As a pediatrician with subspecialty training in child behavior and development, I thought I knew everything there was to know about children and being a parent. Then I became a parent, and I humbly realized that I knew very little about either one. So here are some parenting experiences (and baby-sitting survival tips) that my education never taught me about raising a young child:
1) Young children, especially children less than 7 years of age, are just not capable of delaying gratification. Children live in the present moment, and what children see or hear about, they want now! They don’t have the cognitive capacity to resist temptation or delay gratification. For example, I bought a “special” advent calendar for my son, when he was 4 years old. On December 1st, I let him open the first window. I then returned the calendar to a special place in the kitchen and briefly left the room. Well, you guessed it. All 24 days before Christmas were consumed in a matter of minutes. Since this time, I have learned not to verbalize all my ideas and detailed plans, so much, in front of my young child, who would then, subsequently, want to do everything I just mentioned, NOW!
2) If we are confused about a limit or boundary, then our child will be confused, too. Children push until they find our boundary. I never had any arguments about wearing seat belts in the car, though I frequently had arguments about going to bed. My son quickly learned that he could continually ask for water at bedtime (How could I deprive a thirsty child!), ask for a snack after he was in bed (How could I send him to bed hungry!), ask lots of questions about everything in the whole wide world (How could I not satisfy his intellectual curiosity!), and the list went on and on. I am still learning this lesson. Somehow my learning doesn’t seem to always transfer from one situation to another. It takes me a long time to sort out and prioritize my own values and thoughts, so I can present clearer boundaries to him.
3) Young Children, especially less than 7 years of age, really can read our thoughts and are barometers for our own soul moods. I was taught that nobody can read your mind. Maybe babies could sense our anxiety by the rapid beat of our heart or increased rate of breathing, but that was as far as perception went. For a toddler, if one didn’t say it, then the thought didn’t really exist. In other words, I could be really angry at my child and my child wouldn’t realize this, unless I actually said I was angry or showed the anger by the tone of my voice, expression on my face, or my gestures.
I then went to my first parenting workshop at a neighboring Waldorf school. My son was 3 years old at the time, and I was looking around for a kindergarten. I attended a lecture about parenting the young child and heard from the speaker about the importance of holding good thoughts because a young child had the ability to sense our thoughts. I remember coming home that night not really believing this idea, but I liked the following parenting imagination that I was given at that talk. If you are the parent of a teenager or a toddler, then hold the image of a stone in a stream. You have to hold steady like the stone and let the water of emotions flow around and over you without dislodging you, carrying you away, or knocking you off balance.
I woke up very early that next morning and meditated on this picture. My son then woke up and walked downstairs and climbed up into my lap. I hugged him but said nothing. He then looked at me and said, “Mommy let’s play firefighter by the stone in the stream”. My son had never spoken the word stone or stream, before!
I have learned that thoughts are as powerful as actions. It is not only what we do, what we say, or how we move (our gestures) that matter. It is also what we think. We can influence each other in so many ways that go beyond our hearing, sight, and motor movements. What we do for our children, what we tell our children, how we move in front of our children, and the thoughts we think, while with our children, all matter. The thoughts we hold about ourselves, also, have a lot of power. We can be our own worst enemies sometimes. If we don’t believe something will work out for us, then it usually doesn’t. What we fear the most often comes to us. There is a power to positive thinking. This is why so many Olympic athletes hire sport psychologists to teach them the skills of positive thinking and visualizing a perfect performance.
4) Whatever you tell a child not to do they will then proceed to do it. Young children hear the verb, the action word, and not the rest of the sentence. I remember my son’s preschool teacher calling out to him “Don’t jump into the puddle with your shoes on”. You can guess who then jumped into the puddle! My friend who loves and works with animals says it goes deeper than that. It is the picture you hold in your thoughts that instructs the child. Children have the ability to read the pictures in our minds. If we say, “Don’t run out in the middle of the street”, then we create the picture in our mind of a child running out into the street. Chances are that this picture is transferred and the child dutifully runs out into the street. If instead, we say and hold the picture, “Stay on the sidewalk”, then chances are the child will stay on the sidewalk.
5) When making a request to a child, say “YOU MAY …”. This closes the door to negotiations. Saying “YOU MAY …. ” works far better than saying “Would you please …” or “Don’t you think it is time to…”. If there is no choice, then don’t give one to your child. For children like to see what happens if they don’t do what their parents ask! Also, giving too many choices draws the attention of the child, prematurely, to just thinking and can make a young child more self-centered. It also weakens their will forces. They stand frozen trying to figure out what choice to make or what to do.
