It’s one thing to work on all the ways to be healthy yourself as an individual. Now you are a parent! How do you parent your children in such a way that they grow into optimal health? All the same definitions and principles described in this blog applies, and they need to be fit to each stage according to levels of development. Not more, not less.
Full disclosure, I personally have no children. Most of these concepts come from 45 years in medical practice, 40% of which has been pediatric.
First of all, both parents are needed in a complete process of parenting. Mothers play the crucial role in early stages, then gradually crucial roles shift more to fathers. Mothers offer nurturing, protection, and role-modeling of caring and compassion. Fathers later help children develop self-confidence, mastery, challenge, and road-mapping.
Above all, children need safety, predictability, and then self-worth and confidence. Families with addiction or violence problems, or neglect, create difficulties leading to coping habits that remain throughout life, even after original circumstances are no longer there. Therefore, adherence to these basic principles make a huge difference!
In the womb, the fetus is all sensation. Surrounded by a protected environment with all needs provided during early development, the fetus gradually becomes vaguely aware of external environment by hearing the mother’s voice and feeling the emotional environment. Birth is then a shock! Suddenly lungs expand, food is needed and not automatic, and senses are assaulted by light and noise and temperature, even freer movement of limbs.
The infant is Incarnated. A new universe! The plastic sensory brain overwhelmingly and systematically begins discovering the universe through senses and emotions. The new world is always changing — bodily sensations, colors, shapes, sounds. Essentially, the world is still two-dimensional.
Slowly they learn to focus on things and identify mommy’s voice with her face and smile. This contact, this physical closeness, all provide comfort and security. They can relax and trust their learning.
Of course, attending to physical requirements are primary. Breastfeeding is superior to bottle-feeding whenever possible. Hygiene is important prior to potty-training. All the touch and contact is important. Interaction on a continuing basis is crucial for brain and social development.
Constant talking and even singing encourages your child’s curiosity. “What do those sounds mean?” is on their mind.
Parents don’t usually realize that infants are psychic. They sense the emotional environment. If there is stress or conflict, that is OK — if it is occasional and always followed by soothing and caring. Parents often make a mistake saying they “never argue in front of their child,” thinking that prevents them from knowing. In fact, kids are very psychic until puberty and sense when something is wrong. It is probably better if the upset is acknowledged rather than being hidden — and then always followed with love and caring. They can handle the mixture of emotions!
Toddlers, naturally, discover that the world around is actually three-dimensional. Plus, there is time and sequencing to events. This becomes a given. They learn mastery in using their body. Always wanting more ability; they keep practicing until they learn to walk and then run.
The biggest discovery around this age is self-awareness. This is more mature incarnation. They are like mini-scientists investigating the world systematically. As they realize that their Universe is so full and all-absorbing, they simultaneously realize that there are other people out there in this three-dimensional universe. “If my Universe is so all-absorbing, their’s must be also! Maybe even more so!” Therefore, “Who’s in charge here?” This is the origin of the “terrible two’s.” They keep testing this question by whimpering, throwing tantrums, refusing food, etc. All this is to understand who is in charge.
The way to handle this power struggle is to define and enforce consistent boundaries. One author describes this stage as trying to cross a bridge on a dead-dark night; you reach out for railings. Toddlers want to know what to expect of the world. They rely on you to show them. And they are comforted by knowing what to expect. Some parents instinctively want to be soft and nurturing in all circumstances because they themselves dislike having to assert themselves; this actually causes more stress for the toddler and prolongs the “terrible two’s.”
Consistency is extremely important at this stage. If one parent is soft and the other strong, or if grandparents treat behavior in a different way altogether, the toddler becomes confused and anxious.
One early boundary issue is around lactation. When to end this is a mutual negotiation between infant and mother. The child has a voice, AND the mother has a voice!
Another similar negotiation comes around infant sleep. Left to their own devices, an infant’s sleep pattern can be random up to two years of age, according to Stanford. This can be too exhausting for mothers. So, it is legitimate to do sleep training. Infants learn by patterns in time, and sequencing, which enables training that benefits the child and the parents!
What toddlers need most is safety and predictability. For parents, this is a very demanding full-time job! Interaction, play, and praise encourage learning and curiosity and self-confidence. Neglect at this stage is permanently limiting.
Moreover, when the child falls or fails by his/her standard, it is important to communicate that they are OK. Pick up, be hugged, and move on! This way they learn that it is happier to move on than to dwell on pain.
PRESCHOOL OR DAYCARE AGE
Around 2 or 3 years of age, each child learns personal preferences, what feels good as an individual. They try out things and find out how it feels. This is very different for each child!
They take physical risks and get hurt. In their social circles, they take emotional risks and get hurt. Most importantly, they learn how to cope with these hurts. They are OK even with momentary hurts. They gain confidence inside themselves and are more willing to explore more widely.
As always, the task is to communicate that the child is OK no matter what happens. Safety and security are still paramount. Boundaries remain important though more taken for granted. But now Praise becomes even more important whenever a challenge is overcome.
