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Reclaiming Childhood: Letting Children Be Children in Our Achievement-Oriented Society
By William Crain
Henry Holt and Company Copyright © 2003 William Crain
All rights reserved.
Following Nature's Plan: Child-Centered Parenting in the Early Years
NEW PARENTS face many uncertainties. This is especially true in the United States and other nations that emphasize progress and change. Unlike parents in more stable, traditional societies, U.S. parents do not always feel they can turn to their own parents and grandparents for child-care advice. Instead, today's parents search for newer and better ways, looking for the latest scientific findings and approaches. But the experts aren't always in agreement, and parents can easily become confused and anxious. How long should one breast-feed? Should one feed on a schedule or on demand? Is it good to let a baby cry? Should one teach the baby to walk? Are flash cards and Baby Mozart videos a good idea? To these, as to a myriad of other questions, advice varies.
To make matters worse, parents are constantly reminded of their tremendous responsibility. Magazines and books tell parents that they are their children's first teachers, and what they do will have a tremendous impact. Popular book titles suggest that it's up to the parents to start teaching the child everything important: Teach Your Child How to Think, Teach Your Child Decision-Making, Teach Your Child the Language of Social Success, and so on. It's easy for parents to believe that if they don't do everything correctly, their children will become failures for life — and it will be the parents' fault.
Parental uncertainties and anxieties are not new. The famous baby doctor Benjamin Spock and the psychoanalyst Erik H. Erikson wrote about the problem in the 1940s and 1950s. When my wife and I began raising a family in the late 1960s, we had anxieties similar to those of young parents today.
Our insecurities make life unpleasant for us, but they also affect our children. According to Erikson, babies can sense our level of relaxation, and they need to experience a sense of calm within us in order to trust the world as a comforting place. Erikson implied that parents gain an inner assurance through a faith in something larger than themselves, such as religion. But not all parents have a deep religious faith. How can parents acquire the inner calm and confidence that is so important?
I believe that the person who offered the best recommendations was the pediatrician Arnold Gesell. Gesell said the first thing that we, as parents, need to recognize is that the baby's development is not really in our hands. Children enter the world with an inborn growth schedule that is the product of several million years of biological evolution. They are preeminently "wise" about what they need and what they are ready and not ready to do. Thus, we should adopt a child-centered approach: Instead of trying to force the child into our own predetermined patterns, we should take our cues from the child herself. If the baby is hungry, we should feed her; if she wants to play, we should go ahead and play with her; if she is sleepy, we should let her sleep and not rouse her to be fed. The baby follows nature's laws, so we can safely follow the baby's cues. Thus, there is something in which we can place our trust — nature herself.
Initially, when parents are still expecting the birth of a child, this approach might seem to be just another theory. But once they begin watching their infants grow, parents can become deeply impressed by the implicit wisdom of nature's inner guidance. This was certainly the case with me. As I watched our own children, as well as those of our friends, I saw how babies spontaneously engage in behaviors that I never would have imagined teaching, such as rocking back and forth a couple of weeks prior to crawling. I saw how babies investigate objects with rapt and spellbound attention. I saw that when parents follow the baby's signals and needs, babies work out their own stable schedules of feeding, sleep, and wakefulness. I felt a humble pleasure in watching nature work.
Although Gesell published his major works in the 1940s and 1950s and wrote romantically about nature's inner guidance, he also conducted some of the most rigorous scientific studies to date on infant development. In his more technical writing, he spoke of nature's guidance as biological maturation. Maturation is an inner, genetic force that determines the sequential nature of development. In utero, the genes direct embryonic growth in fixed sequences, and we can see fixed sequences after birth as well. Children begin to roll over, sit up, crawl, stand, and walk according to a set schedule. When, under the direction of the genes, the child's nervous system has grown to a certain point, the child will feel an inner urge to engage in each new activity.
The environment, to be sure, plays a role. But maturational theorists believe its role is primarily supportive; it ensures that children have opportunities they need to perfect their inwardly emerging capacities.
Maturational theorists recognize that while development always follows specific sequences, children do grow at different rates. Not all children sit up, crawl, or walk at the same age. But maturationists believe that individual growth rates, too, are largely determined by the genes.
