(without losing your heart)

Developing With Your Child, Introduction

How I miss the ease of parenting a young child! It was exhausting, but I was always pretty certain I knew the best course of action. With teens, I’m never certain. With this in mind, I thought it would be worthwhile to think about how we need to adjust our parenting specifically to the age of our children (never forgetting individual abilities and temperaments).

Stage models are helpful in this consideration, if limiting. Age matters, and it’s important to think about how old a child is because it suggests what a child might be capable of, how the child might respond emotionally, and what position they are likely to take in their families and communities, but there is nothing worse than reducing someone’s experience to it being “a stage,” so be careful. Remember that it’s complicated. Stages and ages mean something but not everything.

In many ways, the first couple years are important in many ways. It’s logical that the beginning sets the stage for everything that is to come. And as I’ve written in previous blogs, attachment theory has influenced me a lot, even though I have significant doubts about it. It is not a stage model, but it focuses on the first two years of life. The basic truths—regardless of theory—should be kept in mind: Infants are entirely dependent on adults for survival, and this fact influences everything. This dependence quickly changes too. It does not really ever disappear, but the trek toward independence begins early and should shape parenting.

Jean Piaget is responsible for one of the most studied and scientifically supported stage models, and I think that his stages of cognitive development are useful, even though I have serious issues with its view of a child as developing in isolation and the rigidity and wholistic nature of the stages. Piaget’s theory is extremely helpful in understanding how children think–and how differently they tend to make sense of their experiences. Children simply do not think the same way that adults do, and we’d all be better off if we remembered this—and the fact that other adults also tend not to think the way we do even when they are capable of it. But people are also not complete aliens, and a deeper understanding of the similarities and differences can help us avoid many mistakes and misunderstandings. The key insight of Piaget is that things adults frequently take for granted are frequently beyond children’s capacity to understand, pressuring us to constantly ask, How is this child understanding the situation?

From a very different angle, Erik Erikson’s psychosocial stages offer some keen insights as well—if we always keep in mind that these stages, with their emphasis on different primary conflicts for each stage, are clearly influenced by culture and specific contexts. I don’t entirely dismiss the underlying psychosexual stages as developed by Freud (though I mostly dismiss them), but I also don’t believe they offer much that is useful for parents to think about. Erikson’s shift to more “ego-oriented” concerns addresses issues parents are frequently already thinking about and in a way that offers a perspective contradicting a lot of common parenting beliefs, which is perhaps the most useful part.

These stage models will be used a as guideposts in this discussion, marking directions and possibilities and suggesting topics rather than defining the landscape. I will not attempt an in-depth or summary description of the theories in this discussion, focussing instead on what is useful in particular situation—the opposite perhaps of how I teach. My theoretical perspective is the contextual approach of “cultural-historical activity theory,” which—as the name suggests—places all aspects of development within the context of culture, history, and activity. Thus a deep and meaningful understanding of children and parenting requires an extensive understanding of the children’s histories. In this discussion will talk about an abstract child, but that child doesn’t exist. A consideration of actual children shows this in important ways.

I hope that these broad discussions will be thoughtfully applied by taking into account all of the specifics. The point of this series is to focus on age because usually, the older they get, the larger children’s worlds become and the greater the task of understanding the individual child becomes. The most frustrating and sometimes sad part of this is that, as parents, our influence in the immediate is gradually reduced, so that the choices over schools and dinner sometimes seem the only decisions we can make. I, however, believe that it is the little everyday conversations that matter most—the ones we rarely think about. I want us to explore how those conversations with our children change in the hope that our development as parents can keep pace with that of our children. Most importantly, we must develop: Hugs won’t save the day for long, and our job is not over when our children can feed and dress themselves. Parenting matters always.

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