Child development is incredibly and wonderfully complicated, and part of the joy of parenting is trying to figure it out and caring what happens. We know it matters; and that responsibility is both inspiring and terrifying. We often find ourselves baffled and uncertain what to do. We are busy people and can’t all be (don’t want to be) helicopter parents, much less child development specialists; we know there must be a simpler way that achieves our basic goals (raising a decent, successful person). Plus, we want to enjoy it and not feel like we are constantly failing or riskingpublic condemnation or a visit from CPS. Sometimes we would like some advice that simplifies things.
People often ask me to boil it down to the most important things a parent can do to help raise a healthy, happy, successful person. Sure, no problem! (See caveat below.)
First, bear in mind the most fundamental principle of development: a child that feels safe will grow faster and better than one that has to worry. If you make it your primary goal to help your child (as newborn, infant, toddler, school-age…) feel safe and secure, that everything is ok, they will explore, learn, grow, and become. If you do this one thing, all of the right things will fall into place.
Second, by far, the best way to make your child feel safe and secure is to attune to him. I have described this at length elsewhere, but the gist is to be empathic and loving: sincerely try to understand what the child is experiencing, make it clear to them you are doing so, and convey that everything is ok. Reassure them they are being seen and that it’s all good.
Third, attunement is not the same as permissive parenting. Paying attention to what they are trying to communicate, attuning to their feelings, and expressing an accepting, loving attitude does not mean you let them do dangerous or hurtful things, that they are in charge, that you forfeit your authority to control the situation, or that you don't have a responsibility to help them understand rules of conduct and the consequences associated with actions. Attunement is essentially conveying that you are paying attention, you see how they feel, and that you will protect them, and help them learn.
Fourth, children of all ages, when they feel safe, will explore and experiment. This is how they learn. They learn just as much from successes as they do failures. We have to allow them to fail in order to learn. Our job is to pay attention and try to manage those failures so they happen in manageable amounts. We don’t learn well from failing at things that far exceed our abilities. That said, one of the best things that can happen to a child is to fail or get hurt and realize it’s ok; everything is fine and the hurt goes away. An added bonus is that being hurt elicits comforting behaviors from others; how nice! Ongoing proof that someone is paying attention, loves you, and comforts you. It’s great for kids to have this experience over and over and over again. Our job is to know our child well enough to know how much they (not we) can reasonably handle; not too little, not too much.
Fifth, routines are good for everyone; they order the child’s world, make it more predictable, reduce unknowns, and give them a sense of control and ownership; this goes a long way to providing safety and security. Routines around bedtime, naps, and meals are especially important. The human mind is bothered by what it doesn’t know; unknowns and uncertainties drive curiosity and learning. We do not need to train that drive, but rather to remove the impediments to it. Providing security and routines answers the basic questions: Am I safe? Is my environment safe? Do I know what’s going on? Routines free the mind to move onto other fascinations.
Sixth, transitional objects (aka Blankey, Lovey, Teddy) help children feel safe and secure because they are a known entity the child can control with her hands and have access to virtually always. Parents are not always available, controllable, or managed physically. A soft piece of cloth - however nasty it smells and appears - that the child can hold and raise to his face whenever he wants or needs, is a salve on every discomfort. Not only is it comforting, but more importantly, it gives the child a sense of self-control; that she can comfort herself.
Seventh, relax. Enjoy. Laugh about it. Give yourself, and whoever else is involved, a break. If you pay attention and don’t freak about things; if you love your child for where she is in the process of becoming a person, and allow that to be enough, for now; if you don’t try too hard or force the child to be something she’s not; if you get on the floor with them, pay attention, and enjoy, it will all work out!
Ok, that was the positive spin. Here's the other side.
Mis-attunement leaves kids anxious and uncertain, insecure, distrustful, sad, and ashamed. Not good. And not a good base from which to explore. Sure, we are built to survive and will do what it takes to live; we hang on for dear life. Humans are born virtually physically helpless and are wired to preserve themselves by clinging to their mother; the less safe they feel, the more they cling. The less available parents are for comfort, the more preoccupied kids are in obtaining it. This preoccupation, and the insecurity that drives it, interfere with exploration and learning.
Parents can design their homes and routines so that most of what the child experiences facilitates learning and doesn’t exceed the child’s ability to handle them. In a safe environment parents don’t need to micro-manage their child. And paying attention allows you to sit back and watch them explore without having to hover over them. In fact, a child whose parent is constantly hovering over them anxiously protecting her from herself and the world is learning the world is dangerous and that she cannot be trusted to navigate it. This does not build security.
The child’s mind is wildly stimulated by its environment. Electrified. The learning curve is steep and exhausting. The brain needs to rest in order to process what it has already taken in; the child needs to sleep. A lot. As much as he can. But the child cannot be expected to responsibly turn away from stimuli, or turn off his brain, and manage how much sleep to get. Children will, like zombies, power through until the system breaks down, they melt down, or collapse. Sleep schedules can prevent this.
