By Susan Griffin, LMFT and Dennis Wong, PhD
Children can imagine incredible possibilities long before they can handle reality. Whether it is a 2-year-old contemplating a huge flight of concrete stairs with the thought of climbing them all alone, or a 12-year-old contemplating the same steps with the thought of jumping down them on a bicycle, the impulse for challenge, growth, and independence is natural. So is the parental response to protect and safeguard the child. Balancing protection with a healthy dose of guidance is essential to nurture the child's need for exploration. Positive parenting does not mean always keeping your children under your protection, but also slowly guiding them to independence.
Because the world of a child is very small - just what s/he can see, feel, touch, and hear, parents need to guide his/her independence to ensure that the child pushes the limits safely. For part of the wonder of childhood is that tender confidence that all within his/her control is possible and safe. But parents know better. Accidents happen. Our children will be hurt sometimes as they experiment in the world. Our job is to protect them when we can and to help them soothe the disappointment of limitations and pain when they inevitably come. As we guide them through difficult times, we help them to grow up with independence.
When the child is very young the need for guidance is nearly constant. We have to be patient and able to guide them through in all types of situations. Even infants can easily hurt themselves as they learn to control their arms and hands if there is something in the immediate environment they might accidentally pick up or hit or even fall on. We must make sure that infants are placed only in safe spaces with safe surroundings where they cannot roll, slide, or tumble into trouble.
As the child begins to move on his or her own the need for protection, including restriction of movement or access, increases dramatically. At the same time, the need for stimulation and exploration is vital to healthy cognitive, emotional, and physical development. Guiding the toddler's independence starts with accurately assessing the world from his or her point of view. Cover or remove sharp corners. Stay close and observant when in an unfamiliar environment. Stay ahead of the child visually as s/he explores so you can anticipate and structure successful exploration.
Once the child is competent on wheels a whole new world opens up. Hopefully, the parent has been practicing the art of limit setting and natural consequences to teach self-control. If so, the wheel phase (hot wheel cruisers, tricycles, bicycles, scooters, skate boards, etc.) is much easier. Establish clear time and distance parameters appropriate to the age of the child. Set clear consequences for violations of either parameter - amount of time/amount of distance - and then stick with it. The easiest consequence is a loss of the wheels for a period of time. The loss time depends on the child's age and personality. Periodically check up on your child to make sure s/he is within the distance parameter.
Seek opportunities for your child to make his/her own decisions. Watch for signs that your child has preferences and help him/her express them. Guiding them does not mean controlling them. Clothing choices are one of the easiest places to allow and encourage the expression and exploration of personal choice. Second is room organization and decoration. We can guide his/her independence in these areas most effectively by offering appropriate, but limited, choices. For example, parents can select two or three outfits appropriate to the weather and activities for the day and allow the child to choose. Parents with a very high tolerance for creative clothing choices may be able to provide even wider choices, as long as the choices are consistent with adequate protection related to the weather. Giving them a certain degree of freedom can help them to build independence that benefits them.
One of the most important and difficult areas of guidance for any parent is allowing our children their angry feelings. That's because the ability to control impulses and have strong feelings, contain them, and direct them appropriately starts with the opposite. Impulsive action, overwhelming feelings, acting out, and lashing out at the closest target - parents. If parents can support their children through approximately 2,000 of these difficult moments in the first five years of life, the adolescent years will be much easier. Why? First, children have learned strategies for healthy self-soothing and self-control. Second, the skills of independent thinking and mature action develop over time. Parents lay the groundwork during the first five years of a child's life by consistently and lovingly guiding his/her independence. Guiding our children to independence is a positive method of parenting.