Child-rearing changes cause more stress in our relationships with young children

by Ginny Trierweiler, Ph.D., Board Certified Coach

About 15 years ago, having already studied child development for many years and worked with hundreds of children and families, I had an experience that opened my eyes to how much more brilliant young children are than we realize.  The setting was a Montessori school and I was amazed to see very young children working with focused attention and intelligence.  I had never before seen children so young demonstrating such great capability, maturity, courtesy and confidence.  It was very moving and it made me very curious.

At the same time, I was hearing increasing concerns about helicopter parenting. Societal changes were producing child-rearing changes.  Two examples of these societal changes:

  • In most families, both parents were now working full-time;  
  • Increased mobility left many young parents without a strong extended family support for raising children. 

Helicopter parenting or hyper-parenting is a very understandable result of these changes, as we can see in these common concerns expressed by parents and caregivers:

  • I’m afraid to let my child play with older children because he might get hurt;
  • I don’t let my child out of my sight because I’m afraid someone will take her;
  • I just want my time with my young child to be enjoyable, so I tend to give in to their demands to prevent tantrums or other unpleasantness.

Perhaps because our lives are so busy and we have more fears about child safety than in the past, we now contain young children more than in the past. Containment (in high chair, crib, bouncy chair, etc.) is frustrating for young children who are driven to learn and develop skills. It also causes more stress in adult-child relationships. 

When adults micromanage young children, and interfere with their natural learning drives, we communicate that their learning must always be directed by an adult. When we underestimate young children, keeping them contained much of the time and interrupting their efforts to learn in a self-motivated and self-directed manner, young children learn that they shouldn’t try to act on their own behalf. Whether they need to brush their teeth, put on their clothes, or manage the frustration of a challenging task, they should simply wait for an adult to do it for them.  

These child-rearing changes can be seen everywhere in our society. Government agencies reinforce these changing child-rearing practices, emphasizing safety while ignoring child development. Child safety is important, of course, but there is often a lack of wisdom about managing child safety, to the point that practices are employed which are highly likely to cause serious setbacks in children’s development in an effort to prevent highly unlikely or insignificant potential injuries. 

This modern approach to child-rearing seems to have negative effects on child development. It makes sense that an increased use of containment and doing everything for children interferes with their development, leaving them immature. Maybe this also explains why, over the same time period that these child-rearing changes developed, there has been a matching increase in rates of depression, anxiety, and narcissism among children and youth. When we prevent them from active, self-directed learning, or we over-react to their mistakes and spills, we teach them to be passive and to avoid mistakes, or to hide them. Maybe it’s understandable that so many children raised in this way grow up to be anxious, depressed and immature.

I was certainly surprised to see the maturity of children in the Montessori school.  Did my surprise suggest that young children today are immature?  I thought about the fact that children today are developing independent toileting (sometimes called “potty training”) much later– 1 – 2 years later –than they were in the 1950s. This is just one example of the immaturity of children in our society today. 

Whether at school or at home, it seems that we have lost the appreciation for children’s natural learning drives. At the same time, we have increasingly embraced child-rearing practices that interfere with them. For example, our society tends to devalue play in spite of the fact that animals of every species, including humans, learn many important life skills through play. Children benefit a great deal from playing with other children of different ages, but we tend to prevent them from doing so and keep them isolated in groups of children their own age. In terms of child development, this is a mistake.

Diminished community, increased fear and over-busy lives have made things much more challenging for parents.  I suspect it’s a combination of these kinds of factors that cause adults to seriously underestimate the capabilities and natural learning drives of young children. Failing to recognize what young children can do and are driven to do, parents and caregivers now do too much for young children. We could even say that adults micromanage young children. And that causes our relationships with young children to be much more stressful than they need to be.

We can handle this differently and resist the negative aspects of modern child-rearing. We can nurture our young child’s native intelligence by demonstrating confidence in their abilities to do things for themselves. When adults believe in the capability of young children and nurture their natural learning drives,  children naturally develop great foundational skills and capabilities to succeed in life. They find their self-motivated initiative supported and this sustains their drive to develop the skills they see in other people. They naturally work to develop the capabilities to take care of their own bodies and their environment and to develop skills in all areas, including physical, social, emotional, cognitive and spiritual. 

We can allow young children to participate constructively in the life of the community, interacting meaningfully with community members of various ages, and young children will quite naturally develop courteous and considerate behavior. They will develop the very important capabilities of frustration tolerance and persistence and self-control, little by little, starting in the first 3 years. We can nurture their native intelligence and allow them to follow their natural learning drives, giving them the best opportunity to manifest their brilliant potential!

What role does consumerism play in these child-rearing changes?   In other words,  how often do manufacturers of children’s products try to convince you that your child is not going to be safe without their product? What is the true cost to you, and your child, when you believe them?  I would be interested to hear your thoughts. 

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