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Oh boy. I’ve been hitting the books again, this time Positive Discipline, and the experience is forcing me to give a serious re-think to much of my day-to-day parenting. Most of the books I’ve read to date have given me solid advice about a range of practical matters (What to Expect the Toddler Years), have given advice I could take or leave with no strong feelings (The Sears books), have enlightened and reassured me (Touchpoints) about childhood behavior, or have elaborated and given voice to inclinations I already had (The Blessing of the Skinned Knee).

This one, though, is making me question some of my ideas and approaches, and I wasn’t expecting that at all when I got it. I was looking for a book that would detail Simon’s developing cognitive abilities, describe developmentally appropriate behavior, and offer ideas about how to correct or at least respond to undesirable behavior. My goal, in perfect harmony with the book’s title, is to employ as much positive discipline—as opposed to punishment—as possible.

When I first began reading the book, it was easy to feel smug. The book set up something of  straw parent-a person so ill informed about parenting and children’s nature that he would spank a two-year-old for saying he did something “yesterday” when he really did it a week ago under the logic that lying must be punished. “Idiot!” I cried from my armchair. “A two-year-old doesn’t understand ‘yesterday’ versus ‘last week’.”  I’m not afraid to get judgmental, and in gentler language, the authors backed me up.

A chapter later, though, my comeuppance arrived when the book stated that it is disrespectful of a child Simon’s age to carry him instead of having him walk. Before you suggest that is the dumbest thing you ever heard, let me explain that I’ve yanked the line out of context. The larger point, and a timely one, is that children Simon’s age are working hard to develop autonomy. Or, more to the point, children Simon’s age need to be working hard at becoming more autonomous as part of their psychological and physical development.

Therefore, it is imperative that parents start helping their children learn to do things for themselves when they are toddlers. A child not much older than Simon, they elaborate, can learn to pour his own bowl of cereal if you adapt your kitchen for him. He can put on his pajamas if you show him how. And in learning to do these things, that child builds a sense of capability and confidence that carries into adulthood.

What’s more, parents should also be mindful to encourage their child (“Look Simon, you’ve climbed twn steps. One more to go! Hold tight to that banister—you can do it!”) as opposed to offering empty praise (“Great job, Simon!”). You don’t want to create a praise junkie who always looks outside for validation.

After reading those three short paragraphs, paraphrased here, I shed my smug skin. The advice about encouragement versus praise gave me food for thought. It should be simple enough to adjust (some) of my language to be more context specific. And anyway, I’m not giving up my “great jobs!” entirely whatever they suggest.

But that first bit hit home. Whenever I see a parent push their child in way I have not as yet, I always wonder what the rush is? “Children are little for so long,” I think to myself, “why not relish it as long as you can?” I love taking care of Simon, and that means I also genuinely enjoy dressing him, carrying him, cutting his sandwiches into tiny squares, getting things for him, and generally attending to him; the only thing I don’t enjoy is putting him in his car seat. It has never once occurred to me that I do too much for him and should hold back.

Before now that is. But I can see the author’s point, and I have no desire to raise a child who is helpless and entitled. Nor do I want to disrespect Simon by infantilizing him. Some of my indulgence, no doubt, stems from genuine ignorance on my part that Simon is (or should be) capable of doing some of these things for himself. But if I dig a bit deeper, another cause is my own reluctance to let go of things I enjoy so much.

I don’t think I’ve done any damage to this point. “Most” kids Simon’s age can no doubt do things for themselves that Simon cannot. But most kids also walk before they are twenty months old. Simon’s gross motor skills are vastly improved from a year ago, but they are still developing slowly, and he is not physically adventurous. Still, I will be mindful that if I am not careful, my own reluctance to part with the remnants of his babyhood could impinge upon Simon’s development. I don’t’ want to smother his budding independence.

As happens so often in these matters, Simon himself is helping me adjust my approach. He’s resisting being carried unless exhausted, he is running farther and farther away from us at parks before looking back for us, he wants to help around the house, and he increasingly plays without direction. He’s working hard, in other words, to become his own person. My job, as I understand it, is to help him-or at least to get out of his way and let him help himself. It’s a paradigm shift for sure, but so far each stage of Simon’s development has brought us increased pleasure. So I’m hoping that if I focus on the activities Simon and I can share once he’s more independent, I’ll find the letting go a little easier.

One Response to “Autonomy”

  1. blg says:

    Two things….that I know you know already.

    One – just cause someone wrote a book doesn’t make them all-knowing. Although this book seems pretty spot on.

    Two – the key phrase in what you wrote is “Get out of his way and let him help himself.” Not that we have to agree that you were ever even *in* his way.

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