What do I do now?”
If you have ever asked this question in raising your children, you are not alone. Most parents ask this question at some point along the way. Children are always changing, which means that your parenting approach needs to continue to change. In fact, many of the problems parents have with their children are a result of not parenting according to the evolving needs of their children.
Parenting is an intentional process. As parents, you need to be proactive instead of reactive. Reactive parenting occurs when you allow the situation, or the emotions of the situation, to drive your parenting decisions. Reactive parenting is more stressful and creates more anxiety for parent and child alike. Proactive parenting, on the other hand, is parenting from a set of principles, a knowledge base, and a structured approach. Being intentional in parenting is not as difficult as it may sound.
To begin, you have to define your goal in parenting. Simply stated, your goal in parenting is to raise a child from one who is completely dependent upon the parents in every way to an adult who is capable of living in the world completely independent of parents. The difficulty with this goal is that it is a process that varies from child to child. Each child matures in different ways and different time frames.
While all of this may seem quite obvious, it is often easy to lose sight of. In any parenting interaction, ask yourself if what you are doing is moving your child towards greater independence or reinforcing dependence. To move toward independence involves risk. When children are learning to walk, you have to let go and take the risk that they may fall and be hurt. When children begin to make more of their own decisions, you let go and take the risk that they may make some poor decisions. At the same time you want independence for children, it can also be a little scary.
A basic understanding of child development is important. Children grow and develop in stages. These stages can provide guidelines as to what to expect, what a child is capable of, and how to respond in helpful ways. Just as children develop physically in stages, they also develop psychologically and socially in stages. Erik Erickson’s theory of psychosocial development provides a helpful model. He was interested in how social interaction and relationships played a role in the growth of human beings. While his model covers the entire lifespan, five of the stages are pertinent to children. Here are brief descriptions of each stage as well as some suggestions of how to parent at each stage.
Stage 1: Trust vs. Mistrust (0-2 years)
During this stage, a child is utterly dependent upon caregivers. When the caregivers consistently provide for physical needs, safety, and nurture, the child develops an ability to trust and take risks in the world. When these needs are not met consistently, a child will develop fear and a belief that the world is inconsistent and unreliable.
Parenting at this stage involves creating a secure attachment between child and parent. Consistent provision of physical needs is crucial. Also important is providing for emotional and relational needs. Being a calm presence instead of an anxious presence is a starting place. Mirroring of facial and emotional expressions provides connection to the child. Stroking is another technique at this stage. This can be physical, but verbal is equally important. Positive affirming words serve to build that secure attachment.
Stage 2: Autonomy vs. Shame and Doubt (2-4 years)
In this stage, children are developing a greater sense of personal control. Their need is to gain a little independence. They are beginning to do certain things and make basic decisions on their own. This gives birth to the “terrible twos.” Children begin to assert their own wishes and thoughts. This can be difficult for parents who are encountering a steady stream of “no” while trying to get a resistant child to comply. Children who move through this stage with a balance of limits and love will feel secure and confident. Children who do not experience that balance often have strong feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt.
The crucial parenting task at this stage is to allow children greater control and independence within limits. This can be accomplished by giving children more choices. Allowing them to have more choice in foods, toy selection, and preferences for clothing develops that sense of personal control. Clear boundaries remain important because children at this stage are not good at limiting themselves.
Another principle that becomes very important at this stage is to allow children to do as much for themselves as they are capable of. Simple tasks like learning to dress themselves, retrieve something they want, and participate in picking up their own toys will lead to a greater sense of autonomy and therefore less dependence.
Stage 3: Initiative vs. Guilt (5-8 years)
Children, building upon the previous stage, are now beginning to assert their power over their world through directing play and other social interactions. This will lead to them feeling more capable and developing initiative. Confidence and initiative are crucial to developing further independence. Difficulties here leave children with increased self-doubt, guilt, and a lack of initiative.
At this stage, parents can find themselves saying “no” often. This is in response to children asserting their independence. The goal is to be able to say no or set limits without shame or harshness. Offering no with a reason is helpful. Probably more important is offering no with a reason plus an option for something else (a yes). Using such a response can be helpful at redirecting children while at the same time allowing them to feel more autonomy.
