Dear Dr. Debbie,
Do you have some magic words for giving me patience with my children, ages 2, 4, 6 and 6? It’s especially tough at the end of the day when I’m tired and feel like it’s four against one. They’re probably tired, too, because I see them having less patience with each other at that time. I end up fussing at them to just leave me alone which I know is not the right thing to do.
Don’t miss last week’s column Battles in the bathtub — Good Parenting
Dear Truce Seeker,
The magic is to take the child’s perspective. An observer told me once, “When I see you with children it’s like you don’t exist in that time and space. You’re only there for them.” What a nice compliment! Truly, when you are functioning in the role of “grown-up” for a child or a group of children, you’re supposed to do for them what they can’t do for themselves.
Here is a general list matching the differences between young children (under the age of 7) and a competent adult:
- They need you to help with things their hands can’t yet do. Their fine motor challenges include opening containers, using tools such as scissors, dressing and undressing and pouring drinks without spilling.
- They need you to know when they require more movement. Exercise helps bones to grow, brains to get oxygen, and moods to stay positive. Children need daily opportunities to run, jump (especially at age 3), climb (especially age 2), throw and catch, and or dance.
- They need you to express time in concrete terms. Their immature sense of time prevents understanding “just a minute” or “we can do that later.” These phrases are interpreted as “No, you will never have what you’re asking me for.” Instead say, “When my plate is empty, I will serve dessert.” “When Daddy comes home, I can take you and your brother to the library.” And do it not a minute later.
- They need you to structure clean up time for when you are available to help and then steer them immediately into the next activity. Cleaning up is an intellectual difficulty for young children because they are concrete thinkers, and they are always thinking. Putting all the toys away is like having your internet go out when you have finally found the website you are sure will answer that burning question you have.
- They need you to stay calm when they are upset or excited. Young children don’t yet have the emotional control to inhibit displays of frustration, anger, fright, nor delight, not even when this upsets the grown-up. No point asking, “Why are you trying to make me angry?” They are only able to react to their own emotion, not yours. (If they stop what they’re doing when you fuss at them, they are reacting to their own fear — not to your frustration.)
- They need you to structure predictable routines, including silly family jokes and rituals. In some households the Tickle Monster comes out to chase children into their beds. Some parents create silly songs for dressing, for buckling up in the car, etc. Your children need to know that your relationship with them brings you delight.
- They need you to see into their future. There are things you make them do, such as brushing their teeth, that seem to a child to be nothing more than nuisances. Also on this list are: doing homework, being nice to siblings, taking care of clothes and toys, and so on. The benefits of these good habits will be enjoyed long after your parenting duties end. Parents can help a child to look ahead even when it’s so very, very far away.
Of course it’s hard to maintain an existence of anticipating and supporting children’s needs for hours on end. That’s why you also need to be sure your own needs get met. This isn’t magic — it’s being the grown up.
Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.
What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy@jecoannapolis.com