The mind uses its available resources to deal with experience. Learning occurs when experiences are within the “zone of proximal development”, that is, challenging but not beyond what the child can reasonably handle (on her own or with help). Trauma occurs when experiences are too far beyond their ability to handle them.
Children are, as they say, like sponges, and when safe, they crave learning. It is important to provide a rich, safe environment for them to explore. It is essential that their learning is affirmed by parents. It is a joy to watch our kids learn and do things new to them. Learning occurs in that first instance, but also through repetition and mastery. It is also critically important they learn to stay on task, try and try again, and master things. Working toward mastery is intrinsically gratifying for children, but parental affirmation reinforces this. They will regularly look to you for guidance or affirmation. It's easy to express affirmation when they do something new, but it's just as important to acknowledge their repeated efforts to get something right, even when they seem to have it down pat. If they continue to repeat something, they need the affirmation it provides. It can be downright boring, but, stay tuned; when we lose interest, they lose interest. If they give up before achieving mastery, they might inadvertently be learning that "practice" isn't gratifying, only novelty or winning. This is a missed opportunity to help them learn self-control, which is, after security, the most important thing to develop. So, keep paying attention and turn off the iPhone.
A related issue, and common among savvy parents with the best intentions: It is gratifying to see children learn new things, and naturally we want to encourage them to learn even more. An unfortunate and unintended consequence of always focusing on what else they might learn - however encouraging- is that from the kid's perspective, it's never enough. It's a difficult line to draw: we want them to know we are paying attention, are proud of them, happy about their achievements, and want to encourage them to try for more. But we don't want them to feel like we are never satisfied. Maybe the best rule of thumb is to keep principle #1 in mind and trust that if we focus on affirming, they will naturally strive for the next level.
As they grow, it's important to allow them space to play on their own. Having paid attention along the way you will know when to step back and let them work things out on their own. They will inevitably look to you for affirmation, less and less regularly if they are safe and trust you are available. When they do, they will start by non-verbally referencing you. If that doesn't work they will move to verbal requests or tugging at your hand. Remember that making them work for your attention interferes with real independence.
I know, I know, my reduction sauce is still pretty soupy. But if you boil it down to the underlined phrases it gets pretty simple. Get on the floor, pay attention, lovingly affirm them, and enjoy it. Sorry, that's not the same as "If you just love him, it'll all be fine."
I have made a lifelong study of child development and parenting, most formally at the University of Wisconsin's Department of Child and Family Studies, the home base for my independent study to understand moral development, and at the Department of Clinical Psychology at Columbia.
My interest and understanding only deepened as I have, as a clinical psychologist, seen how my patients' development resulted in their particular struggles - and strengths. Daily, I bear witness to the consequences of various parental styles, family constellations, and circumstances in and beyond parents' control. It's not always obvious - in the scrum of family life - what helps, what hurts, or how things are going to turn out. In therapy, we examine how things have turned out thus far. And in every case I delve in and understand what contributed to patients' anxiety, mood, insecurities, agency, effectiveness, relationship and parenting styles; their ability to love themselves and others, to focus, see things through, find happiness, cope with pain and frustration; their relative ability to know themselves, control themselves, and get what they want in life.
This front row seat informs our understanding of early childhood development and the influences that matter most.
There is no one right way to parent and hardly any wrong ways either. The human spirit and the adaptations people make to their circumstances continue to blow me away. People survive and thrive. And what may at one point seem like a deficit later fuels adaptations and compensations that lead to achievements - personal or professional - that may not otherwise have been possible. Insecurities become accomplishments and commitments. Invisibility becomes celebrity. Pain, as Gibran wrote, is the hole into which flows happiness (or something like that).
So, is there any point in advising parents about the styles and techniques that are associated with desired outcomes? Many will tell me to stay out of it and let parents do what they want. I'm fine with that. But, who can deny that - increasingly - the air is dense with parental ambitions to channel their love into optimal development and opportunities? Parents yearn to know what matters most. And everybody has an opinion (or at least something to sell). I have, reluctantly, begun to post my thoughts about these issues, previously shared only within the organic, intimate context of therapy, or with fellow researchers.
It's risky. Psychologists have only recently entered the realm of public sharing, mainly I think because it is easy for lay people to misunderstand concepts and misapply them in their own lives. (The recent advent of publicly available genetic testing is a good example of how a little information - incomplete and inaccurate - can do more harm than good.) Plus, the obvious risk is that parents will find it difficult or impossible to do the "optimal" things and will be loaded up with pressure or guilt. As with so many things, ignorance is bliss, and knowledge can be an unbearable burden. The final risk is that parents will feel judged.
The spirit of sharing these thoughts is simply to convey what we know in a no-nonsense, conversational way in hopes people can make use of this or that. When I write about the importance of attunement, it is meant to be aspirational, information to guide the parents trying to do what matters most. Life gets in the way of such aspirations, and when I write about misattunement, it's not meant to be a damning portent of miseries to come.
Posts about development are not just for parents. This information is useful to adults trying to understand how they "got this way", what drives them, and why, and what they might be able to do about it. Ideally, it sparks interest, exploration, and conversation.