Monday, April 21, 2014

Helping a child feel secure: Part 1

I am still working on the next part of my challenge to read a book about an educational philosophy. Meanwhile, I have a few things that I've been thinking about and wanting to share.

The spring before I was married, I frequently babysat for a woman with two children, ages 1 and 3. I learned a lot of things from that experience at the time and later from reflecting on it.

This woman's family and home were falling apart. She was on medication for depression, was an ex-drug addict, struggled to care for her kids and the house and her husband had been unemployed for some time. Even worse, the oldest child, a little boy, was developing some severe behavioral problems. To make a long story short, her husband was put into jail for child abuse. From their side of the story, he hadn't been and wasn't meaning to be abusive, which I believe. But I do think he lost his temper that night and there may have been some uncalled-for, maybe even abusive, spankings. Not long after, though, the woman started chasing other men and wanted a divorce as soon as her husband was out of jail.

Unfortunately I was kind of caught in the middle of some of this, mostly because I was willing to babysit the kids a lot and clean the house for free. I was originally doing it to help keep their family intact, and then later, I was doing it for the children.

The oldest boy, who I will call Joey, really did have some behavior problems. But he was a normal little child. I am pretty sure it wasn't his nature or any mental health issues. He was very intelligent, yet he couldn't hardly talk. My 18-month-old daughter talks better now than he did then. Nor would he potty train or go to bed without screaming.

Joey's world was falling apart, and had been for some time. He and his mother (and sometimes his father) had some real power struggles. He was only 3, yet the couldn't seem to keep him under control. He could be incredibly demanding.

And yet, you know what? When I babysat him, most of those problems disappeared. He even started to potty train for me. He calmed down and would let me tell him what to do.

I've thought a lot about that experience since. What was it that I gave him that his parents couldn't? I know his parents loved him, as unwise as they were. And I know they wanted the best for him, although they couldn't seem to give it to him. It wasn't love that he was lacking.

It was security! His life seemed utterly out of control, and he was constantly trying to take control. That's why he always had the power struggles with his mother. That's why he was so demanding. But when he was in control, he was afraid. I'm not sure why it is that way with little children, but they are afraid if they are the ones in control. They need to feel secure and that you are ultimately in control (although they do still need to have choices and chances to be capable within that security).

When I babysat him, I was able to handle his tantrums without giving in or even reacting too much. Even if you don't give in to a child's demands, getting angry with them can be just as bad. If you are in control of the situation you don't need to get angry. If you are losing control of the situation, then you become afraid, and you get angry. A little child can sense that.

Also, I made sure that I never had a power struggle with Joey. I made sure I was absolutely fair with him and that I was meeting all his needs--including his needs for attention. But then I drew the line. There was no power struggle. We simply did not cross that line.

Something I found that helped (and later I heard someone describe the Montessori method this way) was to control Joey's environment, not him. I put all temptations and possible accidents out of his reach. If he was misusing something, I took it away and put it where he couldn't get it. It was a lot easier to do that than to try to control his every action. He didn't need to be controlled. He just needed to feel secure.

I don't think I ever punished Joey the whole time I babysat him (unless you consider taking a toy away a punishment). I never needed to. As long as I was in control of the situation, then he would concede to kind persuasion. And as for the potty training, I never even tried to get him to do that. He just up and did it himself.

There were other things I learned about helping a child be secure from that experience. I think that when things are unnecessarily loud in the home, like fighting or loud music, it can make a child feel insecure. Tension between parents can make a child feel insecure. Failure to meet the child's needs can make him/her feel insecure.

So although it was a sad experience, I did learn a lot of good things. I still wonder if Joey and his sister are ok, where they are living and if they are still with their mother. I kind of doubt that they are. If they're not, I hope they have found a good home somewhere.

 If only every parent could have this kind of experience and see just how much a child is affected by a parent's choices. We'd have a lot more good parents.

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