Last weekend I was talking to a wise Christian woman who, in addition to having three teenage daughters, has been teaching preschool for 13 years. The change that she most noticed among parents over the past decades, she said, was their accepting behaviors as “just how it is for a 2-year old” (or 3-year old, etc). “Children misbehave and parents stand there and shrug, smile, and say, ‘Oh well, she’s two.’ As if allowing the phase to pass is the only option.”
I thought this was interesting. The biggest change she saw wasn’t in parents’ increased permissiveness – though she did say she saw this too – but in their psychologizing mindset. All that talk about “what to expect from your two-year old” and the emails we all get from parent-center-sites have had an effect. “This is how it goes at this age,” we’re all saying – and leaving it at that. It’s typical for a two-year old to react against the word ‘no.’ It’s standard for a three-year old to have trouble sharing. Phew, my kid’s normal. Guess we’ll wait it out till it works its way out of his system.
This teacher said that a big part of her job was helping parents – those who were willing to receive her input – realize that it’s possible, even helpful, to train children in the midst of their developmental phases. That their kids (and they) didn’t have to settle for simply being a victim, behaviorally speaking, of whatever challenges the children’s curret stage of growth might pose in their lives. That through raising expectations and teaching kids to handle their instincts in appropriate ways, parents can work proactively with even the youngest kids toward maturity. We take into account the child’s stage, emotions, and capabilities – and use them as a jumping off point to training them beyond their initial behaviors. The teacher’s comments reminded me of Dr. Ray Guarendi’s statement, which I’ve noted before: “Today’s parents have been conditioned to ask, “’Is this normal?’ regarding their children’s behavior, rather than asking, ‘Is it good?'” There’s a world of difference between the two.
This can also happen with gender roles. “That’s how girls are,” we moms sometimes say of our young daughters as a way of excusing excessive crying or emotionalism. Yes, girls do tend to be more dramatic and emotionally-driven than boys, but this doesn’t mean we foster a brand of femininity in our daughters that permits collapsing into an uncontrollable heap of sobbing when things don’t go their way. About our son we may say, “He’s such a boy!” when he dents the walls through rough play or sigh “boys will be boys!” when toys end up broken. It’s true that boys are rougher than girls, but it’s not true that they must behave this way. They don’t get a pass on decorum because of their masculinity. Part of our job is to impart self-control and manners to boys and girls alike, to shape them in the midst of their unfolding human instincts. Doing so doesn’t deprive them of their girl-ness or boy-ness but rather directs and channels it optimally as part of their broader character development. It’s good for both children and household (and societal) harmony.