Saturday, March 3, 2012

Parenting on a Schedule: A Matter of Attention

The arrival of an infant brings modifications in the family dynamic as well as changes in schedules. For moments it feels as if the time stops and parents have to make plans for the rest of their lives as if that new person will stay like that forever. On the other hand a mixed feeling of anxiety and pressure to not lose even one instant of these first months can set in for the parents. Because time with the child can be limited by other obligations, parents will look for the right ways to make the best use of it. Observing, talking and paying attention to a child from day one will establish a real relationship between the parent and the child that will remain with them through all the different stages of life. The way to accomplish this is for parents to focus completely on the needs of their child and when they are together, make sure that the child has their complete focus and attention.

Trying to set a schedule that works for a family with a new child can be an exceptional challenge. It is most effectively managed, to the benefit of the child, when a parent is focused on the schedule, rhythm and needs of their child. It is true that many parents make sacrifices at work, with their social lives, etc. to be with their children, but expecting a child to show their appreciation for that in an adult way is completely ridiculous. For example, a parent may be fortunate enough to get off of work very early and may arrive home at the time when their child is asleep or eating. In this case they might insist on playing with the child in order to have more interactive “one on one” time. If the child continues to go about their schedule or routine, which may include a long nap, at that moment, the parent may feel ignored or unappreciated by them. Instead, a parent should recognize that they are showing their child respect by giving them a secure environment to freely develop without abrupt interruptions. On the other hand a parent may come home, break the child’s routine or expect them to want to play, because they came home specifically to have some “special time.” This may be a very special time, but only for the parent, because the child will be putting their development at hold to accommodate their parent’s need for a superficial adult level of appreciation that they are completely unable to provide. This kind of “special time” may make the parent feel special about how many minutes of “quality time” they spend with their child. The child on the other hand might feel especially tired.

Keeping in mind that an infant is completely unfamiliar with what the terms, hour, minute, next week, etc. means it is more important for a parent to be fully present when they are with their child instead of attempting to gain their sympathy by explaining their work hours. A parent who may have to be gone for longer than their normal work routine may feel obligated to give their child reassuring words such as, “I’ll be gone for a few days, but I’ll have all of Saturday to spend with you.” This statement may reassure the parent of when they will be back, but ultimately the child will have no concept of when Saturday is. When this kind of communication occurs in a way that is unfamiliar to the child, they can be left with uncertainty. This could then lead them to become completely preoccupied while the parents are gone, something that will be reflected through their behavior.

If a child does not feel secure in a routine where their parents come and go on a consistent basis and where they are clearly communicated to on a level they can understand, then they will express their confusion in different ways.  Some will show changes in the way they play or eat and might have difficulty sleeping. In extreme cases the child may cry, scream or is some cases grab the parent's leg. Sometimes parents misinterpret this behavior as a performance-art piece paying tribute to how much they will be missed. In reality, this is a reflection of the insecurity that the child has for never really understanding when their parent will be with them and for how long. To help the child to understand the separation, parents should maintain a consistent pattern of patiently telling the child what is going to happen while at the same time paying close attention to their reaction and addressing it in a short simple way. For example, “ I have to go now. I will be back. You will be alright with (whomever they are left with).” Then the parent should leave. When a child trusts the parent and knows that they will come back, they will feel secure enough to accept the separation and enjoy the company of the other person they are left with. The child will no longer feel that they won the lottery when the parents are with them. They will instead understand that coming and going a part of their consistent routine and will learn to enjoy the company of another person.

A good time to recognize how children understand concepts of time and distance differently than adults is during road trips. The timeless questions relating to this during especially long car rides is, “Are we there yet?” Considering that the child is used to riding in a car to places that are at short distances during day-to-day life, it is important to consider that for them a longer time in the car is something that will get their attention. Reassuring them that there is “two-more hours,” “50 more miles,” or “a long time, please stop asking!” will not answer the question in a way the child can understand. As in previous examples, the work to avoid these frustrations is done patiently and constantly before. Even if they are infants, parents should clearly communicate before and during the trip that they will be in the car for longer than other times. Making sure to give them your full attention for periods at a time during the trip will help child feel comfortable that they are a part of the trip and as such will not need to modify their behavior to get attention.

The best thing a parent can do to ensure they are making the best of the time they have with their child is to focus their full attention on the child. Some families like to involve their children in different activities such as arts and crafts. Many parents can get lost in the notion that the more craft supplies that they choose for their child to play with, the better. This may lead to frustration when most of those same supplies end up in a lost shelf or corner of the garage. During activities and play it is important for the parent to follow the child’s lead. They should allow them to choose what they want to play with, for how long and under what conditions, without overwhelming them with choices and suggestions. There is no law that says that in order for being with a child to “count,” the parent or caregiver must be doing a project or activity together. Sometimes, it is better for the child to feel secure just with the presence of an adult they trust patiently observing them while they play. This is an important passive interaction that will reassure the child of the support they have from the adult. When a child trusts the person that they are with, they will feel secure enough to accept daily separation.

This is not to say that children should not take on projects. In fact, it is a great idea to encourage a project that the child wants to do. This means, allowing them to take the initiative on when and how the project is worked on. This is a special way for parents to learn to interact with their children in an encouraging way. From this parents will learn things such as how their child sets goals, how they child visualize a project, how they acknowledge input and engage in problem solving. Many projects can start after finding a piece of wood in the garage or from a conversation with the child.

The pictures that accompany this post are of a “fort” and a “wild car.” Both of which were designed, built and decorated as long-term projects by three children with the loving support and patience of two very hard working parents. Following the initiative of the children and supporting them with the tasks that require adults allowed the parents to help their children execute their original vision of the projects. By dedicating such a large portion of their property and so many very precious days, the fort stands as a monument to what children can accomplish with the right kind of support.

When parents make sure they are paying attention and carefully listening to their children every moment that they are with them, they are building a relationship on trust and not just based on how much free time is on their schedule.  

1 comment:

  1. Dear Magdalena, your article is so sensitive and intuitive. The NewfeldInstitute has posted an article that shares your thoughts. Thank you for your insight!