As I struggle in my parenting, I try to remember that it is the striving that counts. No one is perfect. We all make mistakes and mistakes are part of being human. Also, making mistakes are the ways we learn and grow.
Positive and Affirming Things to Say to Your Child
- I love you more than the sun, the moon, and all the stars in the sky!
- Thank you for sharing your toys with your brother/sister this afternoon; Thank you for playing so gently with your baby brother/sister, this afternoon; etc.
- Did you see your baby brother/sister smile/laugh, when you did ____; etc.
- Thank you for being so gentle when holding that kitten on your lap this afternoon; petting that puppy this morning: etc.
- I really had a fun time at the park, ____with you, today; walking the trail with; running on the beach this morning; swinging on the swings with you; sliding down the slide; playing ball with you; playing chase together; playing red-light/green-light; swimming in the pool with you; etc.
- Thank you for helping me sweep the kitchen floor this morning; rake the leaves outside, today; water the plants, inside; pull the weeds in our garden; carry those rocks; water our garden, this morning; etc.
- I had so much fun watching you play ____ with your brother/sister/friend; class- mates, today; jump-rope this afternoon; paint that picture of a __; play with your fire-trucks/stuffed animals/dolls/trains, today; etc.
- Thank you for making your bed this morning; cleaning your room; emptying the trash, today; helping me set the table for dinner, tonight; carrying your dishes to the kitchen after dinner; putting your dirty clothes in the hamper tonight; folding your laundry, picking-out the bedtime story you wanted me to read, tonight; etc.
- Thank you for giving me that huge hug and kiss, just now!
- Thank you for giving me this picture you just colored; I love all bright colors and the ______etc.; Do you have a favorite color, today?
- I really enjoyed it today, when we look at books together; I really liked reading and sharing this book with you this afternoon; I really enjoyed listening to the story you just told me; I really loved hearing you read that story, ___, to me, today; etc.
- What would you like to do, right now? What are you thinking about?
- Your ideas matter to me; I am so happy you shared that idea with me; I loved that question about ___, you just asked; That is an interesting/insightful question; etc.
- You were right about ______; Let’s try it your way, this time; I, now, understand what you are/were trying to tell me/do!
- Thank you for sharing your feelings of _____ with me, just now; I had so much fun laughing with you, just now; etc.
- Thank you for letting me know what you needed today.
- I so enjoyed shooting baskets with you, today; kicking the ball; playing catch with you just now; wrestling together before dinner; riding bikes with you this afternoon; etc.
- I had fun playing the card game, ______ with you today; playing checkers/chess/____board-game with you this afternoon; playing the game of JACKS/marbles, etc.
- I loved hearing you sing that song, just now; I really enjoyed listening to you practicing the piano/violin/flute/trumpet etc., just now.
- 20. I believe what you just told me. I believe in you. I trust you.
- I enjoyed working with you on your homework this afternoon; I love watching you learn new things, like ______, today; etc.
- That joke you just told me, had me laughing so hard! Good work!
- You are worth it! My pleasure! My absolute delight! My privilege! My honor!
- Congratulations! You did it! You gave it your best effort! You know, we often end-up learning the most, when something we do does not work out as planned! Our mistakes give us a chance to learn!
- I love you, I see you, I hear you, I forgive you, I am listening!
Dr. Susan is a mother, certified Waldorf teacher, and Anthroposophicaly-trained, Holistic, Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrician. She has been a physician for the past 39 years, enjoying a private practice in Colfax, Ca. since 2007. She believes in each child’s inherent spiritual health and goodness, and offers a transformational approach (rather than a pharmaceutical one) in the assessment of children’s neurological development, behavior strategies, and/or challenges with learning, especially reading, writing, and mathematics. Dr. Susan takes a family-centered, nutrition-oriented, movement-based, and “methods of learning” approach, when evaluating children’s challenges with development, behavior, and learning. More detailed information about her extensive medical and educational trainings can be found on her website, SusanRJohnsonMD.com, where she has, also, written and freely provides more than 45 articles, for parents teachers and therapists, on development, learning, nutritional guidelines, and parenting.
Susan R. Johnson MD, FAAP
A Healing Place for Children
PO Box 1621, Colfax, CA 95713