How the heck do you parent a child?

What does it mean to bring someone up in this world – to provide for and guide the growing processes – mental, emotional, spiritual, physical – of a tiny person so that they become a thriving, well-adjusted adult?

When I was a kid, I wanted nothing more than to be treated as a grown-up, as an equal. Part of this was that I wanted my thoughts and feelings to be acknowledged as valid. I was smart and fiercely independent. I simply wanted to figure things out on my own and once I had, to the extent I could, I was loathe to the feeling of being babied. Mostly though, I couldn’t understand the difference between me and my parents, my teachers, or other figures of authority. I knew from a very young age that we were all merely humans; someone’s age or position meant little to me, though you would gain my respect if you were fair, logical, and well-intentioned. Furthermore, I had a difficult time heeding the phrase, “Because I said so.” I had to know why. Even if I did not agree with the answer, I had to know that you knew why you were telling me to do something.

Now that I am the afternoon caretaker of a precocious 11-year-old girl it is part of my job to tell her she needs to do something because her “mother says so.” I do not love telling her she has to do her homework before she watches T.V. or does anything else because I am not sure it is always what is “right.” Sure, I have learned that, most of the time, I enjoy my fun or relaxing activities more when I don’t have a to-do list hanging over my head. I usually work before I play. I have also learned that sometimes I need to take a break, clear my mind with a book or hobby, for the mere sake of pleasure before I can return my full attention to a task that needs doing. However, I could only learn this after learning the discipline of work before play.

I wonder if some of my thoughts on this come from my own journey of overcoming some harsh perfectionist tendencies I had as a child. The girl I take care of asked me the other day, “Do you know what ‘psychosomatic’ means?”

Me: “Yep.”

Skye: “Well, I’m psychosomatic.”

Me: “I’m pretty sure everyone is, Skye.”

Skye: “No, I don’t think so.”

Me: “Some people just don’t know that they are.”

Skye refused to believe that and declared: “Sometimes, I feel pain in my body when I’m scared that I’m not going to do something well. I’m a perfectionist.”

I get that. The 11-year-old Chelsea really gets that. I hated things that did not come naturally to me. 11-year-old Chelsea would hardly have to be told to do homework, to work for better grades. I wanted to do well, to be the best and the smartest. It wasn’t until later on that I realized that the grades weren’t really making me happy. The learning itself was far more enjoyable to me. The intrinsic value of my education far outweighed the extrinsic markers of “success.” My endless curiosity and love of learning has propelled most of my adult life.

Is this intrinsic motivation something that can be taught with external instruction? I’m not sure. The 27-year-old me wants Skye to take a break and play before she sits down to do algebra or write an essay. Really, the 11-year-old in me is screaming for a childhood that didn’t often feel joyful for herself! But, I had to take that journey. No one could tell me to put down the book and go play outside.

I think that we, as adults, have to understand a couple of things about being a child. First of all, despite the genius of children, I believe that 99% of the time, have not developed certain understandings. We all have to go through a process. This does not mean I think older people are necessarily meant to be revered; living longer does not mean one worked any harder or explored any deeper. But, they have had more time to do so (so they should have, in my humble opinion! Don’t waste your precious life, people!). In any case, despite my childhood yearnings, I’m not so sure that we should always treat kids like adults. Yes, we should acknowledge their thoughts and feelings as valid. But their comprehension just hasn’t had time to develop.

These thoughts remind me of Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, as a further exploration of what motivates people to act in the ways they do. Read more below:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lawrence_Kohlberg%27s_stages_of_moral_development

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