Two of the oldest and most respected institutions devoted to understanding children -- Bank Street College of Education in New York City and Parents Magazine -- teamed up long ago to bring to the public a classic called "What to Expect of a Young Child." Written by Irma Simonton Black for Parents in 1941, the article was reissued three times in pamphlet form by Bank Street. Although the black and white photos and the language bespeak a former era, the information is as relevant and important today as it was six decades ago.
Next to knowing the fact that children need love and limits, the one thing parents should learn is what to expect of our children at different ages and stages. If we expect too much, we frustrate both our children and ourselves. If we expect too little, we end up coddling and encouraging dependence. But to know what to expect, we need to know what children are capable of at different ages. In her article, Black teaches us precisely that.
Let Your Child Grow at Her own Pace
Black doesn't say much about the first year, contending that it is usually a calm and cheerful time. Interestingly, she states that "modern parents see the sense in not urging a baby to walk before he is physiologically ready to walk. Mothers do not prop tiny babies up with over-stuffed pillows. They leave them free to roll and stretch to their hearts' content."
Clearly some of this early wisdom has been lost. At the time Black was writing, walkers, sassy seats, infant swings and bouncy chairs had yet to be invented. Today, when many of us think that more equipment is better, it pays to pay special attention to her words of wisdom. Every physical and occupational therapist will tell you that the best thing you can do for a baby's physical and mental development is to let her take it at her own pace and to let her spend as much time on the floor as possible.
Don't Push Weaning or Toilet Training
During the second year, Black warns not to wean or toilet train too early. "Early weaning is one of the most important causes of thumb-sucking in later childhood," she writes. "The child needs his sucking experience at breast or bottle, for his emotional as well as his physical satisfaction, but he has no way of saying so."
Any pressure or impatience about toilet training is just as confusing to a toddler as if we were to get mad at him for not walking, she claims.
And how can we tell when our little one is ready to use the toilet? Very simply, says Black. As with walking, he is ready when he does it! Both new routines -- drinking from a cup and using the potty -- should be begun when the baby shows signs of readiness and desire. And both should be done gradually.
Temper Tantrums are Normal
When your two-and-a-half or three-year-old throws a tantrum as you stuff him into his jacket to go outside -- don't worry, Black writes. This is normal behavior for his age. Almost all children this age show resistant behavior. Why is this? A child this age is just beginning to feel that she is a complete, separate person -- and an important one. While she may not be able to tell you so, your three-year-old may want to have a role in putting on her own jacket and she resents being dressed as if she were still a baby.
"Now he would prefer mother to be the helper rather than the boss," Black writes. And, importantly, children this age are on a different clock. They don't understand our need to hurry. Our explanations fall on deaf ears, because they are not yet capable of understanding such things.
We can best help children this age by understanding their need for doing it themselves. How many of us have heard our two-year-olds say, "No! Me do!" or "I do it!" Even though they're still not very good at whatever tasks they want to do, parents should give their children the opportunity to do things for themselves and share in their sense of accomplishment when they manage to zip up a coat, or pull on a pair of panties.
If the child is thwarted in these desires, he will "build up a store of resentment against the person who checks his urge to take on responsibility" and will end up having violent tantrums or being generally irritable, Black contends. This is what we want to avoid.
While one child will resist getting dressed, another will make a fuss at bedtime and a third will refuse to eat. Generally, says Black, children will resist in areas where they feel the most pressure from their parents. If you see your child resisting, examine your own attitudes to that particular issue and see if you can be more flexible. Put yourself in your growing child's shoes for a moment and see if that can help change your attitude.
Lay Down the Rules Without Anger
Insight, sensitivity and patience can go a long way during this often difficult phase of childhood. Appreciating your child's attempts to wash his own face even though he splashes water all over the floor in the process will pay off. If he feels your approval and understanding, he will be more likely to cooperate when you lay down rules or when you do have to hurry.
And here's some of the best child-rearing advice I've seen: "Definiteness, without anger, is really pleasant to most children," Black writes. "The way they accept the unchanging routines of nursery school is ample proof of this. It is impatience and disapproval that make them feel misunderstood and rejected."
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000