"But now it’s almost Christmas, and you’re not going to…" is what one of my children recently heard from a stranger. "Being good", "being well-behaved" – that’s what it’s always about. We read Michel’s funny stories, admire the brave Pippi Longstocking, and root for the self-confident Momo. But even a rebellious child have or endure in the environment? No, thank you!
Be kind and good
Children are great. The birth rate in Germany has risen in recent years to an average of 1.59 children per birth mother – the highest figure recorded since 1973. At the same time, however, it has also been shown that motherhood is associated with reduced mental well-being (pdf), at least in the first seven years after birth. To a large extent, this is certainly due to the pressure on parents and especially mothers, the lack of support and the associated lack of resources to be able to live parenthood in a relaxed manner. We expect exhausted in many places that children must fit into our life: they should be dressed quickly without trouble, should sit at the table well-behaved and eat properly without making table, chair and carpet too dirty. Please don’t make a fuss in the morning when you take them to daycare or school, and please be as easy to care for as possible when you pick them up. And in the apartment, where the neighbors can hear us, they should be as quiet and unobtrusive as possible. Exhaustion and a false image of childlike behavior and childlike possibilities are mixed together.
How children come to us: curious
We expect well-behaved children because they are supposed to fit into our society. In fact however completely normal humans with their respective temperament come to us. Some children are quieter, some children are louder. But children are certainly not small adults, because they still think differently than we do, are much more emotionally determined and less deliberate. They are curious and inquisitive, because curiosity is the engine of their development. Some are more shy and some are more brash. This is not pathological, but normal. And also that it can be quite difficult to accompany this for us adults. We are confronted with another person, who in some phases and situations thinks and acts in a way that we may not be able to comprehend with our adult, considered thoughts. Sometimes it is even the case that in a family quite different temperaments meet and it is a great challenge for parents to have to deal with a temperament quite different from their own. This is actually not easy. But the task of our relationship is to recognize the other person in the respective needs and respond appropriately to them.
Conditions and self-worth
When we parents think about whether we love our children, most of them probably say: Yes! And of course we would probably also mostly agree to love unconditionally. On the other hand, if we look at our everyday life, we may find that we impose conditions on our love for the child at one point or another: You will get positive attention if you fulfill my expectations. "Be good and good, otherwise…Santa Claus won’t come". I love you less." We attach conditions to love and need fulfillment: You get something (gift/ affection) if… And this "if" is not oriented to our child’s abilities and possibilities, but to our adult expectations.
But what children really need is the feeling of being accepted. Our self-esteem is formed according to how children feel accepted: Those who feel unconditionally loved/accepted form a stronger, more secure self-esteem (pdf) than those children who receive affection only by meeting certain expectations. And actually, this is exactly what we want to give our children on their way into life: Confidence in themselves and their own abilities.
If we signal to them again and again Your (normal!) childish behavior is wrong, we convey to them that they themselves are wrong. We do not give them a good feeling about themselves, no confidence in themselves and no certainty that their own emotional experience is correct. We do not focus on the inside and self-perception, but only on the outside and how they can affect others.
… otherwise Santa Claus will not come
Especially at Christmas time, the expectations and conditions on children’s behavior culminate in threats. The superhuman figure of Santa Claus or the Christ Child is often used as an external judge of good and bad deeds. Our own expectations of the child are transferred to a third person who lists good and bad deeds in lists or books and ultimately evaluates them: "If you are not a good person (in my opinion), you will receive fewer gifts." Or no. Or even a rod. Education through pressure, fear and ultimately the feeling of not being right and being judged by others. In this way, the "feast of love" turns into a feast of the child’s fear of devaluation and embarrassment. From "not being right", even though it’s just being a child and of course can’t meet the expectations of adult behavior.
Even when we merely emphasize – in our eyes – positive behavior and praise the child in the sense of: You did such a great job, I’m sure you’ll get an extra present from Santa for that, that can be just as negative as threatening not to get anything because of "misbehavior. Because in this way we convey a feeling of how the child would just not be great: Once it shows the opposite of this behavior. An "I love you because…" can sometimes include the converse, "I don’t love you if…" Children should not feel accepted and loved only when they meet our expectations. So we should be careful with both overly positive emphasis on childlike behavior and pressure and punishment.
Confirmation about being "good", being "right", we convey to the child about getting things, being "rewarded" with things: If you are good, you get a present, you are rewarded with an object. "Things make you happy" – this is another message we give our children when we work with reward or punishment through Christmas gifts.
I love you – just as you are
What children need – not only at Christmas time – is the feeling of being accepted and loved. – And this also/just when they show perfectly natural childlike behavior. Instead of threats, withdrawal of love or heavenly judges, we should always keep in mind that we are looking at a child and not an adult. Even when we are particularly stressed – as we often are in the run-up to Christmas – and would like things to be so much easier.
We can look and ask ourselves: What is my child’s need now?? Why does it behave like this? We need understanding for the normal development of children – and we also need to make this understanding clear to society and defend it in all those situations in which raised eyebrows in public want to admonish us to please press our children – whatever the cost – into their expectations.
Especially when a child is angry or sad, he or she needs us and our empathetic support. The child needs to feel loved and accepted even in difficult situations and to be able to turn to loving caregivers with a need. It needs security in the moments when it feels inconstancy and does not know how to express itself differently. It needs love and example.
This does not mean that children should not move in society in such a way that everyone can live together in a relaxed manner. But what is socially acceptable must be adapted to the child’s abilities: If a toddler rages with boredom in the long supermarket queue, that is normal and understandable behavior. The goal in such a situation is not to discipline the child with pressure and fear, but to find a feasible way for this family in this situation: Perhaps by simply letting the family go ahead. Perhaps by securing their place in the queue, while father or mother takes care of the child. Perhaps also by distracting the child from others in a friendly way or by conveying to the accompanying parent: It’s all right this way.
We can also convey to a child without pressure, coercion and fear: This behavior was not appropriate right now. We can say, "It’s too loud for me!" instead of "You are too loud!"We can mirror and explain how we feel in certain situations – without scaring children in the process.
What we need is an understanding of children’s abilities and possibilities and that children express themselves in certain ways depending on their age and that their behavior is determined by their development. We should not put the standard of adult behavior on a child. What we also need is less pressure on parents, who often feel compelled in society to have to adapt their child and for this in an overstrained, stressful situation often resort to learned, self-experienced measures such as pressure and punishment to withstand the evaluation from the outside (because they themselves may have learned that they are only good and right if they are that in the eyes of others, see above).
Children are sweet and well-behaved. Sometimes. And sometimes they are wild and unpredictable. Not because they are good or bad, but simply because they are children on their way to learn about the world and themselves. Let us accompany them on this important path without coercion and pressure, so that they can develop a good feeling for themselves and the world.