Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hurry Up & Wait!

Our age-related expectations can
pull kids in different directions.
As a father of three boys, I'm fascinated by the role of birth order in our personalities.  I can't offer much insight into gender differences (no daughters to observe!) but I see a lot of birth order drama play out in our daily lives.  Lately, I've been thinking about how our expectations as parents combines with birth order to create a pretty powerful influence on our kids.  I call this effect "hurry up and wait" because those are the messages the kids end up getting - "hurry up" for the older kids, and "wait" for the younger.

Looking back, I've come to realize that my unspoken expectations have been stretching my oldest son into greater maturity for his whole life.  When he was little, I couldn't wait for him to walk and talk.  Then I couldn't wait for him to learn to ride a bike or cross-country ski, so I could share those sports with him.  Then I couldn't wait for him to be old enough to share certain beloved books or movies with.  And recently (the experience that made me realize I've been doing this) I was disappointed that I couldn't take him to a concert for a musician we both enjoy. 

It's not just about the fun things, either.  When there are chores to be done, we expect adult results from him now that he's almost 12.  When the siblings are arguing, we're probably hardest on him because we have higher standards of fairness and maturity for him than the younger boys.  And in our homeschooling, we expect greater effort and higher quality work from him than from his younger brothers.

All his life, I've been wishing he were just a little older, eager to share experiences that were just out of his reach. That's not to say that we don't also do fun stuff that he's old enough for now - we do, but there's always an eagerness to do the next thing when he's ready.  Looking back, that's had a tangible effect on him - subconsciously, he's always being told to "hurry up" and get older.

At the other end of the spectrum his younger brother is more often forgiven for  childish behavior.  He's more likely to have things done for him, like reading or cooking, though he's capable of both.  He's more often held back by our expectations that he can't do things well enough.  And at the same time, since he's our last child, we seem to cherish his little-ness and act reluctant to let it slip away.  He's more likely to get cuddles, hugs, and other "young" physical affection.  You might say that he's always being told to "wait" - stay small a little longer, please!

I don't mean to imply that there's something wrong with doing this.  I think it's a natural and understandable tendency in parents, and it's clearly appropriate to vary our expectations according to our children's age and developmental stage.  But I think it's important to be aware of this tendency, and of the power it can hold in shaping our kids.  Now that I've recognized the pattern, I can choose appropriate times to let up and allow my oldest to be a kid when he needs to.  And I can look for opportunities to let my youngest stretch and grow and earn greater responsibility.  Hopefully, seeing this pattern of parenting behavior clearly will make me a better dad, and will make my kids happier, more self-secure kids. 

I doubt this tendency is universal across families.  It's easy to imagine a different person telling their oldest to "wait" and their youngest to "hurry up."  So I'm not sharing this with you because I think you deal with your kids' different ages the same way I do.  But I suspect that their ages impact your expectations in some way, and I'd bet you it's not something you're fully mindful of.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Dark Side of Self-Esteem

I've noticed an interesting behavior pattern in my kids.  It checks out in what I've seen of other people's kids, too.  I'll describe it for you -- see if it sounds familiar.  Your child achieves [some milestone].  You're thrilled for him!  [Milestone] is something he's worked at for a while, something that once seemed out of reach - but finally, it is his.  And suddenly, in the days following this victory, your sweet child becomes obstinate and disrespectful.  Behavior you thought you'd seen for the last time returns, and tactics that have always worked suddenly don't.  What the heck is going on?

Here's a list of the different milestones in my children's lives that have produced the effect described above:
  • Learning to walk
  • Birthdays
  • Learning to read
  • Learning to ride a bike without training wheels
  • Going to school for the first time
  • Advancing a belt in martial arts
  • Learning to drive (our kids haven't gotten here yet, but I've seen it in other families)
I'm sure there are others, but these are the examples that come immediately to mind.  So here's the question: why on earth would these achievements, these positive milestones, cause bad behavior?

I've thought about that and I have a few answers I'd like to offer.  First of all, I don't think it's  always true that the milestones cause the behavior.  There are probably times when we are so excited about her achievement that we subconsciously cut the kid some slack, then reel them back in after it's over.  But I'm pretty sure that's not the whole story; something bigger is going on here.