Gesell, finally, initiated the current research interest in inborn temperament. He observed that while some children grow rapidly and are blithe and alert, other children have different temperaments. Some children, who grow more slowly, like to take their time and ponder matters. Others, who grow unevenly, are often moody and alternate between disinterest and flashes of brilliance. Gesell emphasized that every child has a unique, inborn growth rate and temperament, and he urged us to respect each child's individuality.
Not all child-centered theorists emphasize the concept of maturation. Jean Piaget, in particular, believed we can describe a great deal of intellectual development simply in terms of the child's curiosity. Children become intrigued by problems they can't quite solve in their usual ways, and as they work on these problems, they construct new cognitive structures. This construction process isn't directly governed by the genes. But Piaget agreed with the maturationists that the child's development comes from within. It doesn't come from adult teachings or environmental influences, but from the child's own spontaneous interests and efforts to create new ways of understanding the world. Thus, Piagetians also urge us to take our cues from the child. We help children the most by giving them opportunities to work on problems they find most interesting.
Today, the child-centered philosophy is most strongly promoted by the prominent writings of Mary Ainsworth and other attachment theorists. Like Gesell, attachment theorists argue that infants are biologically prepared to guide us with respect to the experiences they need. When we respond to their signals and cues, they develop healthy and secure attachments to us. They enjoy being with us, and they also use us as a secure home base from which to venture off and explore the surroundings.
DOES THE CHILD-CENTERED APPROACH LEAD TO "SPOILING"?
THE CHILD-CENTERED philosophy strikes many people as too permissive. It would seem that if we always take our cues from the child, the child will become spoiled, thinking that she can always be in control. However, the research evidence, at least with respect to infancy, has supported child-centered theory. In a classic study, Sylvia Bell and Mary Ainsworth asked what happens when mothers respond promptly and consistently to babies' cries (rather than acting on their own ideas of when it is all right for them to cry). The clear finding was that responsiveness does not lead to spoiling. On the contrary, by the age of one year these babies, in comparison to those of less responsive parents, cried less and were more independent. They enjoyed being held, but if the mother put them down, they didn't cry or protest but ventured off into exploratory play. They would check back on the mother's presence from time to time, as is natural at this age, but they were basically quite independent. Apparently, when babies' signals are heeded, they become confident that they can always get help when needed and therefore can relax and venture forth and explore on their own.
Other studies have supported this finding with respect to babies' cries and other signals (such as reaching to be picked up and gestures of greeting). When parents respond consistently and sensitively to babies' signals, babies develop feelings of trust in their parents' care, and this trust frees them to venture out into the world with considerable independence.
Of course, as babies grow and become increasingly mobile and active, their behavior can get out of hand. They can do things that are unsafe to themselves, or harmful or disrespectful toward others. A child-centered approach doesn't advocate complete indulgence. We don't have to allow a two-year-old to scribble on the walls because he's developing his inner artistic urges.
Often it is easy enough to set limits and still allow children to develop their naturally emerging capacities. It's easy enough to say, "Walls aren't for drawing, paper is. Here's some paper." At other times, such solutions aren't so obvious. In general, it seems useful to distinguish between moral and intellectual behavior. It is appropriate to set limits with respect to the moral infractions — behavior that hurts or disrespects others. But we do not want to limit the child's intellectual explorations. (A helpful book on limit setting is Haim Ginott's Between Parent and Child.)
When it comes to the child's intellectual explorations, the child-centered approach trusts the child's own sense of what is important. On some level, children know what they need to learn in order to grow. As Ralph Waldo Emerson put it, "It is not for you to choose what he shall know, what he shall do. It is chosen and foreordained, and he only holds the key to his own secret." Thus, parents watch for children's spontaneous interests and give the child opportunities to pursue them.
Often the child's interests may be very different from those of adults. For example, adults increasingly want their young children, beginning as early as one or two years old, to learn numbers, letters, and other skills relevant to their academic futures. But young children demonstrate a passion for other activities — such as running, climbing, jumping, drawing, water play, exploring nature, and make-believe play. Young children's enthusiasm for such activities comes from the children themselves; the activities seem to enable them to actualize their growth.
