In Part I of this article, we introduced Irma Simonton Black's ideas about what to expect from children from infancy to three years. Black wrote a classic article called "What to Expect of a Young Child," which appeared in Parents in 1941. She contends, and anyone would agree, that in order to have healthy, fulfilling relationships with our children, we need to know what they are capable of at what ages. Too many conflicts and misunderstandings erupt because parents expect a two-year-old to share when she cannot or a three-year-old to hurry when he is not yet capable of doing so.
This article will discuss what we can expect of our four-, five- and six-year-olds.
The "terrible twos," so called because children can be so resistant at this age, usually pass sometime between the ages of two and four. When they do, children become ready to take on a lot more responsibility in dressing and washing themselves and in using the bathroom independently. This doesn't mean they will never need help, but they can take over many of their daily routines themselves.
DAWDLING MAY BE A REQUEST FOR AFFECTION
But once the thrill of pulling on his own pants and getting arms into sleeves by himself wears off, new problems might pop up. A four- or five-year-old finds it much more interesting to play with blocks than to put on his shoes. The routines, once so interesting to master, have become boring -- and dawdling, that activity that makes parents want to tear their hair out -- becomes a favorite pastime.
Kids this age still can't hurry, says Black. Time and tight schedules mean nothing to them. That's why we can reprimand and lose our tempers to our heart's content in the mornings and it does no real good.
"Dawdling may be a child's indirect way of asking for help, of asking for the warmth and quick affection of his babyhood," Black writes.
If he is asking for help, it's better to give it to him than to insist he do things for himself all the time. But be careful here. If your child needs help buckling his sandals, that's one thing. But if he's sitting on the couch and asks you to bring his shoes to him, watch out. A good rule of thumb: If your child is asking you to do something for him that he can easily to for himself, don't succumb. Even though it may be harder in the short run, getting him those shoes will encourage dependence and laziness.
Another way to solve the dawdling problem is simply to allow more time. Have a routine in place and if necessary, draw a chart with pictures of what needs to be done every morning or at bedtime. I did this with my middle child when he was four and having trouble with routines. I pasted photographs of him doing the necessary things, getting into pajamas, brushing his teeth, having a book read to him, etc., onto a long strip of colored poster board with a moon and stars drawn in one corner and a corresponding one for morning with a sun. Each morning, Yosef would check the chart. It worked wonders, for a while, as do all these things! Laying out clothes the night before also helps.
"And here, again, praise and understanding of the things he does accomplish will be much more effective than disapproval for the things he does not do," Black says.
But chores and routines are a small and definitely not the most interesting part of life to a four- or five-year-old. What most attracts her is play. Play with other children who need what she needs and like what she likes, who understand her because they are the same age, becomes very important to most children. Only another four-year-old can get a thrill out of dressing up like superman and jumping off the couch over and over.
TEACHING SOCIAL SKILLS WITH A LIGHT TOUCH
But remember: "The young child has not the slightest realization that these other creatures that run, skip, cry and laugh have feelings like his own, and he doesn't care. He feels no inherent need to share or to be a 'nice' boy or girl." Which means we'll need to give him a lot of help in learning to be a social being.
Again, Black disapproves of disapproval. Our task here is to educate and re-direct, not to frown and punish. If your very young child hits another child, it may be enough to remind him to "pat" or "be gentle." And you'll need to remind her that it's Lisa's turn when she's been on the swing for a long time. Sharing, taking turns and being gentle are things that need to be learned and a light touch works best. Once you've made your point, don't hover. Recede into the background until you're needed again.
By four or five, most kids can accept the basics of social play -- especially those who have had playmates from early on.
But all of this learning takes time. Our role as parents is to be helpful, sympathetic and patient.
Although Black's words were written in 1941, they are perhaps even more true today:
"Very often modern parents reflect our own hurry, our own tension, in our dealing with our children. Very often we expect them to be responsible people before they are ready to be. We want them to be smart, to be polite, to get along with other children, to be cooperative and helpful. We want them to be quick at walking, at talking, speedy in growing up. All of this takes time. Children themselves feel that growing up is the slow, rich process that it really is."
Let's take our cue from our kids and allow them that slow, rich time.
Copyright Ruth Mason, 2000