Monday, November 23, 2015

Parenting My Child by His Chronological Age versus His Developmental Age

It can be uncomfortable to admit when we've made mistakes- especially as a parent.  But mistakes can be great teachers and I'm not too proud to admit that I have much to learn on my parenting journey.

Yesterday I found myself in the middle of a somewhat embarrassing situation which quickly escalated into not just one but two wailing children- my youngest two children to be precise!  What was most frustrating about the situation is that it took place in public- at the beginning of a church service, to be exact, which ideally should be a setting of quiet contemplation and reverence (at least for those who don't have young children)!    

As I started recounting the details of yesterday's experience through my keyboard and onto my computer screen I realize that the details aren't necessarily the important part, though they do provide some background.  What IS important is that I realized I had made some mistakes in the way I was parenting and that realization served as an opportunity for self-evaluation and learning.

Let me cut right to the chase with my first parenting mistake-

Parenting Mistake #1: 

1)  I was more worried about appearing to be a good parent and having everything "under control" than I was about attending to the needs of my child.

Like I mentioned, I was at church when the situation occurred which provided plenty of opportunity for others to witness my children and myself not necessarily at our finest.

The morning actually started out well- I felt accomplished for getting not only myself but my three children fed, bathed, in our Sunday best, and out the door in plenty of time to arrive for our 9:00 church meeting.  Although we arrived early enough to get settled into good seats and I was prepared with a bag stocked with board books, fruit snacks, coloring books, crayons, and stickers, I was quickly reminded of how much easier it is to have an extra pair of hands to help keep young children "seen and not heard." My husband was at a church meeting in a different building and, as customary, the kids and I were eagerly expecting him to join us as soon as he was able to do so.  

Then it all started: My three year old, "Jack" started whining because he wanted some milk.  What ensued is a battle of wills- namely his versus mine. 

[Feel free to skip the next several paragraphs and jump to the MY CONCLUSIONS section towards the bottom of the page for a condensed version of this post and a much quicker read.]

Because Jack had plenty to eat and drink at breakfast before we left the house and since I'm in the process of trying to wean him off of sippy cups I simply replied, "No" when he asked for milk.  The issue wouldn't have been such a big deal if my two year old hadn't had her sippy cup so easily in view. Jack continued to whine for milk and I continued to tell him "No." which just made his frustration grow.  

I tried expanding my response to include an explanation "No- you don't need sippy cups anymore. Big boys don't use sippy cups." making sure to place extra stress on the words "big boys" as I've done with potty training him.  My explanation or show of confidence in him did not satisfy him in the least.  As an upset three-year-old of course he didn't care about reasoning or logic, or even about being a "big boy".  He just wanted some milk- and he wanted it right then!  All he could sense from my refusals was unfairness and rejection.  This, in turn, made his whining grow even louder.  Why does he have to be such a baby right now? I thought to myself in frustration.  I'll answer that question a little further on.

As Jack continued whining for milk Jill was plopped on my lap and she began fussing about not being able to peel a sticker from off of a page.  By this time one of my kindly neighbors who was sitting on the bench right in front of us turned around and said, "If you need a hand, just send one of them up with me."  I thanked her and told her that my husband should be arriving any minute (and I was hoping I would be right).

It was probably only thirty seconds to a minute later that Jack's whining turned into crying and I gave in just to keep him quiet and handed him Jill's sippy cup.  Fortunately, Jill was too engrossed with the stickers to even notice that her brother was drinking from her sippy cup.  Jack proceeded to guzzle down almost the entire contents of the cup and I began to panic when I realized that since that was the only sippy cup I brought I needed to hang on to it to use for Jill when she got fussy as she is normally more vocal and rambunctious than her brother and I am willing to do anything to keep her appeased during church- especially when I am parenting solo.

Consequently, I hurried and grabbed the cup out of Jack's hands and told him, "That's enough- don't drink it all."  What initially started out as whining and then crying on Jack's part immediately transformed into very loud, angry BAWLING.  I decided that now would be the right time to take up my neighbor's offer to take one of the kids.  I hoisted Jill over the bench in front of us into my neighbor's arms, without even having to offer up an explanation, but the problem is that Jill is somewhat of a mama's girl and she immediately started crying out for me, "Mommy! Mommy!" and protested being in our neighbor's arms and not in mine.

