The "Parent-Directed Feeding" philosophy found in Preparation for Parenting and On Becoming Babywise represents the center point between hyper-scheduling and the re-attachment theories. It has enough structure to bring security and order to a baby’s world, yet enough flexibility to give Mom the freedom to respond to any need at any time.
It is a proactive style of parenting that helps foster healthy growth and optimal development. For example, a baby cannot maximize learning without experiencing optimal alertness, and he can only experience optimal alertness with optimal sleep. Optimal sleep is tied to good naps and established nighttime sleep. These advanced levels of sleep are the end result of consistent feedings. Consistent feedings come from establishing a healthy routine. PDF is the pebble that creates the ripple effect leading to all these outcomes, including true parent-child attachment.
Embedded in the parent-directed strategy is a critical element for all aspects of infant care: Parental Assessment, an acquired confidence to think, evaluate and intuitively learn what a baby needs and how to meet specific needs at specific times. What are the advantages of the parent-directed approach? The following comparative analysis of the three common feeding philosophies answers that question and more!
Three Views on Feeding an Infant
The three views relating to infant feeding include:
- Child-Led Feeding (also known as cue feeding, demand feeding, response feeding, ad lib, and self-regulating feeding)
- Clock Feeding (also known as fixed-scheduling)
- Parent-Directed Feeding (PDF) Babywise/Preparation for Parenting
Theories in Practice
Child-Led Feeding: Feeding times are guided strictly by a single variable: the presence of a baby’s hunger cues (sucking sounds, hands moving toward mouth, slight whimpering or crying). The hunger cue is considered a variable because feeding times are random and unpredictable. For example, 3 hours may pass between feedings, then 1 hour, followed by 20 minutes, then 4 hours. It might also be “clusters of feeding” such as five short nursing periods in 3 hours, followed by a long stretch of no feedings. Either way, the time between feedings is not considered important because the theory insists that parents submit to any cue that looks like hunger, regardless of the lapse of time.
Clock Feeding: Feeding times are guided strictly by the constant of time, as measured by the clock. The clock determines when and how often a baby is fed, usually on fixed intervals of time. Looking for hunger cues is not considered important, since feeding times are always predictable. The clock thinks for the parent (and the baby), and the parent’s role is to be submissive to the clock.
Parent-Directed Feeding: Both the variable of the hunger cue and the constant progression of time will together direct parents at each feeding. Parents guided by Parental Assessment mediate between the presence of the hunger cue and the constant of time.
Conflict Between the Variables and the Constant
The greatest tension with feeding philosophies centers on which feeding indicator to use—the variable of the hunger cue or the constant of the clock. The standard Attachment Parenting/La Leche League doctrine insists on child-led feedings exclusively. Therefore, the hunger cue is always dominant. Parents who believe in hyper-scheduling see the fixed segments of time as the final determinant of feeding. Thus, the clock is dominant. The weakness in the logic of these two views becomes obvious when placed into their respective equations. The child-led equation looks like this:
Hunger Cue + Nothing = Feeding Time
“Plus Nothing” in this equation means there are no other factors considered that determine when the baby is fed except the hunger or crying cues of the infant. While this seems to initially make sense, there are some concerns related to this particular approach to infant care.
The Dangers Associated:
1. Child-Led Feeding is based on the faulty assumption that the hunger cue is always reliable. It is not and that is the primary reason this approach is dangerous. Being guided by the hunger cue only works if a hunger cue, such as crying, is present. Weak, sickly, sluggish, or sleepy babies may not signal for food for 4, 5 or 6 hours; thus, this type of feeding puts the baby at risk of not receiving proper nourishment. If cue is not present, her baby does not get fed.
2. Exclusive cue-response feeding can easily lead to infant dehydration, low weight gain, failure to thrive, and frustration for both Baby and Mom.
3. If the cue is consistently less than 2 hours, it leads to maternal fatigue. Fatigue is recognized as the Number One reason mothers give up breastfeeding.
4. The erratic nature of cluster feeding produces unintended consequences, including excessive fussiness, erratic nap behavior and instability in sleep/wake cycles, all contributing to infant sleep deprivation.
The Clock Feeding equation looks like this:
Clock + Nothing = Feeding Time
“Plus Nothing” in this equation, means nothing but the clock determines when a baby is to be fed.
