A child enters the world totally vulnerable and completely dependent on her caregivers for every aspect of her survival and comfort. So dependent is a child on the primary caregiver that some studies suggest the child initially doesn't even have basic awareness that she is a being separate from her caregiver.
One of the most challenging requirements of child-rearing is how to incrementally support the child's innate drive from this place of complete dependence to greater independence and autonomy. This movement toward independence is a life-long process, and especially in the first years of life, the changes come rapidly. Just as the child and his caregivers are acclimating to a certain set of expectations about his abilities and levels of autonomy he is already moving toward the next level. In just a few months, for example, he has gone from just barely able to support the weight of his own head to taking his first tentative steps in learning to walk.
This natural growth process from complete attachment to gradual separation and independence is impacted by many individual variables. On one end of a continuum are those children who seem to be born with lots of intensity and drive. These children are always pushing the developmental envelope, eager to change, take risks and grow up. At the other end are those children who seem too content with the status quo. This type requires lots of gentle nudging and encouragement to take risks and establish new levels of independence.
Parenting styles too run the gamut. Some parents especially excel at attachment and seem to revel in the child's dependence on them. Others are a bit uneasy with the child's neediness and seem eager for the child to demonstrate new levels of self support. Most parents demonstrate a mixture and ever-changing blend of both these responses.
Within this complex matrix each parent is daily confronted with an endless set of questions and challenges. When is the right time for my child to sleep independently? When do we begin toilet training? Should she now be able to dress herself? How much should I expect him to clean his own room, brush his own teeth? Throw in the complication that growth does not proceed for any child in a straight line, but instead is marked by periods of advancement as well as times of backsliding and regression, and the challenge of how to respond to these daily questions can become daunting indeed.
The good news is there is no one right way, no set of prescriptions, no manual that will give you the perfect answers for you and your child. What you are left with instead is your own best judgment, with the understanding that mistakes will be made, and that all involved, child and parents, will learn as they go along.
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