Last week, I spoke with a client who sought guidance on managing her son’s education. Her son was a 9-year-old and I could hear this mama’s concern about how to support her child and minimize some of the issues she clearly recognized as being control issues. And she was spot on. She had read about “The Nine Year Old Change”: “The special needs of the nine year old are the result of an important change in consciousness that marks the end of early childhood and the transition to a new developmental phase” (from WaldorfInTheHome.org)
As BigGuy started entering puberty last year, I sympathized with her; but I also realized that reading about a developmental stage wasn’t the same as reading about how to handle it from the parent’s side…
…because knowing what our child is going through isn’t the same as knowing how to use that information to help us navigate this new terrain together WITH our children. There is no questions that Husbeau and I are feeling like we are on the right path with BigGuy after seeing some difficult disagreements end with hugs instead of slamming doors.
It seems that when infants and toddlers go through new developmental stages, in some ways it’s much easier. Many of the advances they make are physical achievements–walking, talking, feeding, dressing themselves. Most of the cognitive development is less autonomous in nature except for around 2-4 years old when they want to do everything themselves. There is no question that in our home, the tantrums came to a pretty abrupt halt when I read a book called “At Home With Montessori“. It was mercifully short and had nothing to do with teaching my kids at home, but was all about the environment they lived in and the concepts Montessori held about fostering as much independence as possible. In a weekend, I transformed my home to put as much within BigGuy’s reach. I also took some of her mindset and encouraged him to do things that American culture would say a 4-year-old couldn’t do. With supervision (and a child-sized, but usable oven mitt), he removed a hot cookie sheet from the oven and he often cooked eggs for breakfast. He had as much autonomy as I could safely give him. But it meant releasing a lot of my own control issues and trusting that supervision and stifled panic as *I* adjusted was preferred over doing things FOR him and dealing with the tantrums.
So, loving parents of 9-year-olds and kids entering puberty, let me share something with you: in many ways, this is no different. I’m not a radical unschooler by any stretch. My kids have to conform to certain ways of life that are admittedly meant to accommodate the way I need to live in this world. I’m always going to be a parent more than a friend of my children. I have my own feelings on the security children feel knowing that an adult is responsible and can keep them safe.
That being said, I treat my children like small people. To the greatest extent that we can (because dude, we’re not perfect and we had zero role models for this), Husbeau and I speak to our children like we would speak to each other. We discuss big things in life with them and just put it in terms they can understand (and reduce any traumatic effects where that might apply–like when they ask my why I’m crying on 9/11). It’s easy for us to take the time to explain a decision they don’t like because we have an actual reason–we try not to say “No” unless we actually have to.
It’s a lot of slowing down and thinking about what YOU are doing as a parent and recognizing when you are asserting your authority because it’s habit or learned or you’re asserting your authority because there are unavoidable constraints or safety issues. Why CAN’T you have ice cream before dinner? I mean, not a LOT because you still have to eat an actual meal. But once in a while when the opportunity is there–is this really the end of the world? Incidentally, this would never happen in my house because we have rather severe blood sugar dysregulation–so please understand that my own unwillingness to do this is not hypocrisy–and there’s your example of a very explainable reason that you need to assert your authority. But my kids understand why they can’t have ice cream before a meal. For my littlest, this took some explaining about biology.
Yeah… it’s a lot of talking. Think of this as investing the time in developing the critical thinking skills and self-esteem of your children. Worth every moment.
At 43 years old, with parents that were so devastating to me that I carry a complex PTSD diagnosis, I still wish I had a mom and dad to turn to when things are hard. And my friends who have much better relationships with their parents are thankful if they still have their parents alive to turn to if only for emotional support. It’s never going to change.
As our children enter into a new world where they have natural feelings of wanting independence, we have to walk WITH them and support their growth rather than stifle it. When we refuse to see them as the small people that nature is thrusting through a new and scary phase of development and treat them based on our fears, our control issues or our ignorance of what is happening to them–it can only result in conflict. Because they can’t go backward if they wanted to, and our refusal to walk forward with them is going to put us at odds.
Talk to your children. They may not be able to articulate their big feelings, but knowing that you want to hear them and want to work WITH them on this path they walk will go a long way to making the hard times fewer and more tolerable. I love my BigGuy so much. I cherish every morning that he comes to get a snuggle because I wonder when it will stop. I pray every day that I will have the patience and strength and wisdom to support him rather than “parent” him.
And I wish that same thing for you.