The Dangers Associated:
1. Feeding based on fixed times ignores legitimate hunger cues by assuming each previous feeding was successful. It does not take into account growth spurts, which necessitate a day or more of increased feedings. The baby who shows signs of hunger after 2 hours is put off until the next scheduled feeding, and that extra hour usually comes with crying that could have been avoided.
2. Strict schedules may not promote sufficient stimulation for breast milk production, leading to the second greatest cause for mothers giving up breastfeeding: low milk supply.
With both Child-Led Feeding and Clock Feeding, a tension exists between the variable and the constant. This tension is both philosophical and physiological. In either case, as parents are trying to serve their underlying parenting philosophy, they become enslaved to a method. To accept either of these feeding indicators as an exclusive guide to feeding is to ensure a stress-filled and, perhaps, unhealthy infant.
PDF eliminates the tension of relying exclusively on the unreliable variable of a hunger cue or the insufficient constant of the clock. With PDF, both the variable and the constant are used as companions, backups to each other, not antagonists to be avoided. Consider the PDF equation with the inclusion of Parental Assessment (PA).
Hunger Cue + Clock + PA = Feeding Time
With the parent-directed approach you feed your baby when he is hungry, but the clock provides the protective limits so you are not feeding too often, such as every hour, or too little, such as every 4-5 hours. PDF brings into play the critical tool of Parental Assessment, which is the ability to assess a baby’s needs and respond accordingly. Parental Assessment frees a mother to use the variable of the hunger cue when necessary and the constant of time when appropriate. Here are some of the benefits of the PDF approach:
1. PDF guided by Parental Assessment provides tools to recognize and assess two potential problems with infant feeding:
- The breastfed child who feeds often, such as every hour, may not be receiving adequate nutrition. Using parental assessment, parents not only respond to the cue by feeding the baby, but are alerted to a potential problem with the feedings.
- When the hunger cue is not present, the clock serves as a guide to ensure that too much or too little time does not elapse between feedings. It is also a protective backup for weak and sickly babies who may not be able to cry effectively.
2. When the hunger cue is present, the clock is submissive to the cue because hunger, not the clock, determines feedings.
3. When Parental Assessment is part of the equation, parents learn to manage the variable of the hunger cue and the constant of time to secure the best outcome for their baby.
The Seven Markers of Parent-Infant Attachment
Beyond the assessment benefits of Parent Directed Feeding, the Babywise/Preparation for Parenting philosophy also facilitate parent-child attachment. This is achieved by creating an orderly environment in which growth and development are optimized.
The fact that a baby’s biological, neurological and rhythmical needs are merging with his or her natural capacities, means nothing is hindering the upward progress toward comprehensive attachment. “Comprehensive” refers to the total spectrum of growth and development. If the child is out of sync developmentally, he or she cannot be in sync with healthy relational attachments. Let's talk about "real" attachment parenting.
Usually attachment is defined by ‘soft markers’ that are so futuristic and broad in scope that they have little value when it comes to measuring true infant attachment or attachment deficits. For example, attachment is viewed as a child who has healthy self-esteem, good grades or does not do drugs. As wonderful as they achievements may be, they are too “detached” from infancy to have any relevance. When it comes to babies, true parent/child attachment must be measured by objective markers that are relevant to an infant.
The process of attachment has a starting point—birth. Contrary to popular attachment theories, (which are really published opinions), the average, healthy full-term infant does not enter life burdened with attachment deficits, but rather, every child comes into the world with attachment needs. That means, at birth infant’s lack certain abilities that ultimately define the quality of the parent-child relationship and thus measure true attachment. At birth, newborns lack the ability to:
- synchronize their feed-wake-sleep cycles into predictable patterns;
- fall asleep without crying;
- organize their days and nights and sleep through the night seven to eight consecutive hours;
- experience routine and predictable daytime naps;
- to self soothe,
- have extended contented wake-times (which includes the ability for attentive self-play);
- lack any sense of independent relational security (which is the highest level of childhood security. This is the ability to function without the presence of either parent.)