Stage 4: Industry vs. Inferiority (9-12 years)
In this pre-adolescence period, children are very open to and need positive feedback, praise, and encouragement. They especially are seeking this from adults. This leads to confidence and pride in their abilities and accomplishments. The ultimate goal is a sense of competence and belief in their ability to be successful.
Children enter this stage exploring the world, their interests, and their skills and abilities. Parents can use a strategy of helping children find something they are interested in and good at, such as sports, any of the arts, academics, or other hobbies. Provide them with opportunities to try things and then provide positive reinforcement for emerging competence.
Children are also developing the abilities to maintain friendships at this time. As they move through this stage they need successful peer interaction. At the same time, they are still highly receptive to parental input and approval. So, at this stage you have much influence and can guide their choice in friendships.
The latter part of this stage begins the biggest change in physical development since Stage 1. Puberty begins in this stage. You should begin talking to children in this stage about the physical changes that will happen in their bodies, about how babies are born, and about the basics of sex education. Begin early by talking about the differences between male and female bodies and progress toward education about reproduction and sex.
Stage 5: Identity vs. Confusion (12-19 years)
In adolescence, the child’s focus turns away from adults to seeking input from peers. The task of this stage is what is referred to as “identity formation.” The adolescent seeks to answer three questions:
Who am I?
What am I good at?
Will others be attracted to me and love me?
The answers to these lead to a person’s sense of self. A healthy and positive sense of self is the source of success in relationships and the world at large in the adult years.
Because adolescents are seeking affirmation and input primarily from peers, you see them want to be like their peers so they are more influenced by “peer pressure.” They still seek approval from adults but to a lesser extent. Children who have developed interests and competencies and are successful at forming and maintaining friendships are best equipped to enter adolescence. Continue to help them find something they are good at and enjoy.
Boundaries and limits are important here. Parents give more choices, more responsibilities, and more freedoms in this stage. A healthy principle to operate by and to communicate is that privileges and freedoms are contingent upon the responsibility demonstrated by the adolescent, not based upon what other kids are doing. Parents can also accept and encourage the adolescent to ask questions and explore ideas. Open and honest/respectful communication is very helpful.
Parenting Through the Ages
In trying to parent intentionally, you may find a few other principles helpful to keep in mind. Understanding these can help with the question: “What do I do now?”
A general parenting principle is the “Control vs. Influence Shift.” This involves the early years when children are more dependent and parents can exercise more control. As children display more independence, parents exert more influence and less control. Allow children to make more decisions for their own lives, within appropriate boundaries, and provide guidance along the way.
Learn about and practice “Boundary” principles. Remember that in relationships, a boundary basically defines what belongs to each person. As a parent, your thoughts, feelings, beliefs, choices, attitudes, and needs belong to you. The same things belong to your child. As a parent it is your job to manage those things that belong to you and to teach your children to manage what belongs to them. It is not your job to manage or control what belongs to your child. As children age, this becomes increasingly important. The book Boundaries with Kids by Henry Cloud and John Townsend can be especially helpful.
Also, be sure to manage your own stress regarding your child’s changes and growth by becoming educated about parenting and by seeking support from others. Additionally, do not expect perfection from yourself or your child. Be quick to forgive and move forward. It is essential to keep the proper perspective. While you parent one day at a time, this process provides many opportunities to impact your children.
Help your children to cope with their own stress of growing up and navigating the developmental stages by preparing them ahead. Make growing up a collaborative experience. Both you and your children are working together to meet the goal of becoming a healthy and independent adult.
Teach and correct at the child’s current developmental level. Teach them to function at a level slightly above where they are, while at the same time expecting age appropriate behavior and responses.
Distinguish between incompetent behavior and non-compliant behavior. Do not discipline children for actions they are not capable of taking, such as negotiating a conflict with a sibling. Instead, teach skills. Behavior involving a choice of whether or not to comply with rules or expectations should be responded to with correction and consequences.
Lastly, and more important than just being prepared and intentional, is to enjoy your children. When you enjoy them, they will sense it, and they will feel more secure in their relationship with you. This will go a long way in figuring out, “What to do now!”
Dr. Thomas Barbian is the executive director for the Christian Counseling Center of First Presbyterian Church in Columbia. He received his doctorate in clinical psychology from the Cambridge Graduate School of Psychology and Counseling in Los Angeles. He also holds a master’s degree in marriage, family, and child counseling and a bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies.