As parents, one of the most essential but difficult tasks we face is the setting of guidelines for how we function as a family. Having intentional goals that each family member can rely on make it easier to navigate both change and challenges. While a family culture may evolve over a number of years, a child will first experience their family guidelines as they respond to their own small world.
Change is a fact of life, no matter how much we wish it wasn’t so. Children gain security from predictable family schedules and rules, but their growing independence means they will bump into rules or expectations that will create discomfort for them. This will be discomfort that the entire family has to navigate. Without some setting of precedent, family life will turn chaotic as our children try to rewrite the rules or creatively bend them. These attempts to make independent decisions will look different at different ages. Tantrums at age two, negotiations at age four or five, rudeness or defiance at age nine, sullenness at age thirteen and back to tantrums at age fifteen. Children usually try all of those techniques along the way. As adults, our goal is to provide the structure that takes them to the other end of their development knowing how to successfully be in the world with other people and to know themselves well.
How can we help them when things just don’t go well?
Children see everything. They always remember the one time we changed a rule or disregarded it. They hear us lose our temper in the car, be rude to our spouse, or say something unkind about a neighbor. They watch us handle our difficulties especially when our difficulties are with them. No sainthood expected as parents, but we have to remember we are being watched. When our children are struggling, they often model how we handle our struggles.
Children are more secure when they know our non-negotiables. What behavior or rule is sacred in your family?
When are you willing to give and negotiate a bit? If our reactions are a moving target, our children will constantly be testing our mettle. When a child knows which things are always “No” in your book, their testing time tends to lessen. What is the balance in your relationship with your child? Are your rules firm 50% of the time? 75%? It is exhausting for your child to put so much energy into trying to negotiate everything in his/her life.
If a child is having a difficult time or going through a difficult stage, rather than talking too much, put them to work. Meaningful work is really what most children want. So, if you see a child handling things badly, find them a chore—a carrot to peel, a car to polish, a dog to brush. They need your help to get “unstuck” and to feel better about themselves in the moment. If you say: “why don’t we give this issue a rest and we will come back and talk about it after we get the dog fed,” you have given your child the space to change gears.
Learning to make good choices is a lifelong goal for all of us. Help your child start in small ways by offering choices as early as you can. They make choices all day at Childpeace, even as toddlers. Confidence is built when they get to decide what food they want or what shirt to put on or what book to read. Those moments build as they choose activities and develop interests in life. Our choices are actually what make us unique and autonomous. When your child starts to make those ethical choices in life, s/he will have the confidence to choose well.
As the adults and models in our children’s lives these few things can help them navigate their world. Being a good model of behavior, setting clear boundaries in the family, redirecting children to work that will make them feel good about themselves, and giving them choices to build confidence can become a part of each day and each year of growing maturity.
Sue Pritzker, Head of School
Childpeace Montessori School