At birth, however, infants are born with these seven capacities and when met, provide the objective markers reflecting that comprehensive attachment is being achieved. These markers include babies who:
- synchronize their feed-week-sleep cycles into predictable patterns;
- can fall asleep without a rocking or nursing prop;
- sleep through the night eight to ten consecutive hours;
- have a predictable nap routine;
- have content wake-times and are adapt to self-play;
- are able to self-soothe;
- are comfortable with a variety of care-givers (fathers, siblings, grandparents).
Why are these important attachment indicators? Because they confirm that baby is not stressed or anxious, but at peace with his or her biological, neurological and relational environments. This is where Mom and Dad’s parenting philosophy come in to play, because it will encourage the achievement of each markers or undermine each one, or all.
If the attachment related capacities are stifled or suppressed beyond the timetable of developmental readiness, then the child adopts coping behaviors reflecting attachment failure. This is observable with the healthy newborn, who by twelve, eighteen month, or two years of age is not sleeping through the night, not taking regular naps, or cannot nap by him or herself; is unable to self-soothe, is anxious when left alone, or not adapt at self-play for sustained periods. Such underdeveloped capacities during a time when they should have been attained, reflect attachment deficits.
Fortunately, the Ezzo approach, as defined in Babywise and Preparation for Parenting, helps infants match attachment needs with capacities for a comprehensive attachment experience!
The Training to Educating Transition
In the early phase of toddler parenting, the concept of “training a toddler” is more dominant than “educating a toddler”. To train is to establish “patterns of behavior”, to educate is to establish “understanding of behavior”. We train toddlers how to act, behave and respond long before they are capable of being educated in the “why” behind their behavior. The process of actually educating a child begins around three years of age. What is the difference between training and educating? And what are the developmental triggers the move this transition along?
Prior to age three, children do not have the reasoning ability to understand facts relevant to their present circumstances, nor do they care about your factual explanations. But toddlers do notice the determination of parental resolve. Sometimes, less talk with a toddler is better because trying to offer adult logic and reason to your two-year-old is neither logical nor reasonable. These are little people lacking wisdom and life experiences, not adults. There is a better way.
The word transition implies a process of maturing where old ways of doing things give way to new understanding and improved patterns of conduct. The training to educating transition takes place according to a child’s developmental time table associated with his or her “Nature to Will transition. To understand the first, we must understand this second transition.
It is a fact. Toddlers can act in ways that drive parents batty. For example, at the beginning of this transition, toddlers clearly act impulsively out of their natures. That’s because children do not possess any sense of right and wrong, justice or tyranny, nor are they always able to separate being safe from being sorry. They do not care how much your coffee table cost or why striking a Superman pose while standing in the middle of it should bother you. Toddlers do not live in a world of right and wrong; they live in a world of personal satisfaction fueled by a self-driven impulse that has no moral or health and safety alignment.
A child does 'wrong' as a result of his 'me, 'myself' and I' nature versus the child willfully choosing between right and wrong, because the child now understands the 'why' of right and wrong. Before the age of three a child is predominantly acting out of the single response (actually a default): “because I want to” and not out of a malicious and devious intent to hurt or injure. He is acting out of his nature. After the age of three he possess both the capacity and inclination to surrender his natural impulses to a purposeful controlling power of his will.
The implications for parents during this phase is to be preoccupied with training and by the age of three begin a most important parenting transition: moving from training the child to educating the child. We make this distinction because pre-toddlers and toddlers have the capacity to be trained but not the capacity to understanding the purpose, i.e. the longer term benefits of training.
However, children between three and seven begin to grasp the broader meaning, health and safety and social implications of their daily decisions. As a result, parents can begin to educate the child, keeping the following distinction in mind. Training teaches the how of behavior, (what right responses look like). Educating teaches the facts of behavior after a child is old enough to understand the ‘why’ of his behavior. It is the “why” that comes with “education” that serves the child’s “willful” decision making capacity. The child then begins to regulate his or her behavior based on an understanding of 'why' they should do or not do certain things, as oppose to Mom and Dad simply providing a behavioral edict.
Every child will naturally experience the “nature to will” transition. But parents must be attentive to the training to educating transition because it does not happen naturally. It is something every parents must anticipate and be ready to execute when their child reaches the appropriate developmental age for educating.
