Our understanding of children and what they need to thrive has come a long way in the last 20 years. Never has there been so much information backed by research and experts on early childhood development for parents to devour as they navigate what they *should* do with their little ones. The problem is that in some ways we’re doing our kids a disservice in our attempt to give them everything they need.
There is a distinct difference between being child-led and being permissive. The idea behind child-led philosophies is that we, as adults, are paying attention and responding to a child and his/her needs in ways that are both respectful and purposeful. However, it doesn’t mean there are no boundaries or discipline (by discipline, I’m referring to the true etymology where in latin a disciple is a learner and therefore discipline is to teach). Being child-led gives children appropriate choices (would you like the blue shirt or the red shirt?) while always being in control of the environment. Permissiveness is allowing a child to choose what they want, when they want and how they want it… and it’s scary for such a little person.
We, and I mean everyone, thrives in environments where the expectations are consistent and clear. Think back to your own days in school. Which teachers did you respect? In which classes did you feel like you learned the most? I can guarantee you it wasn’t in the ones where you could you whatever you wanted.
I went into a coffee shop last week that changed where to order and pay. I hadn’t been there for a while and it threw me for a loop because I wasn’t sure where to go and what to do. And I’m an adult. Imagine what it does to a child who relies COMPLETELY on other people to get through their every day. How unsettling would it be to not know the expectations? How upsetting would it be when all you’re trying to do is make sense of the world but the rules keep changing? We do that to our kids when we aren’t predictable and in control.
‘But I do the same things every day with my little person!’ says a chorus of adults. To which I say, yes you may do the same things but it’s in the way those things are done that we create the expectations and limits children crave. Take pick-up time at the daycare. We had an exceptionally cold February and little people needed to wear their coats, here are some common scenarios that we overheard:
Parent: “Time to go home, put your coat on ok?” Child protests and throws himself on floor.
Parent: “You must be tired. Here, let me carry you to the car. We can put your coat on after.”
Parent: “Help me put your coat on, Sweetie”
Child: “No!” Child runs away to exit door. Parent follows child to front exit.
Parent: “You need your coat! It’s so cold outside and I don’t want you to get sick. You don’t want to get sick, do you? Here, put your coat on please.”
Child: “No!” Child starts to run away again. Parent catches child, picks her up while wrapping coat around her body. Continues to talk about why she has to wear a coat.
Parent: “Time to go! Would you like to put your coat on or should I do it?”
Parent: “When it’s time to go home, you put on your coat. Would you like to do it? Otherwise, Mommy will do it for you”
Child: “No coat!”
Parent: “You look like you need help. Left arm first! That’s this one. Now your right arm. You did it! Ziiiiiip! Ok, now we can go to the car.”
In each example the parent responded in a respectful and loving way, I’m certainly not criticizing any of them, but only in the last example did the parent’s response give the child limits and stay in control. The difference is subtle, I know, but the impact it has on a child’s ability to handle situations is huge. This is because part of having limits is learning how to handle it when you can’t have it your way. We see it in the classroom when it’s time for circle and the child is asked to join the group but doesn’t want to. We see it when the teachers ask a child to help them tidy up and the child screams or cries in protest. We see it when children are doing something that’s unsafe for their peers and are reminded of the classroom rules and it’s met with defiance or resistance. Yes, children will test their limits with any adult and in infant and toddler rooms we see it regularly. However, it’s in the preschool room where it really becomes noticeable when children are used to having clear boundaries and consistent expectations at home. Those who are used to it have a much easier time following the routines and rules of the class.
So how do you create consistency and limits? First, don’t be afraid of negative reactions or big emotions! It’s ok for you to say no and it’s ok for children to be upset with you. Outbursts are inevitable when you set limits and when that happens, children need calm adults who accept their big feelings and provide comfort without giving in. Second, when you say something, follow through. Children learn quickly whether you do what you say and this creates a sense of trust and comfort for them, even if it’s met with resistance. Third, give appropriate choices. Children want to exert their independence and they need to be encouraged to do things on their own. However, giving them choices that are appropriate for their age is crucial “Would you like pear or apple with lunch?” “Would you like to brush your teeth before or after your bath?”. Lastly, if you ask a question to which ‘no’ is a possible answer, you have to accept it as the child’s answer. If you want your child to listen when you say no, the same has to be done in return. It’s the foundation of creating a trusting and respectful relationship [with anyone].
I think it’s fair to say that every parent’s goal is to set their children up for success. We feel the same way at the daycare, and we know what’s coming when children start kindergarten. We want every child to be ready for this big change, but we can only do so much. The rest happens at home.