Thoughtful Parenting Article: Out of the mouths of babes
Our two-months prematurely born grandson, G, soon to be 4-years-old, has been a very effective teacher of how children’s brains develop in the same order, but still differently from one another.
G is verbally curious and inquisitive. He tells stories of amazing complexity and can explain in ways we understand — most of the time — how things work.
His physical development is on the smaller side of average in height and weight for his age. His parents believe that, with time, he will catch up physically.
He runs a bit awkwardly and bravely dares to jump off the bottom step of the staircase. At the park, he enjoys climbing ladders and running across bridges, but he refuses to go down the slide. Physically, G is reluctant to take risks, unlike many of his peers.
Encouraging G, physically and verbally, to go ahead and do whatever he doesn’t want to do is not an effective way of helping him. A very important part of his brain knows he’s not ready to perform certain physical acts. He will be ready at some point, but not yet. G cannot tell you what feeds his hesitation. Any effort by an adult to find out “why” not only fails, but is shaming to G.
We expect preschoolers to take absurd risks, such as climbing on a chair in order to climb on the counter in order to climb up to the shelf with the Cocoa Puffs. They see something they want, and they get it — no thinking involved. They see a rocky mound that has to be climbed, and they climb it, with no thought of injury. Clearly, that part of their brains that’s supposed to tell them to stop and think isn’t working.
For most children older than 8, the part of their brain (pre-frontal cortex) that tells them to stop before they cross the street or make a mean remark or jump into a swimming hole is working well. On the other hand, some kids have problems with being left at school or going to activities away from home. It’s as if the parts of their brain that perceives danger (pre-frontal cortex and amygdala) are on overdrive. They may or may not be able to explain what their fear is, but that’s not important. What matters with any child, such as G, is that we respect their choices. They are telling us they are not ready to do what is being asked of them.
Their motives are not necessarily obstinacy, manipulation, power struggles or even just getting their own way. Usually, children cannot explain their motives or reasons, because they have no way of knowing them.
A child of age 9 to 11, for example, may resist vehemently being left with a grandparent. It’s up to us, as the adult detectives, to determine that this child has his or her reasons for resisting, and they need to be respected. If gently encouraging the child doesn’t work, there has to be a “Plan B.” Logical reasoning is not an option.
Fear is a powerful motive that is often irrational. If children are abandoned in some way as infants, fear of abandonment will stay hidden in the amygdala, untouched by reason. Fear of loss of safety may be at the core of a child’s seemingly obstinate behavior, but all the reasoning in the universe will not persuade that child that he or she is safe.
It’s by feeling safe and accepted that children, at their own speed, can outgrow what may seem to be irrational fears. Our job, as adults in their lives, is to be as accepting and nurturing as possible (and appropriate) and know that child development takes different courses and has different timetables for different children.
Chris Young, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist in private practice specializing in children and families. For more information, visit her website at mdyphd.com. She can be reached at 970-879-3032.
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