Your child’s initial perception of the world is physical: full of feelings and sensations. As a baby’s sensorimotor skills develop, she learns to kick, then crawl, to stand, to balance and to walk. Each stage of child development builds upon the next, with various struggles built into each phase.
Crawling is important not only as a prelude to walking, but because it strengthens the back and develops the brain in ways that we’ve just begun to understand. Movement through these stages should be determined by the child, not by the parents. Although we can gently encourage our child's development, we mustn't force. A case in point: a recent study showed that children who are pressed to bypass the crawling stage and walk, develop learning disabilities later on in life.
Crucial in moving from one stage to another is a sense of trust. If your child learns that you will be there when she falls, then she develops a sense of safety. Over time, these experiences translate into confidence in the body and the self.
Child development is a process. Each new physical skill your child acquires, she learns in stages. It’s important to respect each step because each progression requires new levels of concentration, coordination, balance and muscular control. Most of us no longer believe the theory of teaching swimming that some of our parents adopted in the sixties: that you teach a child to swim by throwing him into the pool.
Although a child acquires new skills through struggle, take care that the level of difficulty doesn’t exceed the child’s capacity for frustration. A child who is constantly frustrated by tasks above his skill level will begin to feel incompetent. This is exactly the opposite of what you want to teach.
The value of struggle is that it teaches that patience, determination and practice will refine our skills. Most important, struggling teaches us how to struggle, which is a necessary component of child development and a crucial skill for making it through the twists and turns of life.
How early in your child's development can you start teaching her to struggle? As soon as she begins to reach for things. Put an object just a little outside her grasp. Let her strain a bit to get a hold of it. If you always hand her what she wants, then she won’t learn how to get things on her own.
If your child is trying to climb up on the couch, but can’t do it by herself, give her a little boost, rather than picking her up and placing her on the couch. Each time she tries, give her less help. Eventually, she’ll learn how to climb up on her own.
If we allow our kids to develop the skills to do things for themselves, then we create the opportunity for self-accomplishment. Teaching a child the value of struggle early on is crucial. Once they’ve made it through something difficult, they’ll learn that they can struggle through most anything, including the unforeseen challenges often presented by life.
It’s difficult to teach the importance of struggle to children who’ve been spoiled because they haven’t learned the value of working toward a goal. Although they may pretend that they can do anything, inside they feel like losers because they haven’t developed the confidence that comes through struggle and accomplishment or the knowledge that each new challenge is just another mountain they can climb.
Let me give you some examples of how to teach your child to struggle with tasks that engage his interest and are appropriate to his level of development.
The other day, I took my children to the park. There, my two year old son, Colt, found an abandoned basketball which he placed against a three foot, chain link fence. He stood atop the ball, then proceeded to scale the fence. Some mothers would have scolded him, perhaps fearfully, but I stood by, near enough to help him if he needed it, but far enough away to let him do it on his own. After all, he’d set up this challenge for himself and he wasn’t in any real danger, so who was I to intervene?
This reveals a key point of child development: As long as your child is not at risk, allow him to choose his struggles on his own. Colt climbed up to the top, and as he climbed back down, a big grin broke across his face. His delight was evident.
Later, Colt wanted to try the monkey bars, something he’s never done before. Perhaps, this was a result of his successful adventure on the fence. First, I showed him how to do it, by swinging across the monkey bars myself. Then I showed him step-by-step, describing how it would feel. I said, Climb up the ladder part and grab the bar. It’ll feel hard and cold. Let your feet dangle, then swing your body and grab the next bar with your right hand, then the next one with your left . . . sometimes the bars will kind of sting your hands.
Describing the physical sensations let him know how the experience would feel. Knowing this, the cold bars and stinging sensations will be less likely to make him fearful or make him want to quit. Next, I helped him through the motions several times, while holding him around the middle.
After he’d experienced it in the safety of his mother’s arms, he wanted to try it on his own. Since the monkey bars were high, I stood next to him, poised to catch him if he fell. (The last thing I wanted was for him to fail miserably or hurt himself. Such an experience could prevent him from wanting to try again.)
In the end, Colt did great. He did three bars, which is a fine accomplishment, especially when you consider that for a two year old, the ground must seem like quite a drop. Next time, he told me, he’s going to go for four.
As parents, we must provide for and protect our children, but we should balance that by teaching them the value of learning how to struggle. It's a crucial skill for their development and later success in life.
Allow your child the delight in taking those first shaky steps and meeting those first intriguing challenges which will lead them up the winding road toward their dreams.
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Laura is the author of Keepers of the Children
This article is the property of the author and may not be reproduced in any form without her express written permission.
Laura Ramirez obtained her degree in psychology from the University of Nevada at Reno and has studied child development extensively. No ivory tower theorist, Laura has found that "experience is more practical than theory" and faces daily the challenges of which she writes. As the mother of two young boys, ages two and five, she advocates a return to grass roots parenting: the idea that with a mix of love, humor, discipline and an understanding of child development we can all raise children who are happy and well-adjusted.
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