Even when it comes to recreation, children have their own interests. I remember when I first took our daughter, then three years old, to the Bronx Zoo. I was sure she would want to see all the large-animal exhibits. But we had hardly begun walking up the long path to the zoo itself when she spotted a worm. She stopped and looked at it, completely absorbed, for about fifteen minutes. She finally decided to walk along, but had taken only a few steps when she became interested in a long chain that fenced off the sides of the path, and she swung on it for several more minutes. All in all, it was over an hour before we arrived at the animal exhibits, and I was surprised that her interest in them was only modest. They seemed too far off for her; she was much more interested in such things as a squirrel and a feather that were right next to her. Gary Nabhan has reported something similar in natural settings. Whereas adults scan nature's vistas and panoramas, young children focus on the objects and wildlife immediately before them — a pine cone, a flower, an ant. They want to learn about small objects and details.
A child-centered philosophy asks us not only to respect the children's own interests, but to allow them to make their own discoveries. Frequently, we are in a hurry to explain things to children or instruct them. For example, when on a walk with a child and the child stops to observe something of interest, such as a flower or a dog, the adult often labels it and explains how it is similar to something else in the child's experience. But the child wants to examine it on her own. Similarly, when children begin to draw, adults often try to improve their drawing. The adults' behavior, in this case, is extremely misguided, for young children routinely develop their drawing talents in remarkable ways on their own, without adult intervention. We shall discuss children's drawing in some detail in chapter 4, but for now I want to state that at least until the child is seven or eight years old, it is best to make sure children have materials and time to draw, and then step back and let them work on their own.
The psychologist Louise Ames once noted that often it isn't parents, but grandparents, who best exemplify the child-centered attitude. Grandparents derive endless pleasure from just watching their grandchildren go about the business of being children. Whether a child is trying out her first steps, trying to balance one block on another, making up a song while playing with a truck, or watching an insect, a grandparent may sit and watch, smiling, as if something quite wonderful is occurring. Grandparents do not rush in to teach and correct the child — they just enjoy observing. And children often feel good about being in the presence of grandparents. Many parents think children like grandparents because the grandparents spoil their grandchildren. Some parents say, "Of course my son likes his grandparents; they let him get away with murder." But I suspect the real reason is that grandparents have a broader sense of the life cycle. They recognize the special qualities of the childhood years and the child's own efforts to discover what is important to her.
Nevertheless, the child-centered approach strikes many people as too laid-back, especially for today's high-charged society. The child-centered approach seems more appropriate for an earlier era, when the pace of life was slower. Today everyone is anxious to prepare children for a competitive future, and to begin as soon as possible. Adult-directed philosophies dominate the books on parenthood and child development. I will briefly review some major models and then expand on the child-centered alternative.
Diana Baumrind's "Authoritative Parent"
Pediatricians, educators, and even popular magazines draw on psychological research, and there is no research on parenthood more prominent than that by Diana Baumrind. Nearly every child psychology textbook highlights her findings on effective parenting.
On the basis of parent interviews and home observations, Baumrind reported that the most self-reliant, self-controlled, and task-oriented four-year-old nursery-school children had parents of a certain type. The parents weren't "authoritarian" parents who were bossy, intrusive, and unaffectionate. Nor were they "permissive" parents who helplessly allowed their children to do whatever they wanted. Instead, the effective parents were "authoritative." They combined firm control with warmth and a desire for the child to become independent.
On the surface, Baumrind's research seems to weigh against the child-centered approach. Her highly effective "authoritative parent" generally sounds more controlling and directive than a child-centered philosophy would advocate.
But Baumrind's findings are much more complex than textbook summaries say. Her major study described not three types, but eight. Moreover, some lenient parents had extremely competent children. These were not the parents whom Baumrind labeled "permissive." The permissive parents seemed confused. But other parents were very clear about their views. They valued a democratic family that respects the voice of every family member, including that of the youngest child. As one would expect, their children were often independent in nursery school. More surprising, perhaps, the children generally did what the parents wanted. The children weren't following parental orders (the parents rarely gave any). Instead, the children seemed to feel that because their choices were respected and the parents were reasonable, they would pay careful attention to what the parents wanted. Thus, a close look at Baumrind's actual data may reveal significant support for child-centered parenting — parenting that credits the child with her own wisdom about her needs.
In the United States today, there is a major emphasis on early academic learning. Parents, with their eyes on the future, would like to begin teaching their children intellectual skills early on, giving them a head start on academic success. President George W Bush wants to make Head Start much more academic.
Excerpted from Reclaiming Childhood by William Crain. Copyright © 2003 William Crain. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
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