What I think is happening is this:  children have a powerful drive to mature, to achieve grown-up status.  It's certainly not the only drive they have, and at times it competes with, say, the drive to sneak cookies or the drive to avoid unpleasant work.  But that drive to grow up is one of the most powerful motivators acting on your child.

And in your child's mind, that milestone - let's say it's riding a bike without training wheels - that ability is the next obstacle on his path to growing up.  It's a big obstacle, and he's fixated on it for a while. 
Each peak obscures your view of the next...

So he begins to see it as the obstacle, rather than an obstacle, between him and adulthood.  It's analogous to wanting to climb a mountain.  From a distance, you have a clear view of the peak you're striving towards, but as you get closer, the foothills obscure the peak and you begin to mistake the slope you're on for the path to the summit, still far ahead.

When she  achieves her goal, it feels like she's basically a grown-up now, except for a few details.  But you're still treating her the same way you did before her big success.  And that, right there, is your recipe for the discord I described at the beginning.

I want to stress that this is not necessarily a bad thing.  Sure, it's unpleasant when your child regresses, but I think every kid deserves to act up now and then.  Mistakes and learning go hand in hand.  What would life be like if somebody always interfered with that process? Achieving major milestones spikes his self-esteem a little more than it should, but the world will correct that soon enough without my help.  I know I don't want to be the one knocking my kid's self-image down a peg. 

So I'm not recommending any particular action; it just helps a little to understand why it's happening.  I try - with mixed success - to meet the unpleasant behavior with patience and correct it the same way I would have when they were younger.  Soon enough, we're back on track and their eyes are on the next goal.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

The Incredible Power of Exhaustion

Anyone who's been a parent for more than a few days is surely aware of the connection between fatigue and behavior. Humans aged anywhere from 8 days to 8 decades are a lot less fun to be around when they need a snack or a nap.

But we don't blame food and energy when their behavior is at the other end of the scale. What about the bad behavior we see in kids who are well-fed, well-rested, full of energy - but with no appropriate place to put all that youthful vigor? I don't know about you, but I see this a lot in my family, and in its own way, it's harder to deal with than a kid who just needs to be tucked into bed. I'm quite sure I could get an "amen" from any public school teacher who's recently had recess cancelled due to rain.

I was at a meeting for our local youth swim team recently when I had an "aha!" moment. One mom complained that the practices just weren't hard enough - her daughter just wasn't coming home exhausted like she used to, and that was one of her main goals in signing the girl up for swim team. I flashed back to my childhood soccer coaches, who made my ill-behaved teammates run laps until they were ready to pay attention. I thought of my cats, who oscillate between acrobatic frenzies and complete relaxation. And then I thought of the peaceful feeling that comes over me after a bit of good exercise, and I understood the wisdom of that swimmer's mom.

Others have written more authoritatively than I could on the ill effects of screen time, sugary diets, heavy homework loads and the general trend in our society towards a more sedentary childhood. Many folks believe there's a connection between these things and the ADD/ADHD epidemic. I won't rehash those arguments. But I will say this: if you haven't found a way to wear your kids out on a regular basis, you're parenting uphill.

Children's bodies need the physical outlet of exercise. It doesn't have to be formal. Childhood should be full of play - tag, hide-&-seek, jungle gyms, swings, tree-climbing, monkey bars, and riding bikes around the cul de sac. General outdoor activities like hiking fit the bill, and they can give your whole family more time together. Or team and individual sports will work fine, too, if that's what interests your kid. But it needs to be something, it ought to happen every day, and it might as well be something fun.

Kids whose bodies are jittery with bottled-up energy are compromised just as surely as they are when they miss a nap or their blood sugar gets too low. They're at a disadvantage at school, where concentration is the key to learning. They're far more likely to act up, and they're more argumentative and cantankerous than they would be otherwise.

The best thing is that burning that excess energy satisfies a basic human need, so it leaves kids feeling satisfied. . . content. . . healthy. . . happy, even. Parenting a content, peaceful child is a breeze compared to wrangling with a hyper one.

So think about your child's typical day. Are they worn out when it's over? If not, find a way to change their schedules so there's time for exercise. I think you'll see a difference in their behavior, which is bound to leave you a little more tranquil as well.