After waking from her afternoon nap, two-year-old Gracie predictably went to her father’s office, nudged him out of his seat and led him to the kitchen where she pointed to the crackers. Dad would oblige Gracie with two or three. When she pointed for more however, Dad would say “No”, and then brace himself for another round of meltdowns. How should Dad (or Mom), handle a challenge like this? Dad doesn’t want to spoil her dinner with snacks, nor go through another meltdown. But neither does he want to disappoint his daughter. Finding the right solution begins by looking for the actual cause. Just for a moment, we’ll step away from the world of a toddler and use an adult illustration to make the point.
One morning, Gary informs Anne Marie that he is going to prepare breakfast for both of them. In the kitchen, Gary puts out a couple of bowls for cereal and some milk. He then invites Anne Marie to join him. Gary’s menu selection of cold cereal did not evoke any disappointment from Anne Marie because she had no expectations of what he was going to serve.
Now add this little twist. What if Gary said, “Hon, I’m going downstairs to make you the best breakfast you ever had, with all of your favorite breakfast foods.” Anne Marie eventually joins him in the kitchen only to discover two bowls of cereal and a glass of milk set out for her. The probability is very high that she will experience some disappointment with Gary’s menu (even though she is much too kind to say so). This is because Gary created an expectation that was far greater than a bowl of cold cereal.
The point of this comparison is to show the natural link between failed expectations and disappointment. A similar response is also common in children. Gracie had expectations about her snack and her expectation led to disappointment because she was counting on something she did not get. In her little mind she planned the menu and wanted to control the number of crackers at snack time. So when Dad said “No” to extra crackers, disappointment was the natural reaction. What might the solution be? Someone in authority needs to manage Gracie’s expectations.
Instead of Gracie pulling Dad to the kitchen for a 4:00 pm snack, Dad should initiate the snack time with Gracie and not wait for her to come to him after napping. Dad needs to be the one taking Gracie to the kitchen. In this way, he is managing her snack expectations by removing it from her. In fact, when Dad became proactive with this solution, Gracie’s meltdowns ceased even though the fun snack time with Dad continued as normal.
Instead of expectation, you actually end up with the budding virtue of appreciation. We all tend to appreciate favors when we have no expectation. That became the case with Gracie. Here is the general principle — whenever you sense a meltdown coming on with your toddler, look first to see if the child has an unrealistic expectation. Is it an expectation that you can manage on his or her behalf? Once you grasp the principle of managing your child’s expectations it will become a handy tool for the next several years of your parenting.
There is a utopian theory suggesting mankind can engineer the perfect socialized child and that scary thought usually has a preschool component attached to it. The very nature of children wars against the notion that a formalized preschool experience can gain a child a social advantage that he otherwise could not have obtained. We believe any discussion about socialization must start with the nature of children, specifically, the nature of toddlers. Toddlers are too ego-centric to be placed in an environment filled with other ego-centric children. As we use the term here, ‘ego-centric’ is not negative but descriptive of when you put ten toddlers in a room, whose intrinsic world-view is centered on “me, myself and I” you cannot expect them to emerge with a healthy sense of others. Their tiny worldviews of the preciousness of ‘others’ cannot be manipulated nor mature faster than the course of nature allows and there have been enough studies done that concur with this point of view.
We believe pushing a child into early-formalized socialization works against the child’s developmental age, abilities and interest. Toddlers, right up through their third birthday engage in self-play not cooperative play. Their inclination is to self-focus to the point of turning their backs to the other children and playing by themselves. Socialized play, where there is give-and-take within an activity usually begins around the age of three, rarely before.
In addition, toddlers placed in organized preschool are often negatively impacted by the peer pressure associated with children from homes that do not share the same values as you do. That is because toddlers tend to imitate negative behaviors such as bullying, physical aggression, pushing and taking toys from others more easily than they internalize virtuous conduct such as sharing, cooperating and being kind, which are practically non-existent in their peer group. This happens regardless of the wonderful efforts of the teacher.
We have shared before about sending right and wrong messages as it relates to emotions needing reciprocal responses. Toddlers lack the ability to empathize and thus cannot provide the reciprocal affirmation needed. They simply cannot turn off their sense of “me, myself and I” and become other-oriented. This is why over-socialization causes children to become too reliant on receiving approval and affirmation from a peer group, rather than from the steady and unchallenged source they find in their own home.