By this time Jack started throwing a full-on temper tantrum which not only included loud wails but some physical aggression as well- in the form of kicking his legs back and forth.  I grabbed a packet of fruit snacks, lugged Jack's trunk up into my arms and started to make our exit out of the chapel so as not to cause a further scene, but as soon as I started walking away it just made Jill panic more and her cries for me intensified and she tried to squiggle out of my neighbor's arms in an attempt to reach me.

My neighbor was no doubt surprised by Jill's strength and determination and she immediately followed me out of the chapel all while Jill continued to reach her arms out for me.  As soon as we got outside of the doorway leading into the hall I said, "I'll just take them both."  I thanked my neighbor and sat down on the couch in the lobby with two crying children on my lap.  

Fruit Snacks to the Rescue!  I quickly tore open the package of fruit snacks and divided them up between my two children to calm them down but of course they fought over who got which piece and they each wanted their own individual package.  When I realized that their cries were still possibly loud enough to carry into the chapel I decide to step outside the building only to realize that Jack only had one shoe on because in the process of kicking and screaming he must have kicked the other shoe off in the chapel. Awesome!  And then, of course, I felt guilty for leaving my eight-year-old on the bench alone in the chapel without any family members to sit with.

I slipped outside the building despite the fact that Jack only had one shoe on.  Fortunately my husband arrived two or three minutes later- just in time for me to point to Jack in exasperation and announce, "Your turn to deal with him!"  I was going to take Jill back inside with me but she made it abundantly clear now that we were outdoors that she wanted to "go on a walk." 

I tried to inconspicuously slip back into the chapel, grab the diaper bag from the bench which contained our supply of "reinforcements" for the children, slip back out again, and hand the bag to my husband.  By the time I returned from the lobby I felt like all eyes were on me and I could feel my face starting to flush.  It was for that reason that I gave my eight year old the mission of sneaking out to the lobby with Jack's other shoe to give to my husband as soon as we spotted it underneath a nearby bench.

My eight year old and I ended up remaining in the chapel for the rest of the meeting on our bench by ourselves without my husband and Jack and Jill ever returning because honestly, that's how some Sacrament Meetings with little ones go.  My husband has learned that it's just easier to walk the halls with little ones or to stay in the lobby with them rather than making any attempts to return to the chapel and risk any further disruptions.  It turns out that the kids were particularly restless that day and so he ended up driving around in the car with them until the next block of meetings began and they were free to act like children again in nursery.

Anyway, I was really frustrated and embarrassed about making a scene and, as I mentioned earlier, it occurred to me that was my first parenting mistake:

1)  I was more worried about appearing to be a good parent and having everything "under control" than I was about attending to the needs of my child.  Which leads me to my next discovery/parenting mistake:

2) I was treating my child according to his chronological age versus his developmental age.  

Although it was helpful for me to come to this insight I admit it really brought up some frustrating and even resentful feelings inside of me- feelings and thoughts I don't like to admit I have.  In fact, I had trouble focusing during the first portion of the meeting because I was getting lost in my thoughts about the matter.  

As I mentioned, one such thought I had about Jack was Why does he have to be such a baby right now?  And it dawned on me: "Because he is a baby."

Allow me to explain a few things as I process my frustrations: Jack is taller for his age and could easily pass for being 4 years old even though he just recently turned 3.  Although Jack may look like a pre-schooler, developmentally (emotionally and to some extent, cognitively) sometimes he is much more at the stage of an 18-month old or 2 year old, and that, to me, can be embarrassing when I feel like people are judging me because my child- who "should" be acting much older and well-behaved for what his age appears to be, is throwing a tantrum or reverting back to infantile behaviors.

I have found that- for whatever reasons- I feel like I need to "prove" myself as a competent parent through my children's behavior and progress.  Maybe it has something to do with the fact that as a foster and adoptive parent I feel like I'm somehow looked upon with extra scrutiny or somehow held to a higher standard seeing as how I literally couldn't become a parent in the first place without first obtaining a license, undergoing extensive background checks, providing references vouching for my character, having my home inspected and my marriage assessed by perfect strangers as well as having my physical and mental health evaluated and approved by doctors, being interviewed, and completing hours of training. Yes, I had to do all of those things to become a parent but I'm really no different than any other parent- I do the best I know how and there are good days and bad days.

