Parenting a Young Child

What My Formal Education Never Taught Me

Author: Susan R. Johnson MD, F.A.A.P.

Published: March 3rd, 2000

As a pediatrician with sub-specialty training in child behavior and development, I thought I knew everything there was to know about children and being a parent. Then I became a parent, and I humbly realized that I knew very little about either one. So here are some parenting experiences (and babysitting survival tips) that my education never taught me about raising a young child:

1) Young children, especially children less than 7 years of age, are not capable of delaying gratification. Children live in the present, and what children see or what they hear about they want now. They don't have the cognitive capacity to resist temptation or delay gratification. For example, I bought a "special" advent calender for my son when he was 4 years old. On December 1st, I let him open the first window. I then returned the calender to a special place in the kitchen and briefly left the room. Well you guessed it. All 24 days before Christmas were consumed in a matter of minutes. Since this time, I have learned to be more quiet and not verbalize all my ideas and plans in front of my young child who would subsequently want to do everything I mentioned - NOW!

2) If we are confused about a limit or boundary then we confuse our child. Children push until they find our boundary. I never had any arguments about wearing seat belts in the car, though I frequently had arguments about going to bed. My son quickly learned that he could continually ask for water at bedtime (how could I deprive a thirsty child), ask for a snack after he was in bed (how could I send him to bed hungry), ask lots of questions about everything in the whole wide world (how could I not satisfy his intellectual curiosity), and the list went on and on. I am still learning this lesson. Somehow my learning doesn't seem to always transfer from one situation to another. It takes me a long time to sort out and prioritize my own values and thoughts so that I present clearer boundaries to him.

3) Young Children, especially less than 7 years of age, really can read our thoughts and are barometers for our own soul moods. I was taught that nobody can read your mind. Maybe babies could sense our anxiety by the rapid beat of our heart or breathing rate, but that was as far as perception went. For a toddler, if one didn't say it, then the thought didn't really exist. In other words, I could be really angry at my child and my child wouldn't know it unless I actually said I was angry or showed the anger by the tone in my voice or the expression on my face.

I then went to my first parenting workshop at a neighboring Waldorf school. My son was 3 years old at the time, and I was looking around for a kindergarten. I attended a lecture on parenting the young child and heard from the speaker about the importance of holding good thoughts because a young child had the ability to sense thoughts. I remember coming home that night not really believing this idea, but I liked the parenting image I was given at the talk. If you are the parent of a teenager or a toddler, then hold the image of a stone in a stream. You have to hold steady like the stone and let the water of emotions flow around you without dislodging you, carrying you away, or knocking you off balance. I woke up very early that next morning and meditated on this picture. My son then woke up and walked downstairs and climbed up into my lap. I hugged him but said nothing. He then looked at me and said, "Mommy let's play firefighter by the stone in the stream" (my son had never used the words stone or stream in his whole life).

I have learned that thoughts are as powerful as actions. It is not only what we do, what we say, or how we move (our gestures) that matter. It is also what we think. We can influence each other in so many ways that go beyond our hearing, sight, and motor movements. What we do for our children, what we tell our chldren, how we move in front of our children, and the thoughts we think all matter. The thoughts we hold about ourselves also have a lot of power. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. If we don't believe something will work out for us, then it usually doesn't. What we fear the most often comes to us. There is a power to positive thinking. This is why so many olympic athletes hire sports psychologists to teach them the skills of positive thinking and visualizing a perfect performance.

4) What ever you tell a child not to do they will then proceed to do it. Young children hear the verb, the action word, and not the rest of the sentence. I remember my son's preschool teacher calling out to him "Don't jump into the puddle with your tennis shoes on". You can guess who jumped into the puddle. My friend who loves and works with animals says it goes deeper than that. It is the picture you hold in your thoughts that instructs the child. Children have the ability to read the pictures in our mind. If we say "don't run out in the middle of the street", then we create the picture in our mind of a child running out into the street. Chances are that this picture is transferred and the child dutifully runs out into the street. If instead, we say and hold the picture "stay on the sidewalk", then chances are the child will stay on the sidewalk.

5) When making a request of a child, saying "YOU MAY..." closes the door to negotiation. "YOU MAY .... " works far better then "would you please ..." or "don't you think it is time to...". If there is no choice, then don't give one. In addition, children like to see what happens if they don't do what their parents ask. Giving too many choices draws the attention of the child prematurely to itself and can make a young child more self-centered. It also weakens their will. They stand frozen trying to figure out what choices to make or what to do.

As I struggle in my parenting I try to remember that it is the striving that counts. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes and mistakes are part of being human. It is the way we learn and grow.