by Pat Blackwell, Ph.D.
For most kids, childhood is a wonderful thing. You’re loved and cared for. Not much is expected of you. Life is safe and predictable. So what’s the deal with big girl this, big boy that? Some children respond positively to this push forward while others, perhaps wisely, resist—some with a vengeance.
Rushing through time
The notion of carefree childhood is historically new. Prior to the mid-20th Century, all but very privileged children were not allowed to be idle or childlike for long; they were needed for house work, as farm hands, for factory work. Children had much to dread: accidents, abuse, extreme weather and disease, and bearing witness to things they were not emotionally ready for.
With the advancement of machines and automation, human labor became less necessary and more time was available for “leisure pursuits”—including play and education. For a brief period, children were allowed to be childlike and innocent; but this again seems to be in flux.
David Elkind’s classic book, The Hurried Child: Growing up too fast too soon, published three decades ago, highlighted a swing of the pendulum away from allowing children time to be young back to unrealistic expectations and a hastening of the developmental process. And the rushing continues as we push our children on a trajectory of competition and excellence.
Acceptance or resistance
Some parents regard their children as shining stars that validate their own accomplishments and ambition; others have misinterpreted research on infant brain potential. Starting in their child’s infancy, these parents brag about how young Baby was when he slept through the night, pooped on the toilet, began to read. There are flash cards, Baby Einstein videos, baby “reading” programs. Tiger Moms jockey to get their children into the best schools or music programs. Even the pushiest of parents believe that they are doing the right thing. But what is the effect on children?
Resilient children can cope with a higher-demand environment and occasional failure or frustration. Driven, high-energy children crave activity and stimulation. But what about sensitive, slow to warm up, or anxious children, or the child who appears to be resilient or driven, but is only looking for approval. These are who struggle. They may put their foot down and refuse to be a big girl or boy because things are moving too fast. They show no interest in “big girl panties.” They resist showing what they know on standardized tests intended to get them into a good preschool program. And they struggle at nursery or preschool because they are simply not ready to be away from Mommy or Daddy. Some will state quite eloquently that they won’t grow up—never, never! This may be a signal to parents to slow down.
Childhood is a privilege to be enjoyed and not pushed through hastily. Of course parents want to enrich their child’s development and it is important not to “baby” children beyond what is appropriate. However, expectations should be carefully informed by the child’s unique temperament. And even the resilient, apparently driven child needs to be reminded that he is only a child and that’s all he is expected to be right now.