Parents hoping to give their children an educational advantage must realize that research is fairly consistent when it comes to academic gains. If there are any advantages gained from pushing children into preschool modules, they have a very limited shelf life. When you compare the temporary advantage gained with the offset in emotional and social set-back, you have to ask if sending your child to preschool is best when other options are available.
A better alternative to a formalized preschool setting is scheduling playtimes with other toddlers in your home, or your child in the home of others who come from families of likeminded persuasion. One playmate once or twice a week is plenty for the first couple of years of life. Children fair better socially when they experience pleasant contacts with other children (even on a limited basis), than children in preschool settings where peer socialization is not always pleasant. The belief that a preschool experience can help a child become better adjusted through early group socialization speaks to the power of advertising more than it does to sound principles of social development.
Finally, if you ask any college student if they believe pre-school or any of the myriad of activities they were involved in as a toddler advanced them in any way, you will likely hear that they can’t even remember them. Too much socialization at these tender ages can and will often burn a child out physically, emotionally and possibly neurologically. Your children do not have to be involved in everything! Simplify your life.
Children and Boundaries
As our little babies move into toddlerhood, it is important as parents to accept the need for boundaries. Chapter three in On Becoming Toddlerwise discusses boundaries for toddlers. It points out that boundaries are not bad. Boundaries show us our limits. They let us know how far we can go. They in effect give us freedom.
When I think of boundaries, it takes me to the agency of free will. As humans we all possess the capacity to choose what we will and will not do. This ability should be used responsibly, however, because we are always free to choose our actions, but not always free to choose the consequences of those actions. Free will represents the human capacity to choose, while wisdom reflects our judgment in choice. Our children are born with the first, but must be taught the second.
There are boundaries contained within a community of moral law and family law. With family laws, they are rules parents put in place. Perhaps there are certain words or actions you don’t allow to be said or done in your family. The point is, life is full of boundaries, but we arrive at those boundaries and sometimes test those boundaries through our free will.
What are the implications of free will and boundaries for parents? This article discusses the essence of what free will is when it comes to parental instruction and training with toddlers and preschoolers. In part two, I will to speak to the value of boundaries in the life of children. First, what is the relationship between free will and boundaries? Here is an illustration that I have found helpful.
I put before you three pieces of paper, each with a different picture on it (what the picture is of doesn’t matter). I then tell you to pick one, so you do. I then deliver a consequence for your choice. Did I really provide you the freedom of choice? No, not really because I withheld from you pertinent facts required for you to make an informed decision. You didn’t have full understanding as it related to your choices. Now, let’s say I put before you three pieces of paper each with the same picture on it. Again, you are not able to practice free will in decision making because your choices are all the same.
For a third time I place the three different pictures in front of you, but this time, I explain that each picture has a different consequence. One is positive, one is negative, and one is neutral, but I don’t tell you which is which. Again, this is not allowing for your free will to operate fully because I am still withholding some facts. You do not have the full knowledge necessary to make a wise decision. Finally, I put before you the three different pictures and tell you the first one will earn for you a piece of candy. The second one will cause you to lose a piece of candy. The third will do nothing. Now free will is operating within the confine of established boundaries. You know your choices and the consequences that will follow. The boundaries now have meaning beyond simply a limitation.
How do these examples relate to child training? Our children, like us, possess their own free will. As parents, our goal is to help instill within our children a sustaining wisdom that will help them make good choices for themselves and those around them, now and in the future. To achieve this, we must make sure that our instruction and council presents the element of reward for wise decisions and the consequences for foolish decisions. In this way we become partners with their free will as we help mentor our children in wise decision making habits.
“I’m trying to teach my toddler to share but he is very resistant to giving up anything. What can I do?”
As a parent, you will of course encourage your child to share, but you also must realize that sharing is an advanced moral and social skill for a toddler because it requires self-sacrifice. Self-sacrifice is not a resident virtue within the nature of toddlers. It is not that your child doesn’t share on occasion, but rather he cannot just turn off his sense of “me, myself and I” and instantly become ‘other-oriented’.
