What does it look like to move away from strategies of control and towards relationships of trust?
This is the question I’ve heard from many of you in the past few days, in response to my remarks last Thursday at Parent Orientation. Thank you for believing in trust, and thank you for querying me - “Well, wait, how do I actually do this?” and, “When I ‘trust’ my children they inevitably wind up smacking each other with blocks or destroying their rooms!”
For better or worse, contemporary society doesn’t prepare us to trust our children. It prepares us to measure them, to teach them, to train them, to schedule them. So when we pivot into looking at “relationships of trust”, though it seems simple enough, it can often feel like stumbling in the dark. We’re out of practice.
Andrew Solomon, in his epic “Far From The Tree”, writes that parturition is not the act of re-producing, despite the common parlance. It is an act of PRODUCTION. Trusting your child means that you have accepted that you have created them, you have not re-created yourselves. It means that you accept both who they are NOW and who they are on the road to BECOMING. When we accept that, we are no longer compelled to control (as many) parts of their life.
So, here are a few “ingredients” I find helpful around trusting your young child. At the bottom of this Note I’ll link to other authors and resources that have informed my thinking on this topic.
Start early and often – When your infant is navigating a new fine motor task (stacking a block, putting a shape through a hole, etc), they will inevitably turn to you at some point during their frustration – their look saying, “Ugh! I can’t DO this!” Smile and tell them gently, “You got this!” Pull back on your inclination to intervene and instead build in them twin muscles of resilience (“I can keep trying even though it’s hard and I’ve already failed”) and self-support (“When I don’t get it the first time, my responsibility is to try again, not to turn and ask for help”).
Set up environments you know they can be successfully trusted in – Think back to “baby proofing” your apartment. Now think about what it might mean to “trust proof” it. For both of our kids, our goal has been to create a living space in which we do not feel compelled to watch where they crawl/walk/explore, because we know everything within reach is “allowable” for them. This keeps us from needing to intermittently shout, “No don’t touch that!” or “Sweetie stay away from that corner.” The flip side of this is then filling spaces in your apartment with engaging materials your child CAN use. Leave open baskets of magnatiles or wooden blocks or dolls or whatever works for your child – materials they can use anytime without restriction. Setting up a “trust proof” environment means that you can turn your back (or leave the room, see below) and not worry about what they’re doing. “OK, you’re good? I’ll be over here doing [fill in the blank].” The message is received loud and clear – “S/he trusts me in this space. I do not require supervision.” How liberating for a young child, who is supervised the vast majority of the day!
Set clear expectations and then walk away – The second part is essential. Make sure your child knows what is expected – “Your job right now is to clean up all the toy cars”; “Get dressed, we’re leaving in five”; “Flush the toilet and wash your hands.” And then leave the room, walk away, find something to do. Hovering and watching tells the child, “They are right there waiting for me to mess up so they can intervene” – which leads the child to respond either by not trying since they know you’ll do it for them, or being mad at you for not trusting them to do something they know they can do on their own. Walking away offers the further motivation that if they want to move on to the next activity, there’s only one way to get there – complete the task. There is no room for the negotiation and haggling of “Can you help?”, “But I don’t know how!”, or “That’s not fair!” There is simply them and the task. (This was me walking away after witnessing Jonah and Solomon drawing on the walls. I KNEW that if I stayed in the room to “teach them a lesson” Jonah would simply protest, negotiate, and slip his way out of it. And Solomon – well he would have laughed the whole time.)
Don’t meddle in the details – Set up some routines (we clean the living room before dinner, we get dressed before we leave the apartment, etc) and then don’t worry about the small stuff in between. So their idea of “playing trains” is throwing tracks back into the bucket? OK. Their idea of “arts and crafts” is smushing together dozens of pipe cleaners in no discernible manner? OK. Their idea of a playmate is running around like lunatics with their shirts off screaming at the top of their lungs? OK. Children do not live our lives. They do not have our outlook on what is right, proper, and appropriate. I promise you, they WILL learn all of that over time. But trying to control a three year old in the midst of an impassioned screech-fest only gets you a tense relationship and a breach of trust, it doesn’t actually get you a gentler, more mild-mannered child. Showing a child what they “should” do with pipe cleaners just leaves them feeling less-then-capable and still-not-as-awesome-as-my-
parent. Just take a deep breath, accept it, note that kids are supposed be kind of wild and crazy, and focus on something else.