Maybe I'm too much of a perfectionist.  For whatever reason, I feel that my success as an effective parent is somehow measured by my children's developmental progress (or lack of progress)- which is a bunch of bunk.  

Jack is still very much a baby even though he appears to be a "big boy".  The hardest part for me to accept about that fact are some of the possible underlying explanations and specifically the fact that Jack didn't come into our lives (initially as our foster child) until he was a little under a year old.   Anyone who has a basic understanding of attachment theories or child development knows that the first years of a child's life are the most crucial not only in forming healthy attachments with caregivers but in brain and social development- (and mind you, those areas are not necessarily mutually exclusive of each other).

Although we didn't know and we may never know the extent of the exact conditions that our son experienced before being placed with us, we do have a fairly good picture of some of the challenges he faced at such a young, vulnerable age.  When I take the time to actually think about it I get very sad reflecting on what he had to go through before he became a part of our family.  That is NOT to say that he was not loved by his first family because he certainly was.  However, loving a child and being fit to parent are not necessarily the same things. 

Just as I get sad thinking about Jack's early life the Mama Bear in me sometimes gets angry and somewhat resentful that I couldn't protect him from being exposed to certain things- totally out of my control- and I lament the fact that if we had "had" him in our home from the very beginning of his life, as we did with his biological sister Jill, who was placed with us as a newborn at the same time he was, or our oldest daughter who was placed with us as a newborn and adopted a short time later, things could have turned out so much differently in regards to his development.  

I know parents should never compare their children but I can't help but contrast Jill's developmental milestones with Jack's.  Despite less than a year of age difference between the two I strongly conclude that their different home environments during the first year of each of their lives has played the most significant role in their development, even accounting for differences in their chronological ages, genders, and temperaments. 


Q: So what can I learn about my two recently discovered parenting mistakes?

Parenting Mistake #1- Worrying more about appearing to be a good parent and having everything "under control" than attending to the needs of my child.

A: First of all, why do any of us worry so much about what other people think?  God is the only one who truly knows my heart or all of the circumstances behind any situation and He is the only one who is capable of judging.  If He is merciful enough to cut me some slack shouldn't I cut myself some slack as a parent, too?  (I am also aware of the fact that I am most likely my own worst critic so any harsh "judgments" I feel heaped upon me are often my own.)

A: Second, I need to accept the fact that in some areas of development my child may not be at the same stage of development as some of the kids his age, in large part, because his story and his background aren't the same as theirs.  Regardless of the reasons, that's okay and it doesn't mean that I'm a failure as a parent if my child never "catches up" to his peers.  

Parenting Mistake #2- Treating my child according to his chronological age versus his developmental age

A: Third, I need to celebrate my child's uniqueness and accomplishments.  Anyone who knows his full story and who saw Jack when he was first placed in our home as a baby compared to a year later as a toddler compared to now as pretty much a typical pre-school aged child, would be astonished at the progress he has made in the areas of trusting others to meet his needs, his speech development, and his ability to self-soothe to name a few areas of growth.  Being able to independently play in a room by himself or to string words together in a sentence may not be that big of a deal for the parents of some three-year-olds, but to our family it is a HUGE cause for celebration of Jack's progress!

A: Fourth, I need to recognize that sometimes Jack may need me to treat him as a baby because in his mind and in terms of his developmental needs, that's where he's coming from.  I'm recalling bits and pieces of what I've learned about Attachment 101 and the human brain in response to childhood trauma, but I'll just leave it at that.  

So what if, for example, I give him a sippy cup when he's three or even four years old- even when his peers may not need one?  So what if he's a little slower to potty train than his peers?- he'll get it eventually when he's ready.  Is it the worst thing in the world if it takes him twice as long to get dressed by himself compared to other kids or if his emotions and reaction to certain situations seem amplified?  All of those things can be frustrating at times for me as his mom, but they are not tragic. What would be tragic would be for me to be harsh with him and expect him to meet certain developmental milestones at a pace that is not his own.  It's much better for me to be judged for babying or coddling him than to neglect his underlying needs behind any tantrums and risk causing further trauma.


1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I so needed this tonight. We are fostering two brothers, 18 mos and 5 mos. We have had the 5 mo old since birth and his brother for 2 months. Being raised in two different environments is already making the differences painfully obvious. I need to remind myself that I cannot control the behavior but I can certainly control my reaction. And pray in time that we can help them. Thank you again.