Adjusting the Tension

…easier said than done. The tension to which I refer is the tension inherent in maintaining a balance between keeping our children secure, making sure they have a safety net while simultaneously maintaining enough distance that we are able to accommodate their developing need for autonomy and independence. At every developmental stage there are tasks to be accomplished, skills to be mastered so that our children can move to the next stage with confidence and competence. If we attain that balance, our children will find themselves thriving in just the right “holding environment.” Just as we swaddle and hold infants to keep them comfortable and content, parenting older children requires that we hold them metaphorically. 

During the preschool years, in addition to the basic love and affection needed by all of us, children require limits and boundaries, a pattern of behavior to follow. They rely on simple, clear routines and guidelines and a safe environment for exploration in order to grow cognitively and socially. They need adults to help them delay gratification, to reinforce self-calming strategies, to help them learn to manage their impulsivity, and to provide calmness and consistency. To help them move on, we must let them move around, fall down, make mistakes, and get up. We must help them learn the difference between what is theirs and what isn’t, whether we are talking about physical space, personal boundaries, or possessions. 

In the early elementary grades, children continue to need warmth, affection, and nurturing. However, teachers do not provide the same amount of physical closeness that parents do. Their nurturing comes more in the form of their encouragement and praise, their guidance and challenging of the children’s interests. Parents and teachers alike continue to expect delay of gratification and impulse control. In maintaining a somewhat greater distance than parents, teachers help the children to set their own boundaries in the classroom community.  It is important for children to have adults model appropriate expression of feelings, teach the difference between what is “true” and what is “not true,” to help the children with acquiring basic self-advocacy skills and to reinforce the concept of compromise. They need us to model appropriate social behavior, to enforce rules, and to expect from them responsibility for their choices, their actions, and their possessions. In helping them move on, we work with them to explore their role in the family and the school community, to clarify their relationships with peers and adults, and to understand the kindness and reciprocity in true friendship.

In the later grades of elementary school,  children’s developmental tasks include building their social skills repertoire, developing stronger peer relations and more consistent groups of friends, and assuming increasing responsibility in tasks and relationships. To provide an appropriate holding environment during these years, parents and teachers acknowledge and promote self-sufficiency, competence, and role definition. We hold children responsible for their own feelings and their own behavior, and we appropriately reinforce the authority of adults in the home and school communities.

The “growing” of loving, competent, and happy adults begins at birth. We hold our children as they develop, allow them to make mistakes and learn lessons, encourage them to enhance self-esteem. We challenge them to become their best selves by providing optimal frustration, expectations for personal responsibility and accountability, and the luxury of time and patience while they learn who they can become. When they decide they can ride alone on their bike to the corner, we encourage them to ride all the way around the block and greet them on their return with a high five and a hug. We prepare them for their lives ahead by protecting them only so much on their journey. Slowly but surely, we allow them to be exposed to the frustrations and challenges of day-to-day living so that they can demonstrate resilience, competence, and satisfaction with themselves and the rest of their intimate community.