Acknowledge but don’t (overly) praise – OK so after you’ve left the room, your child (sometimes!) proudly comes up to you to show you, “Mom! I cleaned everything up ALL BY MYSELF!” or “Dad! I put my shoes on ALL BY MYSELF!” Overly praising in a cloying manner upends a lot of the work you’ve already done in giving them trust and autonomy – it shows them you didn’t actually think they could do it to begin with. If you did, why would you be celebrating so much? Jonah taught this one to me and Shira, as he started getting mad at us when he was around three. We were celebrating his small milestones (wiping, flushing, sneakers, etc) and his vehement reaction made us realize we were embarrassing him to an extent. He seemed to be telling us, “Guys, I’ve got this. I know you expect me to do it. Now I can do it. Let’s just leave it at that.” Think about if co-workers threw a party every time you completed a basic report. Patronizing, right? I’ve learned that what Jonah appreciates after he conquers a new milestones, more than a celebration, is a gentle nod of the head, wink of the eye, or thumbs up. And then we move on with our day. And I kvell about it later to Shira!
Give space – When we arrive at playgrounds I tell our children – both of them – “OK kids, have fun! I’ll be here if you need anything” and show Jonah the bench I’ll be sitting on. The message I’m sending is I trust you to find your own fun, to make your own path, and to figure out any peer conflicts that arrive. Yes, that’s me on the bench watching as either of my children get in a squabble with a sandbox-stranger over who-had-the-toy-first, and no, I don’t plan on coming over to “help” them figure it out. If (when) Jonah does come to me for help in those moments, I tell him, “You know the most important thing is to always be nice. Always. Make sure you do that, and I’m sure you’ll figure it out.”
Let them lead – Walking down the sidewalk in front of you, pushing the elevator button, opening the door, going through the subway turnstile or getting on the bus first, entering their classroom before you – these are all ways your child can feel like they are in control of the situation (instead of being controlled). When you sit down on the rug with your child and a bucket of toys, fold your hands into your lap and watch what they do. With inviting eyes, glance at them and glance at the bucket. They’re receiving a message of, “I trust you here – this is your arena – take the lead and I’ll follow.”
Give them real responsibility around the house – Children (like all of us) need a balance of play and work, of frivolity and accountability. Expect your children to start chipping in around three years old. Replacing empty toilet paper rolls, taking out the recycling, setting the table, throwing out dirty diapers, sweeping up after dinner, putting away laundry – being responsible begets trust.
Cherish the warm moments – This sounds so simple and honest but is essential to consider when thinking about “relationships of trust.” In the easy, breezy moments – however infrequent they can feel at times – squeeze your child, kiss your child, and tell them you love doing [fill in the blank] with them. Too often we get consumed with our agenda for our child that moments of control seem to define the relationship – controlling leads to big emotions, tantrums, rules, tears – instances that can last a lifetime. The work in cherishing the warm moments is to be explicit enough, and often enough, with your child that THOSE moments define the relationship, instead of the intense moments of control.
Balance out control and trust – Pick what areas of your relationship you cannot give up control over, and draw a firm line there. This all works in balance – the more you trust your child in certain areas, the more amenable and comfortable they will be with your control in others. Children (like all of us!) need to know they are trusted, need to know there are areas for them to breathe freely and experiment. If they truly feel that in certain areas of their life, it will feel less choking for them when you mandate your “absolutes.” Consider it all in balance. Give up some areas that you realize you don’t really care about (Do they need to be wearing a shirt at dinner? Does it matter if their socks don’t match?) so you can clamp down where it does matter (Sunscreen. Screen time.) We each have our own balance, the important thing is to find yours.
I’d love to hear from you on this topic. What works for you around “relationships of trust” with your child? Where are you successful, where do you struggle? What parts of the day would you say, “No WAY this will not work”?