Two-year-olds are more inclined to self-play than they are cooperative play. For example, if you place three two-year-olds in the same room with similar toys, their natural inclination is to self-focus to the point of turning their backs to the other children and play by themselves. Very little social interaction is going to take place except when one child desires a toy that another is playing with and the first child attempts a ‘hostile takeover’.
The type of socialized play, where there is the give-and-take of sharing, usually begins between age three and four and rarely before. Right now the best thing you can do is to continue to encourage sharing the way you are, but accept the fact that it will be a while before a moral sense of sharing-and-sacrifice begins to have intrinsic value and meaning to your toddler.
The Eight Transitions of the Middle Years
Let’s face it: Your child is changing. She doesn’t watch Barney anymore. She doesn’t want your help quite as much. Her emotions are exaggerated. And she’s suddenly realized that not everyone is her friend just because they’re in the same class. She’s begun dealing with deeply felt issues like freedom, friendship, peer approval-even fashion.
Wait! Maybe you’re not ready for this. You’re still quite comfortable setting out Disney plates and chicken nuggets. Now she wants tossed salad with low-cal dressing? Your middle-years child, that eight- to twelve-year-old, is changing.
The middle years are a period of great transition-a developmental phase when a child moves from where she has been to where she needs to go. During this phase of growth, parents are still the child’s first choice as a guide, and he or she definitely needs your leadership. Take advantage of that. Below are eight critical middle-years transitions. Help your children him through this critical adjustment periods and the next leg of the journey just might be crash-free.
1. Transitioning away from Childhood and Childhood Structures
On the first day of kindergarten, you followed her bus all the way to school just to make sure that she remembered to get off, that she was smiling when she did, and that she didn’t evaporate in the few miles from here to there. You laughed; you cried; you chatted with the other half-dozen teary adults who all did the same silly thing. Guess what? It’s time to back off. From now on, wave good-bye from the porch. Finding relational equilibrium with your maturing child is one of the more difficult tasks of parenthood. But by the end of this growth period, a healthy restructuring of relationships needs to have occurred for both you and your child.
This isn’t your four-year-old anymore. This is a young person on the verge of adolescence. You need to begin treating her like a responsible individual. You may be surprised to find that that’s what she has actually become. During the middle years, children begin the long process of metamorphosis toward healthy independence. They move away from childhood structures, dependencies, and interests. There is a shift from a world centered largely on relationships with Mom, Dad, and siblings to a world in which relationships with peers, friends, and real heroes begin to draw their focus.
This particular transition is demonstrated by the way a child attempts to distance himself from early childhood structures. While certain terminology didn’t bother your child at age five or six, at eight or nine that same boy or girl will object to conversations that describe him or her in childish ways, such as “He’s my little guy” or “Yes, she’s my princess.”
Young Ryan couldn’t wait for his week at camp the summer he was nine. Upon arrival, he began unpacking the tidy bundle his mom had prepared. To his horror, he discovered the pillowcase. There was Superman striking a bold pose, much to his campmates’ delight. Ryan’s week at camp turned into one very long bad dream. The endless ribbing left him wishing he could disappear into a phone booth. At eight or nine, your child has already done an enormous amount of learning.
Contrast him with the nearly helpless toddler of a few years ago, who needed the structure of Mom and Dad’s direct companionship, love, and supervision. A guiding parent or other supervising adult orchestrated all wake time, naptime, mealtime, and playtime. Your child’s friends were limited to the kids in the neighborhood or his playgroups. He lived in a world predominately structured and made secure by you.
Consider the child who at five held your hand everywhere you went and at six advanced to crossing the street by herself. Now she is notably less dependent on you and the sheltering structures you created for her protection (and your comfort). A driving sense of her own self-sufficiency is replacing your preadolescent’s longstanding preoccupation with personal caretakers.
Early in the middle-years transition, children begin to reject all sorts of minor childhood-related associations that they previously found comforting. The little girl who once was consoled after an injury by sitting on Mom’s lap may start going to her siblings for comfort instead. The young boy who once would not go anywhere without his stuffed animal now buries it in his closet toy box.
2. Transitioning to Knowing the Facts
“You’re out! I touched the base.” “No, I’m not! You have to touch me.”
They can barely swing the bat, but they brandish their knowledge of the rules as if they had a deep and abiding understanding of the game.
