Most of the advice I share is focused on infants, toddlers and preschoolers, but since my own children are now well past those years (my oldest just turned 21!), it occurred to me that I should be sharing more often from my “long view” perspective.
Like most parents, I’ve had my worries. For instance, despite my commitment to natural motor development, I worried that my first baby would never learn to walk. Both she and her younger sister were perfectly satisfied exploring on their hands and knees into their 16th month.
When my children were toddlers, it was sometimes hard to believe they would naturally develop the ability to greet people politely or say “thank you” without my nudging. I wondered if my mentor, infant specialist Magda Gerber, could really be right when she assured us that modeling good manners and values would be enough.
I’ve also worried about my kids’ food choices, like my highly active son’s passion for sweets, and the periods he didn’t seem to eat much of anything other than fruit. I was dismayed when my oldest, who was always an ardent bread-eater, decided to go vegetarian as a teen, since in her mind vegetarian meant cheese pizza, pasta, even more bread and nary a vegetable in sight. Would she ever crave vitamin-rich foods?
Yet my training with Magda had taught me that if there was one reliable catch-all, go-to word to get me through the worried speculation and second guessing of parenthood: trust.
Trust, whenever and wherever it’s possible, reasonable and age-appropriate, is one of the most profound gifts we can give our children. Through trust we offer children opportunities to fully own their achievements and internalize the validating message: “I did it!” This, as opposed to the far less self-affirming one: “Finally, I did what my parents have been wanting me to do!” Believe me, children know the difference.
Trust is also a gift for parents, because it means we don’t waste our energy trying to urge development forward or “fix” issues that are usually best resolved by providing children with a nurturing environment and leaving the rest up to them. Attempting to force development before a child is ready sets us both up for unnecessary frustration and failure. We all know the expression, “you can lead a horse to water, but…”
Here are a few of my positive experiences with trust and some of the elements I believe need to be in place to ensure optimum child-initiated development:
Motor skill development
This is one of the more obvious developmental areas we can trust our children to self-initiate from day one, and I’ve written extensively about it. We can trust typical children to develop motor skills naturally if we provide:
- A safe space for free play
- Freedom of movement
- Uninterrupted floor time
- Responsiveness, but not interference. “Spotting” for safety when needed.
I have three children, one boy and two girls, and their personalities could not be more different. None was “toilet trained”. Toilet learning was a natural process that they self-directed with our support and without tension or struggle (or tricks, treats, cheering and parades) involved. I know my three kids aren’t enough for a scientific sampling, but it’s my belief that toilet learning can be an almost effortless process provided we:
- Pay full attention to children during diaper changes and invite them to actively participate in all self-care activities.
- Communicate to them respectfully about their bodies and bodily functions
- Make a child-sized potty available for experimentation, while letting go of any agendas surrounding its use (very important!).
- Familiarize children with the process by modeling toilet use and/or reading books about going potty. Here’s a funny one we enjoyed (that is unfortunately out of print!): Stop and Go Potty
- Give children the behavior boundaries they need, which definitely doesn’t mean ever insisting they use the potty. If possible, always allow children the choice of a diaper. Children most commonly react to our pressure by subtly (or not so subtly) firmly putting the brakes on this process.
- Do kindly insist that children wear diapers when they’ve demonstrated that they aren’t ready for potty learning. You might say something like, “I want to help you stay comfortable and not worry, and I can’t let you keep peeing on the floor.”
- Do make sure children have clear, consistent boundaries generally, or they will be inclined to turn toilet learning into a testing ground.
- Understand that this process can be different for every child. It might take a year or more for a child to complete. It might happen in fits and starts (so keep diapers around long after you think you’ll need them). Children need the freedom to develop this lifelong skill on their schedule, and they gain confidence from fully owning this accomplishment.
As Magda Gerber said (or perhaps warned), “What we teach is ourselves.” The lessons children learn through our behavior trump all else we aim to teach. Children need us to prevent them from hurting themselves, their peers and us, but otherwise they learn the manners we expect by observing and listening.
As I mentioned previously, I was a bit concerned about my kids remembering to say “thank you” when others expected it, and I would occasionally quietly remind them, perhaps more often than I needed to. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by their graciousness. I’ll never forget my oldest daughter’s sincere and unexpected “thank you” to her friends and their parents after each gift she unwrapped on her 3rd birthday.
Another concern I’d had was that even in their early teens, both my daughters were uncomfortable engaging with adults they didn’t know well. But by the time each was 15, this discomfort magically lifted and was replaced with genuine enjoyment.
- Model, model, model
- Forcing children to greet or hug people or say “thank you” or “I’m sorry”, shaming them for being “shy” or “rude” will only make children less confident in these social situations.
- Trust, trust, trust
Getting beyond one-note food choices
My white-bread teenage daughter? She’s now red meat, dairy and gluten-free, loves quinoa and squash, and never meets a green vegetable she doesn’t like. She’ll try anything new and eats things she wouldn’t go anywhere near as a teen, and I’m hoping my 17 year old middle daughter will soon begin to broaden her tastes as well (she’s been narrowing them since adolescence like her sister did).
My sweet-toothed son? Still has an insane amount of focused positive energy and excels in school and athletics. Maybe when he hits puberty he’ll start eating more. I believe we can trust children to eat what they need, provided we:
1. Offer a selection of healthy options and then let go of our expectations and agendas
2. Keep mealtimes peaceful, never tense, emotional, or a battleground
3. Keep our sense of humor about one-note choices. They pass. (Russell Hoban wrote one of my favorite children’s books about that: Bread and Jam for Frances)
I know that emotional regulation is a topic that worries parents, because whenever I post articles about accepting our children’s negative feelings (and I actually don’t believe there are “negative” feelings), I get feedback like this: “Shouldn’t we be teaching children to control their emotions, so they don’t grow up thinking they can have a tantrum when they don’t get what they want?” I wholeheartedly agree with clinical psychologist Kenneth Barish’s perspective, because this has been my experience, too:
… Children most effectively learn to regulate their emotions when they are confident that their feelings will be heard. When a child expects that her feelings and concerns will be appreciated and understood, her emotions become less urgent. Because each disappointment and frustration now feels less painful, less “catastrophic,” she will be less insistent in her demands and more open and flexible in seeking solutions to problems. She will less often get stuck in attitudes of blaming, argument and denial. She will be more able to feel empathy and concern for others, and to take responsibility for her actions.
We therefore need to set aside time, every day, to listen to a child’s concerns. Of course, we cannot listen patiently — or listen well — when we are tired or hurried; when we are burdened or preoccupied; or when, at that moment, we are just too angry. Over time, in healthy development, children come to understand this.
In these conversations, children begin to learn that their bad feelings, although painful, will not last forever — that through their own efforts or with the help of supportive adults, they can make things better. This may be the most important lesson we can teach, the lesson that is most essential to our children’s present and future emotional health.
There’s much more about the power of TRUST in my book:
(Photo by Alfredo Mendez on Flickr)