The other day, after returning from one outing and immediately starting to plan where we were off to next, my preschooler said, “The thing about me, Mama, is that I really like to stay home mostly.”
It’s true. He does. Oh, sure, he loves to go the science museum and ride bikes around the neighborhood and climb at the park, but he also needs downtime at home, by himself, with his own “stuff” and special places. Time when he can just hang out. After a busy day out, back at home we often find him in small, quiet, safe places: forts, cabinets, and the back of closets. He gravitates toward activities he has mastered and is comfortable and familiar with. Legos, puzzles he knows he can do, books he knows by heart. It is as if he is trying to remind himself that the world is smaller, knowable, and predictable. What I know about him is that when I make sure I give him this, we have fewer meltdowns, less transition trouble (you know, those times when you just can’t make it out the door without everything in the world getting in the way), less sibling conflict, and even better sleep.
What I know about me is that I love to be on the go. So, sometimes, I let my own needs take precedence and we can spend days on end going here, there and everywhere. Over time, his stress builds up and he starts to ask for what he needs in his four-year-old way: tantrums, increased aggression, and more out-of-control moments. I imagine he feels depleted. His time at home rejuvenates him. It is my job to remember this and build time into his world for meeting this need.
Often, when our kids are struggling with something, we look for answers outside. We read books or blogs or we ask our friends what they would do. But, in reality, the starting point should be within the kiddos themselves. When a parent presents a “problem” he is having with his child, I like to start by asking, “What do you know about your kid that could help us understand what she is trying to communicate here?” Most of the time, the parent starts to tell me about his child and, through this dialogue, the “problem” suddenly makes more sense.
We have to remember that, just like adults, kids are individuals. Their personalities, proclivities, likes, dislikes, temperaments, and natures vary indefinitely. When we say, “Two-year-olds are this way,” or, “Six-year-olds should be that way,” we have to remember that these are amazingly broad generalities that don’t account for the infinite personal differences that make our children unique and amazing individuals. If we stop paying so much attention to developmental schedules and what our friends’ kids are doing, and we start emphasizing what we know in our hearts about our own kids, we can respond and offer support in ways that work for them, rather than becoming frustrated when they don’t follow a certain pattern!
In workshops, I often have parents write out thoughts on the following questions. Thinking about these questions can help you to organize your understanding of your child. This understanding can lead to insights about how you can support your child’s interaction with the world in a way that makes sense for him.
What kinds of things create anxiety for my child?
What does my child like? Dislike?
What five words best describe my child right now?
If my child could choose one place to be, where would it be?
How does my child respond to new situations?
What does it look like when my child has had enough?
How would I know if my child were uncomfortable?
What is the best part of the day for my child? The hardest?
What happens when she is hungry? Tired?
Parents are often surprised to discover how much insight they already have about their children. Sometimes the most difficult part of this process is that:
- We confuse what is true for us with what is true for each of our kids (just because I feel the need to be moving constantly doesn’t mean this works for my child), and
- We have trouble remembering that kids are dynamic, changing beings. What is true right now may not be true next year.
As our children grow, develop, and thrive, the answers to some of these questions may morph as well. We must strive to see our children with open eyes and a flexible mind. The best strategy for supporting an individual child depends on the picture that emerges as we think through these types of questions. Thinking of our children as autonomous individuals can allow us to be creative and think outside of the “parenting book guidelines” to discover what really works.