, if mom doesn’t mind. But, as I’ll explain below, our child’s need to explore doesn’t mean she needs to do this anywhere besides the places we deem safe or appropriate.
This means keeping an eye on the head banging, which is probably an involuntary, temporary phase (and if we can stay calm, will probably stay that way).
Wearing mom’s shoes to the car is a risk that is not necessary for healthy experimentation. The true wish or “need” this child is expressing, in my opinion, is the comfort of a parent’s leadership and limits.
When the child is testing
I see the request to go to the car in mom’s shoes as a test of wills and if she wins, she loses. Secretly, I think she’s hoping mom will care enough to say no. She sounds like a strong, bright girl, probably very capable of making it to the car in high heels if she was allowed to. But then there would probably be another test.
Rather than engage in battles, I advise rising above them by calmly and lovingly setting a limit: “I know you like to walk in my shoes and that’s safe to do in our house, but not now. Would you like to wear your shoes, or go barefoot?” She’ll either accept this gracefully or object and release some of the feelings that have been simmering inside her.
Young children tend to have difficulty with transitions, which means they usually need the comfort of more direction and less choice than they do at play time. They still need opportunities for autonomy, like choosing whether or not to wear their shoes to the car (if that’s an option) or the choice, “Would you like to walk or be carried?” But the freedom to make everyone wait while they explore walking “as mommy does” is indulging them with an uncomfortable amount of power.
The Annoyance Factor
Parenting is the development of an extremely vital relationship, the model for every future relationship our child will engage in. Since a relationship takes two, our needs and feelings are just as important as our child’s. Yes, we make many sacrifices as parents, but ultimately, the relationship has to work for both of us.
Since we are the adults in charge, we are the only ones capable of protecting our relationship from being one of resentment, dishonesty, distrust, dislike. This is why I believe in giving boundaries to prevent the “annoyance factor” — meaning whenever possible, we don’t give children the freedom to irritate us through their behavior. (Yes, expressions of emotion can be very annoying, but those don’t count, because we cannot and should not control them.)
If we don’t want our daughter playing with our shoes, I don’t believe we should allow it, and instead of feeling guilty we should feel good about taking care of ourselves and prioritizing our relationship.
We make it even easier for our child not to irritate us by making off-limit items unavailable to her while she plays. This is one of the many reasons safe, enclosed play spaces are invaluable. They give children the freedom to fulfill their healthy, instinctual need to explore without being a nuisance to us, and hearing a no (that they are inclined not to obey) every few minutes. It’s a baby’s job to “get into” everything, and when we constantly have to say “stop that” and “stay out of there”, we start to feel resentful.
Also, when we placate children by allowing them to do what we don’t really want them to do, we end up being the ones who want to explode, and that can be dangerous.
Do we want our children to grow up believing they are annoying, unpleasant people…and very possibly fulfilling that prophecy?
“It helps to be strongly attuned to our own inner-rhythm – to know what your needs are, and to convey this to your family so they learn to respect your needs, too. Ongoingly sacrificing your own needs for the child’s can create inward anger within both of you.” –Magda Gerber, “Dear Parent: Caring For Infants With Respect”
I hope this sheds some light. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
I offer a complete guide to respectful boundaries in my new book:
(Photo by gilcreque on Flickr)