Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Peter Pan Was Wrong

 Here in America, we seem to have taken being sensitive to children's feelings into account to such an extreme that we have allowed them to take over.  Being kind and polite to small children is certainly important, but we have to be careful to maintain the role of the grown up while doing so.  It's not only all right for the grownups to assert their authority, it's crucial to a child's sense of security. 

It would be better for everyone if the grownups would just make the decisions and act on them instead of always seeking the children's input and approval. 

A few weeks ago I started seeing a little boy who was referred by his school for difficulty functioning in the classroom.  His IEP noted that he had a great deal of trouble transitioning between activities, and that he was very bossy and stubborn.

His father brought him to his first therapy session.  As is my custom, after we introduced ourselves and got our paperwork in order, I asked the father to come into the treatment room with us.

The little boy's father knelt down, assumed an expression of worry, concern, and apology, and asked his four year old boy, "Is it all right with you if daddy comes in?"

With that one short sentence, he had undermined my authority and let the little boy know who was really in control.

Not surprisingly, the child then proceeded to act exactly as if he was the one in charge of the therapy session.   He would not take off his shoes.  He would not lie on the mat.  He would not lie on the therapy ball. He would not jump on the trampoline. He would not kneel.  He would not go on all fours.

 He rudely informed me, after being told that I wanted to talk to his father for a bit, that I had exactly one minute to do so, then began counting so loudly that conversation was impossible.  When I instructed him to sit down in a chair, he asked, "Why should I?"  and proceeded to roll around on the floor.  He threw things across the room, and tried to break my toys.  After that first encounter, I was sweaty and exhausted.  I could see it was going to be a long, long year.

The next time he came to the clinic, he was accompanied by his mother, a very young, soft spoken British woman.  When I asked her to come with us into the treatment room, she held out her hand, said to the little boy, "Let's go!" and he promptly followed.  When we entered the treatment room, she said, "Shoes and socks off, diddums!" and off they came.  When it was time for him to lie down on the mat, she said, "Time to lie down on the mat!"  and he did.   He cooperated with all of the testing, played some games with me, and we all had a lot of fun.

Do you see what I'm getting at here?  This little boy's father, who is a loving parent and means well, thought that he was being polite and taking the child's feelings into account when he asked his son's permission to join us.  But what he didn't understand was that a four year old has hugely different emotional needs than he does.  A four year old doesn't really know what to feel about, or how to analyze, a lot of what swirls around him.  He just wants to feel safe, for the expectations for how he should conduct himself to be clear, and for the grownups to behave in a reasonable fashion.  When the grown ups want him to reassure them that they have his permission to be in charge, it's unsettling and confusing, to say the least.

When you continually ask a small child whether it's are all right with him for you to be the grown up by asking him if what the adults expect him to do is OK with him, what you don't get in return is a happy, secure child.  What you get instead is a child who continually acts out, because he being told, over and over, that he is more powerful than the grownups.  This makes him feel unsafe and insecure, and his actions will reflect that.  He will keep pushing and pushing, hoping that the grown ups will contain him, and because they have told him that he is in charge, he will respond accordingly by running the show.

I am here to tell you that your life will be easier if you stop checking in all the time and asking for the child's permission to take charge. The grownups are supposed to be in charge, and the children want it that way.  It's too confusing for them otherwise.  Children don't want to be the ones running the show! They don't want to have dominion over the adults.  They know that they are small, don't know best, and need protection and direction.  They want to be able to trust the grownups to be strong enough and smart enough to contain them, to make and act upon appropriate decisions on their behalf, and to keep them  safe from harm. {By the way, despite all evidence to the contrary, teenagers feel the same way.}

This mother, although she is so  young and soft spoken, has it just right.  She, not her son, is in the driver's seat.  When he is in her presence, he can relax and stop ordering everyone around.  He knows that in her own sweet, quiet way, she can contain him and keep his world in order, so he doesn't have to try to do it himself.

You can avoid a lot of fights, behavioral problems, and heartache if you follow a few simple rules when dealing with small children.  Be clear and reasonable in your expectations, don't ask a child if he wants to do something that he has to do, and don't ask if something is OK with him if he doesn't actually have a choice about it.  Don't say, "Do you want to brush your teeth?"  Don't say, "Brush your teeth, OK?" Say, "It's time to brush your teeth."

 Don't ask the child, "Is it OK if the doctor gives you a shot?"  If you think I'm being funny, I'm serious.  I once evaluated a six year old boy and told his father that he would benefit from a course of sensory integration therapy.  His father turned to him and asked him, " Would you like to come here for occupational therapy?"

How secure do you think this child feels if he knows he can't trust his father to be the grown up and make those kinds of decisions for him?  The adults should NOT be seeking the children's input for things about which they should have no say.  Going to therapy is not the child's decision to make.   Asking for his input tells him that the grownups can't or won't take care of him properly by making important decisions on his behalf.

The more you can order your child's world, be in charge of the decisions, keep it structured and predictable, and keep him contained, the more secure and happier he will be.


foodmathquilts said...

The best counter example I can think of for this is as follows.

I was home from 1st year university at Christmas (age 19) and was scheduled to have my wisdom teeth removed. There was a mix up with the timing and the receptionist asked me "are you sure you WANT to get your teeth removed today?"

I have never felt more adult than when I had to say "yes".

(Conversely, I ran screaming from several dentist chairs around age 8-12. My parents brought me back when the treatment was necessary and found a new dentist when it was decided that my fear of Dr. H was, in fact, valid)

Melissa N. said...

Just shared this post on my FB page. It always amazes me when adults don't "get" that kids are not meant to be the ones in charge of their lives when it comes to their health, safety, etc. Love your writing style and way of telling the truth to us.

Anonymous said...

I am a therapist as well and it drives me insane when I see time and time again parents coming in and asking their kid if it is ok, if they want to do something, and the worst:

Spending ten minutes 'explaining' to the kid why they need to do something and won't they please do it now while I stand awkwardly by.

The bad thing is these parents think they are being great, patient, and kind parents, when all they are doing is having everyone else view their child as a brat, the parent as a spineless idiot, and setting the kid up for failure as an adult where his employer / spouse / significant other / people in society will not be coddling his every wish.

SO many of my kids' behavior problems would also greatly improve if the parents took parenting classes. So many parents want someone to just say 'oh, it's sensory, so that's why your kid is a brat and doesn't listen' when actually in fact it is sensory AND spineless parenting. A child with a disability STILL has to have limits set on them. They might need strategies etc, however, they still CANNOT get away with inappropriate behavior and the adult NEEDS to be in charge.

Could not agree more with your post. I don't know what happened to parents these days. Most of my friends are that way too. Look, you give a simple explanation (SIMPLE and SHORT) and the kid DOES it. End of story. Agh.