“Too many parents try to live their child’s life for them” was a recent quote from Eton’s Head teacher Tony Little, this comment really resonated with me for many children not privileged to attend this well-known school. I suspect what parents do reflects what our society in general is doing, which is overthinking and controlling things in a desperate bid to manage uncertain times. We see this in our schools, less from class teachers but more from Heads and those in government and Ofsted who are tasked with raising standards. This creates an image in my mind of lots of big and powerful people leaning on the less powerful people below them, down and down until you reach the child who is struggling to find the room to grow and be themselves.
As a Child Psychologist I have always been concerned with how we find a good balance between the nurturing and supportive adult who wants to protect and the child who needs space and freedom to grow and discover who they are. Children are not blank slates who will bear the imprint of whoever is involved in their upbringing. I do not subscribe to the belief
“Give me a child before they are 7 and I will give you the man”
Medieval religion was rather preoccupied with saving souls by controlling and constraining people into narrow paths in life. Having come from generations of people whose menfolk toiled on the land while the women were servants, I’m not a fan of the old order. Social mobility we call it today, freedom to choose is how I like to think of it.
So how can we pull back and start to let the inner child emerge so that we support and nurture a happy, confident and successful child. We want children to flourish which can be defined as
Flourish: grow or develop in a healthy or vigorous way, especially as the result of a particularly congenial environment.
Children naturally gravitate towards what they need. Childhood is the last area of human life where the people concerned often have little say in what happens to them. When we do too much for children and base our decisions on our own thoughts and beliefs we miss an opportunity. There is a danger we will miss important evidence that is right in front of us. When we follow any set of established rules, whether it is personal or based on a well-regarded parenting theory we risk missing that guidance which comes from being totally attuned to the individual child. Equally at school a fixed educational methodology may suit some children and not others.
Here are 10 steps you can take to give each child a voice and to help you create “the particularly congenial environment” needed to flourish.
Help a child discover things they enjoy. Be detectives together to discover what they find exciting and interesting. Notice the choices a child makes and help them to do more of what works for them. What a child finds interesting may be a sign of a personal strength which needs encouraging and nurturing.
Leave time free every day for independence which is entirely under the child’s control. Children who regularly plan and organise their time are more confident than children who depend on adult organised activities. They are more likely to discover and develop their interests which give them a range of possible future projects. Younger or less confident children may need to start small with 5 or 10 minutes and build the time up slowly from there.
Praise for effort and ingenuity rather than for results. Too much preoccupation with outcomes feeds anxiety and undermines confidence. “Will I succeed next time?” Doubt is toxic whereas optimism is energizing. “I can do it if I try hard” is a better basis for learning than worrying about whether you have the ability to succeed.
Tell a child what you think is great about them. Praise character, actions and values rather than achievements. Positive feedback about character is sustainable praise which is building a child’s self-knowledge and ability to continue to make good decisions. Young children learn about themselves slowly because it requires mature cognitive skills to analyse situations closely. Children are overly dependent on other people’s opinion which is why bullying has such an impact. Children who are regularly reminded about their personal strengths are likely to be both more confident and more resilient to negative experiences.
Use WWW- what went well– to discuss the highlights of the day, this reflects on the positives which can be informative and allows privacy for a child to mull over what was less successful without unasked for adult scrutiny. Make sure that someone is available should they wish to talk about the disappointments of the day but remove the pressure to offer them for forensic examination.
Develop a playlist of favourite things to do. Include quick and easy as well as big events to provide a menu for free half hours, sunny days out and rainy days at home. Children spend much more time than adults engaged in things they are learning and consequently struggling with, the effort required is draining and rebalancing is important. Having time to use the skills you have and to do things which are satisfying is enormously important. I meet families where the entire day is lost to travelling to and from school and extracurricular activities followed by homework and little else.
Capture the happy times to be revisited and enjoyed all over again. Make a scrapbook of pictures and drawings if you like to handle things or use photos on your computer. Make a treasure box with tickets, found objects and souvenirs to remind you of days out.
Focus on the present we don’t know what tomorrow will hold and this is particularly true of children whose development is not predictable. By staying mindful we can focus on what is needed now and appreciate life in its fullest detail. When we rush headlong into the future we are following a fantasy which can delude us and cause us to miss out on a real understanding of the child in front of us.
Keep the future in context there is a danger in over thinking about the future because it is often driven by fear. When we share those anxieties with children they are likely to assume we have prior knowledge and that this will happen. This is a ticking, mental health time bomb which creates the climate for anxiety and depression. We get things off our chests at the cost of passing on a heavy burden to the next generation. We need to gain a more realistic perspective.
Make gratitude part of your life. A friend of mine spent a year working in orphanages in Zimbabwe. She met children and workers who were surviving in a very harsh political and economic climate but were grateful for what they had. They were focusing on the positives and that gave them the energy and optimism to work hard to improve life as far as they were able. Gratitude plays a major role in wellbeing and is a habit that has to a large extent been lost in recent years. It is confused with complacency and acceptance which it is not. You can be grateful for what you have while working flat out for a better world. The opposite is rarely true, those who ruminate on the negatives find their energy drains away and they are less able to make useful changes.
When a child is confident that things are going well; when they know that their family, friends and teachers support them then they are set on a path to flourish.