Your middle-years child now relates to other children as peers and to other adults as something more than parental substitutes. During this period, boys and girls demonstrate a need to organize, categorize, and play by the rules. It is important to them that they get their facts right (although they have an oversimplified notion of the correctness of their own assessment during this phase).
Perhaps you’re having a conversation with another adult in which you describe an incident that occurred at the store today. You aren’t even two sentences into your story when you hear, from the only other eyewitness to the event, your nine-year-old daughter. “No, Mom, that’s not how it happened. The man with the shopping cart bumped the manager and then.…”
Don’t be surprised when your attempt to abbreviate a conversation is met by a challenge from your middle-years child, who suddenly seems to have a desperate need to get the story right, as if one fact out of sequence will cause the universe to instantly implode.
Now add birth order to this mix. Because the eldest is born into a world of adults and not siblings, she tends to have an increased need to be “right” about all things. If another child breaks the rules, she is relentless in her efforts to straighten that child out or bring justice to bear on a situation. “Mom! That’s not fair! When I was Billy’s age, you never let me ride to the corner by myself.” Look for these verbal declarations-they’re all part of the transition process.
3. Transitioning from Imagination to Reason
With the middle years comes a distinct shift toward logical thinking. Logic and reason now help your child to begin overcoming the unknown. Consider how small children deal with fear of the unknown or unexplained circumstances. A nighttime shadow on the bedroom wall becomes the villain from their favorite cartoon. A loud noise in the distance is a monster on its way to the house! Because their imaginations develop more rapidly than their reasoning skills, and because they’re aware of their own smallness, younger children often interpret anything they don’t understand as something to be feared.
But everything changes during the middle years. Reason rises to challenge imagination. This means your eight-year-old will begin to appear more daring and adventuresome and less restrained by fear of the unknown.
4. Transitioning to New Emotional Patterns and Expressions
Every healthy child comes into this life with the potential for experiencing the full range of human emotions. Obviously, these emotions influence the way we think and act. Though all humans have the same emotions, each of us responds to these feelings differently. Some responses are constructive; others are detrimental. In the latter case, it is not the emotions themselves that get us into trouble, but the manner in which we deal with them.
The more we respond to an emotion in a certain way, the greater the likelihood that it will develop into a habit. Developing positive habits is particularly important during the middle years because this is the season of life in which a child’s moral knowledge (moral truth taught by parents and teachers) combined with his emotions can help establish patterns of right behavior.
For example, the child who learns early in life that “honesty is the best policy” is likely to carry that teaching into adulthood. Your four-year-old can understand the principle, but your eight-year-old can make it a way of life.
Do not miss this important point: You and your home environment will play a dominant role in shaping your child’s profile of emotional responses, especially during the middle years. A child who observes Dad returning wrong for wrong by walking the dog on a neighbor’s lawn as payback for a similar disservice will learn that paybacks are okay for peers. If right responses are not learned during the middle years, wrong ones will most likely characterize the teen years. Now is when you need to check out your own attitudes.
The middle years also bring about a shift in a child’s outward expression of emotions. A young child’s emotional outburst lasts a few minutes, and then it’s over. Contrast this response with that of the socially sensitive middle-years child, whose short-lived outbursts have given way to drawn-out periods of moodiness. What all this demonstrates is that your middle-years child can now exercise cognitive control over his emotions. A few years earlier, this was not the case. The decision of how to behave is, in the end, your child’s. However, you still play a significant role in shaping how your child develops his or her responses. Take advantage of this.
5. Transitioning to Hormone-Activated Bodies
Perhaps you have found yourself thinking, “my child is only eight or nine-it can’t be hormones yet!” Yes, it can. Most people think hormonal changes don’t begin until just before a child reaches the teen years, when they naturally set into motion a series of defiant acts and rebellious mood swings.
But the truth is that hormonal changes in a child’s endocrine system begin at approximately age seven, not twelve or thirteen. You may have already begun to see the effects. Yes, your middle-years child is hormonally active. From this point on, he or she will experience greater emotional highs and lows. This may, in turn, affect behavior. But wait: The fact that your child is undergoing these changes does not provide an excuse for wrong behavior.
