When my kids were young (25+ years ago) I was their primary caretaker. A privilege, certainly, as was the jump in salary we experienced when my husband got his first job after residency. But residencies and new jobs are time consuming. When I say I was our kids’ primary caretaker, that means two shifts: 7 to 3 and 3 to 11, with night and weekend duty thrown in and one kid who was an often-earlier-than-7am riser. The point is, in spite of all sorts of privilege I still found parenting extremely challenging–much of the time.
I realize now I could have afforded (at a certain point, anyway) and probably should have gotten help. I had no family nearby, no teenaged “mother’s helpers,” no drop-in day care. In light of recent discussions regarding the influence of how we were raised on the ways we raise our own kids, my three sisters and I grew up with a stroke-survivor-at-nine-years-old mother who would have put a few of us out at the curb up before she hired anyone to help take care of us. The thought process went something like, When your husband’s out breaking his back in the world, why can’t you manage your part? My husband’s and my ability to pay for help and his (perhaps) uniquely inhuman work schedule were, to me, inconsequential. So were his pleas to hire someone for a few hours so I could take a break. As with all family legacies, expectations are hard to manage and change.
The book pictured above, one of a series of ten or so covering one-year-olds, two-year-olds, etc., through the final, “Your Ten-to-Fourteen-Year-Old,” saved my life. Or maybe more pointedly, my kids’ lives. (By the way, I always thought it ominous that even these erudite ladies couldn’t write a book about managing teenagers.) I’ve lost my copies in our many moves, but I picked a few up from the library this week and they are much as I remember them–short (less than 150 pages each), full of beautiful black and white photos of kids doing kid things, simply written and PRACTICAL.
I knew some of the “Characteristics of the Age,” (always Chapter One) by living with my kids but also by training: I’ve got a degree in physical therapy. All physical therapists learn about child development (in my defense, mostly motor development) because of its relationship to treatment (ya gotta crawl before you can walk!) and in addition to that, I specialized in the care of neurologically involved and developmentally delayed children for years.
Did I mention that I was nonetheless often overwhelmed by the demands of small children?
The beauty of reading about the characteristics of a child at any age is that you know you’re not alone. Everybody’s four-year-old is bossy (aka aggressive)! All sorts of four-year-olds exhibit emotional extremes (are borderline bipolar), exaggerate (lie), do everything at 200% speed (wreck the place) and behave in ways that could be called “out-of-bounds” (go over the top in about every single measure)! Misery loves company, right? And more important, my kids weren’t on the road to perdition. They were more or less normal; I was the one who needed to cool my jets.
Enter the best chapter in every book: “Techniques.” In truth, if I was short of time I just skipped to this. Four-year-olds, for example, love adventure. Go on an adventure! Maybe this is where I learned the value of an “outing:” a trip to the library, a walk through the neighborhood, a (brief) pass through the grocery store. When a kid is wild, either ignore them or join right in–tell your own silly stories, walk like a goof, exaggerate bad table manners (well, this one did on occasion get out of hand, but we laughed a lot, nonetheless). Whisper when s/he shouts. Praise and compliment that one thing done right.
And when all else fails, distract. Change tactics. Put away the video game and invite everybody outside.
Sometimes we don’t feel like it. Sometimes we’re tired, and yelling or smacking doesn’t take as much energy as planning an outdoor game, or piling everyone into the car for a ride to the park.
But knowledge is power. Studies show (see sidebar) that kids get stressed out by intimidation and physical violence, and the chemical changes induced by stress can negatively impact them for a lifetime.
If I could change one thing about the world, only one thing, I think it would be this: parents would have better tools and resources to take care of themselves and their kids. Particularly their little kids. This book series by Ames and Ilg is a good tool. There are resources on the internet, too. A brief search led to this developmental timetable by the Women and Children’s Health Network of South Australia.
If we know the characteristic behaviors of a child at any age, it is easier to forgive them. And if we learn a few techniques to “end-around” their beastliness, we could have less to forgive of ourselves, as well.