Me, age 2.
When a child is born, it has no language, thoughts or intentions. It is a small, totally dependent being whose needs are simple. The child needs to be held, fed, changed, kept warm. The child needs love. Children in orphanages who were fed and clothed and changed, but not held, died.
For the first two years, the child is developing its ability to control its body, to speak and to relate to people. The small child who is not yet speaking has no intentionality beyond its need to develop. The progress and stages of the development of a child are pretty much the same for every child, except in cases of physical or mental handicap. For details on that, see “Piaget’s theory of cognitive and affective development.”
If you impute intentionality to a young child, you are ascribing to the child intentions that do not exist. You are projecting on the child your view of the world and of the child. A young child is totally loving, curious, trusting, open, honest and self expressed. Any behavior in a young child that is not consistent with the above is caused by the actions of an adult with that child.
As a child acquires language and develops mentally and physically, it begins to form its self-view, its view of other people and its world view. The first time something upsetting happens to the child after he or she acquires language, the child makes a meaning about it, and that meaning becomes the theme of the child’s life. The purpose of the meaning the child makes up is to make sense of the world and protect itself from any future threatening occurrences. It makes up a meaning about itself, about other people, and about life. It also makes up a strategy to cope with that kind of occurrence.
These things form the child’s personality and identity. The child may decide that he or she is “not good enough,” or “bad,” or “unlovable,” or “not doing it right,” or “worthless,” or any of a myriad of things. It may decide that other people are untrustworthy, or dangerous, or mean, or undependable, or uncaring, etc. It may decide that life or the world is dangerous, or uncaring, or unfair and so on. The child develops a strategy to survive. It may choose a strategy of compliance, or hiding, or fighting, or not caring, or being good, and so on.
In the case of the child who decides to be good, it may say something to itself like: If I be very good, then Mommy (and people) will love me. The child may decide that people are untrustworthy or undependable. The child may decide that he or she will depend only on him or herself. His strategy will be to not trust people and to be self-reliant. If the child decides that it must fight to protect itself, this mode of adaptation will show up whenever the child feels threatened. The child will fight with others frequently.
When the child’s basic trust has been damaged or destroyed, it will act out as it tries to protect itself. It will fight, or hide, or run, or manipulate, or lie, or cry and so on, to avoid what it is afraid of. None of these behaviors means that the child is bad. The child is just a very young human being trying to figure out how to protect itself in a situation that it sees as dangerous. If the child’s trust has been badly damaged, it will take a long time and a lot of patience and persistence to restore the child’s trust. Very likely, the person who caused the child’s loss of trust is not the person to restore it.
So what does a child need? Between birth and about a year and a half, the child needs to be fed when it’s hungry, covered when it’s cold, changed when it urinates or defecates, and held when it is distressed. The child needs to be held most of the time in the beginning, and it’s need to be held gradually tapers off as it grows. At two, the child will come to the parent when it wants to be held. Eventually, around 10 or so, depending on the family, the child will stop asking to be held. The family that continues to hug are happier families. It is the parents who set the tone.
Very young children are sensitive to the emotions and energy of the people around them. The child feels if the person who is holding it is happy or sad, contented or angry, and it responds to that energy. If the child is crying and a person who picks it up is happy and loving, the child stops crying. It is comforted. If the child is contented and someone who is angry or sad picks it up, the child will cry, and try to get away if it can.
Children are capable of communicating their needs and feelings, if the adults take the time to listen, and if they can listen without judging or trying to turn it into a teaching moment. Like everyone else, the child just wants to know that it is heard. If you listen to the child and communicate to it that what it said has been heard and understood, whatever is bothering the child will disappear. The conversation will be something like this: The child is crying, you say, “What’s the matter Mary?” “I’m sad.” “What are you sad about?” “I’m sad because Johnny took my toy” “You’re sad because Johnny took your toy?” Yes, and I’m mad too.” “You’re mad too.” “Yeah, I’m mad. I’m very, very mad at Johnny.” “You’re very, very mad at Johnny.” As the conversation continues, the child will be less and less upset, until it is clear that the child’s upset is gone. There is nothing else to do.
Whatever the child does, it is not because the child is bad. It is out of the child’s needs. Needs for love, food, self-expression, safety, need to explore, need to learn, need to move. The children need correction. The child doesn’t know what is acceptable behavior until someone teaches it. The child doesn’t know that picking his nose and wiping it on the wall is not acceptable until someone tells him. The child doesn’t know that grabbing a toy from another child is not acceptable until you tell him. He is not bad, he just doesn’t know.
The reasons for the rules should be explained to the child. “I don’t want you to run into the street because you could get hit by a car and hurt badly or killed.” “It is wrong to grab a toy because it makes the other child sad, and the child won’t want to play with you.” “You must go to bed now because you have to get up early tomorrow, and if you don’t get enough sleep you will be tired and grumpy and you might fall asleep in class.” Sometimes, “Because I say so.” is a legitimate reason.
Children are a delight to be with. They are open, honest, direct, loving, accepting, inquisitive, curious, affectionate and kind. If you find them otherwise, take a look at yourself. What stories are you telling yourself about what the child should be, or what the child’s behavior means. That is what needs to be corrected, not the child. So, if you find being with children a delight, you are a natural at the mentoring and care of children. If you find them annoying, you have the wrong attitude. Do yourself and the kids a favor and stay away from them