Raising the obedient child

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If you google ‘obedient child’ or ‘good children’, which is what I did in my attempt to discover free stock photos of individuals described so, you will find many photos titled ‘problem child’, ‘disobedience’, as well as children lining up while smiling or children doing homework while smiling or a family reading and all of them smiling.

In discussions among adults interested in childhood, the question of discipline and boundaries are the kinds that send sparks off everywhere. ‘Well, it’s not such a big deal is it? They’re just children…’ says the left, whose child usually is hopping off the wall. ‘She should be punished!’ ‘She must learn that she just can’t do things like that!’ says the right whose own children have eyes cast eternally to the ground. Everyone has a stance in this debate, teachers, parents, relatives, friends, passengers on train when there’s a child riding it.- everyone.

I often find that one of the obstacles to appreciating childhood is trying to understand and empathise the experience of young children going through a ‘sensitive period’. A sensitive period, as described by Montessori, is a temporary period of time when an individual is involuntarily drawn towards something. Usually, it is a natural response to help them find something their body/ mind needs. For example, caterpillars have a sensitive period for light lasting a few days, which leads them towards tips of branches where the softest and youngest leaves are which young caterpillars can chew. Once they grow and can eat most of the other leaves, this sensitive period fades away. Montessori describes 6 main sensitive periods which children under 6 years experience. Today, I list 2 of which I find often challenges the adult society most.

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The sensitive period for order was observed by Montessori to peak and then fade at around age 2. By order, we mean objects being in the same place, events happening predictably, and all these types of things which help them to feel safe and to function. Order helps the child to know how things and people work. – Pots and pans go in that cupboard. When I drop my spoon, this person picks it up and gives it back to me and that person won’t, after a bath, I get fed, and I get fed at this chair, this is my spoon and this is mummy’s mug and that is the visitor’s plate. Many visitors arrive one day and there are not enough spoons and mugs and my spoon is used by that person and mummy’s mug is used by granddad! No! Everything is wrong!

Adults, of course also have a tendency for order. Most people enjoy some kind of routine and being able to find things where we left them. However, as we have developed emotionally, when things or activities are not orderly, we don’t break down or become inconsolable. Toddlers have not yet developed emotional control but it is difficult for us to always appreciate that young children cannot be as flexible as we have learned to be. Yet, it is useful to remember that we were once the same and someone did well by us and allowed us to feel safe and develop self-confidence and security within so that the most flexible and easy-going among us often had the most steadfast and consistent childhood for their order has been internalised and they can bring it everywhere with them and what happens on the outside is really not so important. So, your child really isn’t trying to be difficult or fussy. But they will be upset with changes and really the most effective way of managing our experience of it is to take the time to explain things beforehand. Things change and it is alright that they do but their feelings were considered and they were offered some reason to repeat to themselves and feel better with that. It is equally important to avoid standoffs with or surrendering to your child when situations arise. These are opportunities to model emotional management and to avoid building patterns of power struggles which can sometimes happen with families with energetic children.

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The other sensitive period that can be inconvenient to the daily life of the adult is the child’s sensitive period for co-ordination of movement. Montessori emphasised that it is the co-ordination of movement and not just movement. Movement alone is random and senseless. A baby’s random and senseless movements allow her to accidentally grasp things, hit something, feel themselves and through this trial and error experience, the baby begins to co-ordinate her movements so that they become purposeful and directed by herself. In fact, we commonly mistake the young child for a puppy (joke) and thus the idea of bringing a young child to the park so that she can have a run is propagated and perpetuated. Children do not wish to run in circles aimlessly but given the circumstances, it is as if something is wrong with them if they do not do so. If, however, you offer a purpose, no matter how small, to the movement, then the child is given an opportunity to co-ordinate her movements and thus her need is satisfied. She does not leave park redfaced and exhausted and out-of-control. In fact, she leaves rejuvenated, possibly hungry and definitely up for a good night’s sleep (which is great for everybody). What purpose can you offer for movement? – simple gardening, shed care, wheelbarrowing of rubbish into a pile, collecting of leaves into a pile. Community service for the park? If you are brave, give her a grabber to fetch rubbish to the bins. And of course, ball games and scootering seem to be the universally acceptable type of children activities in the park. (I do highly recommend the rubbish grabber for older 5-6 year olds. It makes one proud when you hear how indignant they are of litterbugs!)The development of co-ordination of movement runs parallel to that of concentration when the mind and body come together for one great purpose: to serve the child and help her achieve her goals, to draw that tree exactly like she pictured it in her mind, to pass a ball from foot to foot like a professional, to write a perfect ‘o’.

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