A Return to Childhood
There is such a rush these days to get children sleeping through the night, weaned off the breast, eating solid foods, potty trained, reading independently, and on and on, that we seem to have lost the ability to simply enjoy life as it happens and let our children do the same. Gone are the days of making mud-pies and playing in piles of leaves. They’ve been replaced with flashcards, language immersion (even in the womb!), educational dvd’s, and the like. Preschool has become the new kindergarten, with parents rushing to get on waiting lists for the ‘best of the best’ preschools, often even before their first prenatal appointment!
Therapists in New York have reported an increase in parents seeking psychiatric services for stress related to the intensely ”cutthroat” admissions process for top-rated private preschools and kindergartens. “Parenting is a competitive sport,” says Dr. Lisa Spiegel. And that competition is leading parents to ask if their three-year-old should wear suits to preschool interviews, which designer purses are best to carry on school tours, and even if they should be induced into early delivery so their child ”could be considered for kindergarten before the Sept. 1 cutoff date.” (New York Post, see link below)
One would assume, with all of this emphasis on independence and education, that we would be moving forward as a society to a more self-sufficient, competent, and well-educated populace which, by extension, might reasonably be assumed to have less need of welfare programs and prisons. One would assume wrong, unfortunately.
By way of comparison, in 1960, welfare spending in the United States was $48.20 per capita with 1.7% of the population receiving federal assistance. (infoplease.com) By 2010 it had increased to $2256.40 per capita (usgovernmentspending.com) with 8.0% of the population receiving assistance. (wiki.answers.com) In 1960, 0.18% of the US population was imprisoned, whereas in 2010 that number had climbed to 0.74% (businessinsider.com) with drug use, rape, and assault rates skyrocketing.
So what happened? Obviously, there are many contributing factors, but one often overlooked, powerful contributor is how we parent our children. Study after study has confirmed that early childhood experiences have a profound impact on adult behavior, achievement, and satisfaction with life. The modern emphasis on ever-earlier independence and academics seems to inadvertently be sacrificing the very things they are designed to accomplish, and the modern view of parenting as a “competition” is setting the stage for stress, conflict, and failure.
Perhaps it is time for parents to reevaluate their priorities and realize their children are blessings to be cherished and nurtured, not pawns in a cut-throat game of strategy and intrigue. Perhaps it is time for a return to childhood, to simplicity, to running and climbing and laughing in the sunshine, to experiencing happiness instead of being trained for a lifetime of pursuing happiness…perhaps it is time to let children be children again:
1) Let babies be babies~in other words, baby them! Babies are completely and totally helpless in every way. Medical experts agree that it isn’t possible to spoil a newborn, so responding promptly to cries will simply help them learn to trust that their needs will be met. Babies left to cry-it-out often do end up sleeping through the night earlier than babies whose needs are responded to because they have learned to give up on their needs being met. But that gain of sleeping through the night is accomplished at the loss of trust, and the resultant stress and long-term consequences simply aren’t worth it. (Surviving the First Three Months with a Newborn) Stress causes our bodies to release a hormone called cortisol which, when present for prolonged periods, can dramatically undermine brain development in babies and permanently impair brain function for life. Some causes of stress in babies are extended illnesses, detached parenting, and separation from their mothers, which has been linked to long-term anxiety and anti-social behavior. (News, Science and Environment)
2) Let human babies drink human milk~in other words, nurse them! Breastfeeding beyond the typical 6-12 month period has been shown to improve not only overall IQ’s in children, but also improve health and social outcomes. Children who are breastfed for 24+ months are less likely to have allergies and more likely to have healthy immune systems. (kellymom.com) Also, according to the World Health Organization, “a modest increase in breastfeeding rates could prevent up to 10% of all deaths of children under five,” due, in part, to tainted water supplies, but also due to the immunity factors. And, socially, studies have shown repeatedly that, “Meeting a child’s dependency needs is the key to helping that child achieve independence.” (Elizabeth N. Baldwin, Esq. ‘Extended Breastfeeding and the Law.’)
3) Let children know they matter~in other words, listen and respond to them! Strong, healthy attachment in parent/child relationships has been linked to increased success rates in future marriage, greater career satisfaction, and overall stability and emotional health in adulthood. Children raised with detached parents tend to be forced into premature independence through sleep training, rigid discipline, and too early and/or prolonged separation from parents, often resulting in long-term dependency, attachment, and satisfaction issues. “Decades of research, including longitudinal studies, have shown that as securely attached babies get older, they form better relationships with others, have higher self-esteem, are more flexible and resilient under stress, and perform better in every aspect of life, from schoolwork to peer interactions.” (Dr. Laura Markham)
4) Let children see you being ‘good’~in other words, model the behavior you desire! Children are born observers and the first people they observe, with an almost scientific intensity, are their parents. Modeling appropriate and desirable behavior to children such as self-control, compassion, helpfulness, listening, respect, etc is a powerful tool in passing along these qualities to the next generation. “Discipline is everything you put into children that influences how they turn out…Whatever your ultimate objectives, they must be rooted in helping your child develop inner controls that last a lifetime. You want the guidance system that keeps the child in check at age four to keep his behavior on track at age forty, and you want this system to be integrated into the child’s whole personality, a part of him or her.” (Dr. William Sears)
5) Let children play~in other words, don’t rush them into growing up! Study after study has shown that children learn more, retain knowledge better, and maintain their natural curiosity and love of learning when they are allowed to learn through a combination of unstructured and guided play. The trend these days is to start children in academic-centered preschools as early as two years old and then move them into academically rigorous kindergarten programs, often while still four years of age. “While many children do fine in kindergarten and first grade, by the time they reach second grade, ‘they can’t hold it together — they fall apart and really struggle.’” (Colvin) “Newspapers and magazines across the country are reporting that kindergarten is the new first grade—full of pressure and short on play.”(What to Expect in Kindergarten) “As the parent of a child entering kindergarten, you’re sure to be shocked and amazed by what’s changed since your days on the story rug. Kindergarten isn’t what it used to be…many of the changes you observe make kindergarten a more challenging and potentially pressuring stage, it’s all in the name of teaching your child more effectively.”(Kindergarten Assessment) However, effective teaching is a subjective subject. Is teaching effective if it results in children who are capable of rote memorization and passing standardized tests, but lack imagination, curiosity, and a love of reading? Or is teaching more effective if it results in children who are innovative, pioneering, and life-long learners?
Do you think my little dirt magnet enjoyed her homeschool day?
L.R.Knost is a best-selling parenting and children’s book author and founder and director of Little Hearts/Gentle Parenting Resources, an online resource for gentle parenting education, articles, and research. Books by L.R.Knost include Whispers Through Time: Communication Through the Ages and Stages of Childhood , Two Thousand Kisses a Day: Gentle Parenting Through the Ages and Stages , and The Gentle Parent: Positive, Practical, Effective Discipline the first three books in the Little Hearts Handbook gentle parenting series, as well as her children’s picture books Petey’s Listening Ears and the soon-to-be-released Grumpykins series available from Amazon and other major retailers.