As a psychologist who specialises in Developmental Neuropsychology, I am constantly made aware of how much emphasis is placed on academic learning in this day and age, often at the expense of experiential learning, particularly in young children. There is now so much focus on internalising the rules of spelling, for example that it is often overlooked how important play is for brain development.
Working with little ones, particularly when I’m working with a group, I am made acutely aware of these tiny little bodies squirming in their seats or on the carpet. I watch how they keep shifting forward, or are suddenly to be seen lying on their backs or practicing over and over the skill of tying a shoelace. It takes me back to when I was much the same. I can recall the sense of the others around me, the smells of my classroom, the colours and sounds. I have a distinct memory of the large windows in my classroom and all the light that flowed in. I was particularly a lover of reading (I still love the shape and sound of words) and the mastering of “See Spot run” held a particular sense of joy for me. I have to admit I don’t recall mathematics or counting, or any particular volume of work or topic. As a Sub A (South African Grade 1 many years ago) child my afternoons were filled with games and drawing and sometimes being bored. I became so envious that my sisters had homework to do (Grade 1’s didn’t have homework in those days) that there was even an occasion when I asked my teacher if she could give me homework. She was standing at the chalkboard just after school and she looked at me surprised (and I seem to recall a little annoyed) and said, “Nonsense, go and play”.
Being a Grade 1 child today is a whole new ball game.
Parents and teachers are under pressure to ensure little ones manage to digest a large amount of work before the end of Grade 1. For the child who cannot do this, there are sometimes far reaching consequences. Parents, particularly, are often anxious, stressed, and even depressed over the academic performance of their school starters. They ultimately feel that their child’s performance is their performance and the cycle of anxiety and pressure is complete.
However, I’d like to take parents back to that little one squirming on the mat because children are the same as they have ever been. They need to move, to run, to climb, to fall, to win, to lose, to be bored, to be dirty in the mud, to refuse to wear shoes, to fight over a toy, to learn to share, to make friends and be a friend, to get scared, to get scratched knees, to cry and to laugh. All these wonderful activities stimulate brain development – they teach behavioural and emotional regulation, patience, curiosity, creativity, develop physical ability, cognitive ability, and learning ability. They teach children to think.
As parents, when you are feeling the pressure of academic performance, when both you and your child feel overwhelmed by the pressure to learn, stop for a moment. Look at your little one. See the squirm, the eager eye for an outside game. Put aside the books, the television, the tablets and cell phones, the gaming stations. Perhaps take your child by the hand and go and play. Just for a bit. Commit yourself to a moment of exploration and curiosity. Put some toy cars in the sand and make a road, populate a sand city with leaves and twigs, make tunnels and bridges, a moat and a castle.
Play is an opportunity for allow your little one’s brain develop as it is naturally designed to do. While education is most certainly a gift to all children, don't forget to take regular breaks, to dispense with the books in favour of unstructured time with your child. That will be a gift to you both.
This quote recently popped up on Facebook and it got me to thinking about parenting in our modern age. It’s tricky, at best. There is no textbook parent, there is no textbook child. Together with this, we are in a digital age where advice comes thick and fast through social media, a million blogs, webpages, from professionals, and from parents and non-parents alike. So let’s talk about some of the basics. In the field of psychology we talk about three different styles of parenting (originally identified by Diana Baumrind in 1967. These are:
Parents who utilise a permissive parenting style tend to be very loving but tend to not set limits on behaviour and they provide few rules. When rules are applied, they are often inconsistent. This often leaves the children of permissive parents to feel insecure as they don’t know where the boundaries are. These children are also often demanding and self-involved. Permissive parents often seem more like a friend to their children than a parent.
Parents who utilise an authoritarian style of parenting often have rigid rules and display very little warmth. The children of authoritarian parents can grow up displaying increasingly aggressive behaviour and have poor problem solving skills.
Ideally, parents do better when utilising an authoritative parenting style. These parents are warm and caring but also provide healthy boundaries and limits. Boundaries indicate that parents care enough to say no, care enough to teach children acceptable behaviour and social skills, and care enough to limit children in order to keep them safe. These children tend to cope better academically, tend to have more healthy coping skills and feel generally more secure.
From a neurological perspective, the brain continues to develop well into early adulthood. Basically what this means is that parents need to be knowledgeable on their child’s developmental level so that expectations on their children regarding problem solving and decision-making are developmental and neurologically appropriate. Telling a three-year-old that he or she can decide on where the family should have their holiday/vacation places unrealistic demands on the child while simultaneously giving the message that the child can dictate what the family does and where the family goes. This then leans toward permissive parenting and may make the child feel unrealistically powerful or overly responsible.
As children get older, parents may wish to involve them in some areas of family decision-making but it is advisable to keep these democratic moments within boundaries of what can and what can’t be ultimately decided by the growing child or teenager. No fifteen-year-old should be deciding whether Dad takes a new job or which house parents purchase. Adult decisions should remain so, leaving children to remain children for as long as they possibly can. However, parents need to strive for some balance. Teenagers need to be given a certain amount of decision-making power in line with their development. You may want to sit down with your teen and ask for their input on what the punishment should be for a particular indiscretion, or what an appropriate curfew should be. These show faith in your teen’s ability to make healthy decisions and also avoid leaning towards an authoritarian parenting style where rules are made to be followed with no space for negotiation. Teens of authoritarian parents are more likely to rebel in order to right some of the power imbalance.
Not everything is a negotiation and as mentioned, an authoritative parent will ultimately set the limits and boundaries in order to provide a safe and healthy environment in which their children can grow and develop.
As a parent the tricky part is not allowing the disapproving looks and comments of friends and family keep you from being a parent who is a parent and not your child’s best friend. Friends do not generally pull rank on us but parents need to do so on a fairly regular basis. The friend parent who pulls rank is likely to confuse a child, make them feel insecure and unsure of the relationship, and lead to resentment. Focus on making your relationship with your child one that is unambiguous, and based on love and limits.