During this phase, and even earlier, the dilemma of discipline is in focus. How can you maintain boundaries without imposing consequences for misbehavior? An important fact here is that your child’s brain is still very undeveloped; future consequences, such as no video games next weekend or not getting an expected toy, will not work. It must be immediate. The modern time-out works. Some cultures do spanking. The most important comment on this topic is that Praise is more effective than Punishment considering the entire process.
A similar principle applies to choices. Many parents seek to encourage individuality and a sense of being in control by giving frequent choices about everything in the day. At this stage, they do have preferences, so choices make sense. However, choices should always be within their comprehension. If it involves thinking outside of the immediate, choices that they don’t have the tools for will create more stress.
Neurophysiology in the last decade or more has shown via MRI that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t complete development until the early 20’s in girls and around 25 in boys. This is the executive function portion of the brain that plans ahead, makes choices of sacrifice now for the sake of a future goal. This lack of development is the reason kids forget their homework, leave their jacket somewhere, and don’t respond to losing video game privileges. The goal of studying hard to get into a good university goes completely in one ear and out the other. It’s like asking a toddler learning to walk to sprint a 100 M race!
Nowadays, because school systems usually don’t understand this biology, many kids are diagnosed with ADD or ADHD when the real issue is a normal lack of development of the prefrontal cortex.
GRAMMAR SCHOOL AGE
Exploration at this stage becomes more detailed and disciplined. Playfulness expands into curiosity and intellectual skills!
Handling emotions is a big challenge, particularly in the more intense social environment with all its satisfactions and problems! Learning to cope with failures and mistakes is important.
Teamwork is prominent. Learning to work with others is fundamental for full personality development, and it develops at this stage.
This is the stage when the fathering influence gradually becomes more crucial. Protection and nurturing have less value. Issues of security, and being OK remain important as always. Now the focus is mastery and self-confidence.
This is a stage where establishing values becomes important. Talking out family values, and the deep reasoning behind them, penetrates consciousness of children at this age. Role-modeling is even more important. Saying one thing and then acting differently teaches children that values are not as important as talking a good line.
Teaching values by example sticks! When they get into adolescence and get tempted by other behaviors, sexuality, alcohol/drugs, cheating, etc., it is this foundation of values that stands them in good stead — if not immediately, then later!
Of course, adolescence is a time of huge change! Consciousness, and “incarnation,” take twists completely unexpected from childhood’s worldview! Pretty much always, this transition is torture. But it also is a time of great expansion. All the foundations of security, stability, values, and self-confidence come to fruition during this tumult!
Teenagers are plagued by new emotions that need to be handled, powerful attractions, and actual and feared rejections.Adolescents are constantly trying on different identities. It is similar to the “terrible two’s” but very different; here they are trying to find their own individual way!
Parents have almost no influence at this stage. Peers are the whole ball game!
Think for a moment about evolution of the human race. If each generation simply cloned to a next generation, the species would not evolve very fast. Rebellion is crucial for evolution! This is why parents have so little control. There is a biological drive toward individualization and rebellion. If values were modeled at younger ages, they may be lost for a time in adolescence as the child pushes the boundaries of society (sex, alcohol/drugs, dress, etc.). If they were instilled earlier, though, most people gravitate back to them as their brain development completes itself.
One focus that naturally happens is attention to societal and global awareness. Compassion for the unfortunate, activism against injustice, wanting to change the world are natural.
This stage of life is a huge challenge for parents. They have no control. The old disciplinary techniques fail miserably. What to do? First, accepting the reality and showing respect for the new personality emerging is crucial.
Evolving from being parent to being a supportive friend seems to work best. The word “friend” needs to be used cautiously here. Parents, perhaps stressed themselves through work or divorce or other life events, sometimes lean on teenagers too strongly. This backfires; they have enough on their mind! What they need is a friend who shares what is appropriate for the child’s level of maturity. On the other hand, sharing personal experiences as a bonding process is helpful to an adolescent who is usually confused.
As always, praise for accomplishments, and encouraging sports, dance, acting, music, etc. helps develop self-worth. Fathers play a really important role at this stage, encouraging risk-taking, new challenges, picking up after falling down, aiming for big goals. Role-modeling by both parents is still very important, even though peers are the biggest influence. Especially role-modeling global awareness values will go a long way — if not quite at this stage, then later.
There are gender-specific roles for parents in adolescence.
Mothers can teach daughters about issues of sexuality, feminine hygiene, posture and proper clothing, handling inappropriate advances, etc. It is best to be forthright and frank, and share personal experiences.
Fathers teach sons about real masculinity (as opposed to cinema and media stereotypes), inner strength, finding a road map, being respectful and gentle yet responsible and persevering, and more. Again personal sharing is extremely important!
Parents, you have embarked on the greatest of all challenges! Every child is individual. Life throws all your plans for a loop! Hopefully these perceptions and principles help as a guide!
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