Young children are eternally discovering who they are. When you watch the silly and nonsensical things they do, they are hard at work! Self-discovery is their job until they are about 7 years old, the age of reason. Uhhh, what is the age of reason, you ask? “The age of reason refers to the developmental cognitive, emotional, and moral stage in which children become more capable of rational thought, have internalized a conscience, and have a better capacity to control impulses (than in previous stages),” explains Dana Dorfman, PhD, a psychotherapist at Scholastic. “It’s the time when a child starts to truly grasp the difference between right and wrong and begins to realize that other people have their own feelings that might not match his or hers.” What all that means is before this age, kids are quite literally incapable of controlling themselves.
We know sometimes it’s hard, because they do become contrary, defiant, and ever so disobedient. But honestly, the best (and more stress-free) way to cope with it is to join them in this journey. Say what? You heard us. Go on and find out who they are, too. Give them those few years of exploration and wonder before we ask them to be our idea of who they should be before they have a world’s worth of expectations put on them. When we judge and expect a child to behave a certain way, we are trying to make them fit a cookie-cutter idea of how a child should behave. Just imagine someone judging and correcting you all day without explaining why. Sounds bad.
And yes of course we have to teach them the behavioral limits acceptable in society. For example, screaming at the top of their lungs in a supermarket is not OK. So what should we do?
We explain why it’s not a good idea to scream in public
We have to explain it calmly so we don’t leave negative emotional residue in our message - because the emotion behind what we say is what stays and sometimes it is the only thing they hear, rather than the actual words you’re saying to them
We have to model for them during a similar situation. Teach them how you react when you are upset and use your words to express your feelings
When stuck in traffic, instead of going ballistic, you can model by narrating your inner thoughts and feelings. “This traffic is making us late and I’m getting upset right now, but let me take some deep breaths and turn on the radio to calm me down while we wait because we can’t do anything about this traffic right now anyway.” By being honest about your thoughts and feelings, they will try to emulate that or you will remind them with the same words like “I see that you’re upset. I understand - not getting what I want upsets me too, but let's take some deep breaths and remember that we can’t get what we want all the time. There is a time for everything.”
In the middle of a loud cry or a tantrum, talk to them in a whisper in their ears: “Julie, I have something to say to you, come here and listen.” They will be forced to lessen the crying and screaming and stop to listen to what you have to say
Redirect their attention and make it like a game: “If you calm down, we can try to solve the problem another way, what do you think? Maybe you can choose something else in the fruit section that’s just as sweet. Or we can go to the baking section and we can bake something sweet at home instead.”
Sometimes we use the shortcut of correcting them but this has negative effects on their ever-important self-discovery. Here are some of the things we do:
Compare them to a child who is calm and “behaving” at the store
Bribe them with candy or more TV time to behave
Threaten them that they will have no TV time
Tell them they’re being a baby
Get mad and storm out of the store
And the worst one of all: give them what they want!!!!
Oh yeah, it’s hard. We’ve done all of the above and yes, they are shortcuts, and they ~solve~ the situation quickly. But what did we do in the process?
We put them down by comparing them to another behaving child or comparing them to a baby
We promise them something good or something bad that will happen - and so we rob them of the opportunity to grow self-control by giving them space and the support
We gave in so they will do it again and again because they realize that screaming at the top of their lungs gives them what they want
And what does that do to their expectations of the world and of life - that if we complain enough and have a fit - then things will go our way. Sound familiar?
Overreacting and expressing strong, negative emotions communicate to them that we shouldn’t communicate our needs and express our feelings. That might not seem like a big thing, but just imagine feeling that 5-6 times a day for years and years. What kind of adult does that produce? How does it affect their self-esteem, how will they compromise themselves when they need to assert themselves as a young adult?
By not helping them grow interpersonal skills themselves, we shift their focus to things outside themselves, unhealthy coping mechanisms, and make them value those instead of their own ability to manage. Eventually, they will “behave” and try to fit in, or they will “behave” just to please you or because you scared them with your anger. But I think we love our children more than that. I think we truly want them to be their best selves, it’s just that we revert to automatic reactions and not informed responses.