Have you ever wondered why your nine-year-old daughter can change moods overnight? She may go through phases of discouragement and break into tears over minor details. Someone looked at her wrong. She looks all wrong. She’s not sure what is wrong. Her face becomes a little oilier, and she is sure everyone is noticing. For a few days she becomes more snippety toward her siblings. Then, just as quickly, she returns to being the stable child you knew before. Hormones at work.
While hormones play their part, the moral environment in which your child is raised also plays a significant role in shaping her perception of her changing body and the sexual tension natural to growth. Clinicians have noted that children who come from differing domestic moral climates will have very different sensual experiences.
For example, young girls weaned on MTV are more likely to express their budding sense of womanhood according to the images promoted by the sexual image-makers of MTV. In contrast, pubescent daughters coming from homes that do not allow this influence tend to direct their budding sexual awareness into channels of innocent romantic thought.
Have your ever watched Anne of Green Gables? It took Anne, the main character of this drama, eight hours (in film time-eight years in story time) to realize that it was Gilbert, her old school chum, who she really loved. While such romantic portrayals are entertaining for a sixty-year-old woman and perhaps confusing for a six-year-old girl, a ten-year-old girl enters into eight hours of romance by identifying herself with the heroine.
Why is she hooked while her six-year-old female cousin and her eleven-year-old brother find something else to do? Because hormones active in her body have brought about a burgeoning sense of romance. Her body awakens her mind to a vague but real awareness that someday perhaps there will be a Gilbert for her, too. Endocrine changes awaken a sense of romantic sensitivity in girls much earlier than they do in boys. Your ten-year-old daughter is asking, “Mom, how did you and Dad meet?” or “Where did you go on your first date?” Meanwhile, a boy of the same age is asking, “Mom, have you seen my football?”
Valiant knights prance their white steeds dreamily through your daughter’s thoughts. But it will be another year or two before the neighbor boy of the same age starts to consider your daughter more than a decent right fielder or someone to torment with his plastic spider. But in time, preteen boys, too, succumb to the powerful effect of hormones on their views of the opposite gender.
6. Transitioning to the Growing Influence of Peers
The middle years are marked by a greater sensitivity to the differences between self and peers. Any slight deviation in growth or secondary sex characteristics from what is common in the group will cause the middle-years child to worry.
Such an occurrence is natural and quite unavoidable. The young girl who begins to develop prematurely will measure herself against other girls. The boy who starts to show hairs on his chin or to grow disproportionately in height will become self-conscious about his differences. This awareness leads to a growing interest in the opinions of others in a child’s peer group. What is the group wearing, listening to, doing? Where are they going? And what does all this mean to me? The effects of this transition will be felt for quite some time.
7. Transitioning to a Sense of Morality
Morality is more than a checklist of good choices one makes in the interest of preserving self. Moral maturity means considering others-respecting the feelings, needs, hurts, and hearts of those with whom the child interacts.
We believe that clearly defined morality is the only foundation upon which healthy relationships and strong families are built. Only moral maturity enables us to get along rightly with others in our families and communities.
Because the middle years are typically far less traumatic than the “terrible twos” or the tumultuous teens, parents tend not to have a sense of moral urgency during this time. Yet if there is ever a time of ripening, when a child seeks moral knowledge, it is during these precious middle years. This is the time when you as a parent can encourage and shape the development of moral consciousness in your child.
During the middle years, children not only understand the wider scope of moral truth; they can begin to use it to regulate their lives. Soon they will be able to conform their outward behavior voluntarily, apart from the fear of reproof that so often accompanies a younger child’s moral decision-making process. The middle years are when your child will strike deep moral roots-for good or ill-with or without your guidance.
Younger children live off Mom and Dad’s values. But during the middle years, children begin to take personal ownership of their values. Are you ready to help your child make the transition?
8. Transitioning from Being Reminded to Being Responsible
The middle years are a time when your child should be transitioning from simply obeying the rules, on the one hand, to taking personal responsibility for tasks, chores, and behavior, on the other. When only obedience is at stake, your child will comply when reminded. When responsibility comes into play, your child does the right thing without being reminded.
As soon as a middle-years child understands what you’re asking of her, she should be expected to take ownership of that behavior. This may be a change for her and you. If you don’t make it a priority to teach her self-generated initiative now, you’ll still be asking if she’s done all her homework and picked up her room when she’s in college.