I have a missive for all you parents. Especially the moms and dads of screaming babies, melting-down toddlers, whiny preschoolers, sassy school-aged kids, surly tweens…wait I guess I’m talking to all ya’ll when I say:
Your child is not bothering me.
Your child is a CHILD. A growing, developing person who is surely doing the best they can muster in any given situation. I get that. Most people get that. Yes, there will be the occasional upturned nose. Yes, you may catch a glare or an exasperated look from the one person in the crowd who has never been a parent, teacher, or aunt. Because most people—they understand—they have been there.
If you could slow your panic at disturbing the peace, you would see that many more people are shooting you compassionate, understanding glances. Or mouthing, “I’ve so been there!” or some other show of solidarity. It takes a dang village, remember?
Take a deep breath.
People who don’t want to hear a child cry at the grocery store, ever, should move to one of those adult-only condo villages where they can live happily ever after, and never hear the delighted laughter of a child. Because you can’t have it both ways. You and your children have a right to exist, on good days and bad ones. To make noise even; to be seen and heard.
Also, your child is not in my way.
People fall over themselves to apologize for a child being “in the way.” Or correct them sharply to “watch where they are going.” I like seeing children out in my community. That’s part of what makes a community a community! I stopped and had a friendly exchange with a little boy at the grocery store the other day, after his parents had tried to hustle him along so he wasn’t in my space. He ended up helping me count the limes I was purchasing. We all smiled and went on our merry ways—it was lovely.
Please don’t send children the message that they don’t get to take up space. Even your huffing and puffing teenager is OK with me. I used to BE a huffing and puffing teenager. And a whiny preschooler. And a screaming baby. Immaturity is the hallmark of young people, hence the term, “immature.” New neuroscience tells us that the highest functioning part of the human brain is not fully wired and developed until the mid- to late-twenties. Human “childhood” is crazy long.
But it’s OK! That’s exactly what allows us to be “big-brained” and mature (for the most part) as adults. And if you or someone you know struggles with “adulting,” as it’s sometimes called, well that makes sense. Because we are learning more and more with each passing day that small children are emotionally volatile and immature exactly because of their youth.
A New Parenting Paradigm is upon us—one of developmental understanding, allowing for growth to unfold, holding space for big emotions, and nurturing feelings of safety and healthy attachment. This new lens allows us to not moralize or demonize (or pathologize!) our kids’ behavior. It helps us not take their upset and aggression personally. It helps us feel closer to them; to love and support them more, and better.
Our parents did not have the benefit of understanding this. They may have come from a background where children were “seen and not heard.” Many thought that punishing children for their immaturity was the best way to help them be mature, or that bribing them with rewards for “better behavior” was an avenue for bringing maturity.
Luckily, we now have new, helpful information about why kids act the way they do. All behavior is communication, and sometimes the message is, “I’m little and immature, and I’m also doing the best I can. Love, help, and guide me, please.” Or as I learned at a conference recently, via Circle of Security, parents need to “Always be: Bigger, Stronger, Wiser, and Kind.”
We have the power to change things.
Sometimes our struggle to be mature is a direct result of maturity being pushed on us too early when we were young, or safe space not being offered, or shaming punishment we received for being immature or “behaving badly” as kids. We are capable of healing these hurts, of recognizing that the cycle of misunderstanding about children can be stopped.
We don’t generally fret about our children’s physical growth and development. Each child has their “curve on the chart.” The same holds for their emotional growth and development—they will get there.
Send the clear message that they are doing just fine. They get to be young, and immature for now, and one day they will have grown, and changed, and matured. As if by magic. They will be tall (maybe taller than you!), and they will startle you with their vision and compassion. Their steady gaze, and wide-open heart will show you that you have succeed.
Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (Or Anyone Who Acts Like One), by Deborah MacNamara, Ph.D.
Hold Onto Your Kids: Why Parents Need to Matter More than Peers, by Gordon Neufield, Ph.D. and Gabor Mate, M.D.
Circle of Security Parenting: www.circleofsecurity.net
This article was originally printed in the July-August 2016 issue of Parent & Family.
Sarah MacLaughlin is author of the award-winning book, What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children and has been featured in The Huffington Post. She brings 20 years of experience working with children and families to her coaching practice. Sarah is also mom to an eight-year-old who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. She works with families one on one, in groups, and through online offerings.