How many times have you sat in a restaurant and watched a child under the age of six receive a scolding for not sitting still during a meal? Or heard a three- or four-year-old admonished for not sharing?
Or observed an eight-year-old punished for having a meltdown when asked to take out the garbage? Or witnessed a 14-year-old get grounded for freaking out when told they couldn’t hang with friends on a Friday evening?
The parental response of punishment and consequence for such actions is not an uncommon occurrence in our world.
Yet each one of those examples represents a child with an underdeveloped brain responding exactly as they should according to their stage of development.
Many of us fall into the trap of expecting a child to absorb and adopt adult behaviour even though the human brain doesn’t fully mature until sometime in the mid to late twenties.
That six-year-old fidgeting at the dinner table is incapable of sustained focus and attention; the three-year-old simply cannot share; the eight-year-old hasn’t developed the self-control needed to stay calm in the face of a roadblock like chores when what he really wants to do is shoot hoops; and the 14-year-old is bound to lose control of his feelings in the face of big emotions.
So settle down, big people. Your kiddos are being and doing just what they are meant to be and do along their entirely normal developmental journey.
The trouble is that waiting for development to occur can be bothersome for us big people raising children in a fast-paced world.
We try to hurry development along rather than championing it at every point along the way. But children are not small adults, and we cannot force them into adulthood.
Self-regulation will look different in a baby, a toddler, and a preschooler. Babies bite because they know no other way to settle their bodies down. Toddlers have tantrums because they are trying to figure out how to become their own person, even as they lack the ability to settle themselves in the face of heightened emotion.
Preschoolers shove, push, hit, and don’t wait their turn because those behavioural niceties are still a foreign language when they are taken over by a big desire or need.
We must respect that children are growing a brain at the rate of billions of neural connections a day.
That level of growth will need to continue for years before they have any natural ability to manage their impulses and make “good choices” with some semblance of consistency.
Once, after I presented a workshop, a father told me how his nine-year-old son had been struggling to manage his big emotions in response to disappointing news or requests by his parents to complete chores.
Every time the child lost it, his parents would reprimand him for his “bad behaviour” and use behaviourist-inspired strategies such as consequences, timeouts, and removal of privileges.
One day, after yet another of these incidents, the father asked his son in exasperation, “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you do as you are told and stop reacting like this? I’ve told you a million times!”
In his gorgeous, infinite wisdom, the son replied to his father, “Dad, what is wrong with you? You’ve told me a million times and I still can’t do it. Why do you keep telling me the same thing over and over when I can’t do it?” Nailed it.
You cannot make growth and maturity happen faster by demanding its progression.
As David Loyst, a child development specialist who works with children with autism, says, “I’ve never seen a plant grow faster by pulling on the top of it.”
Instead of demanding development, a parent’s job is to inspire it and champion it.
This is an edited excerpt from Canadian psychologist Dr Vanessa Lapointe’s new book, ‘Parenting Right from the Start: Laying a Healthy Foundation in the Baby and Toddler Years’. Dr Lapointe is touring Australia in March 2020 visiting Perth, Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne to present seminars based on her book. To buy tickets visit: www.maggiedent.com/dr-vanessa-lapointe-australian-tour.