How do you raise a child in a healthy way? First of all, what it does NOT mean is that you ‘teach them’ what their needs are. So much of ‘teaching’ is about giving somebody what you think they need, without knowing if it’s actually the right thing for that person. It’s also not just about letting the child ‘make choices’. Being given a choice between A, B, & C is meaningless when you really want H. Also, you’re often still just giving them something you think they need, instead of taking the time to figure out with them what they really need.
If it’s not about ‘teaching them’ or letting them ‘make choices’, what is it about? It’s about creating an environment around them that supports their exploration into their own self-development. What you actually do is give them free rein from the very beginning to recognize and express their basic needs.* You let the decision making proceed from the child, except in cases of danger. So from the very beginning you feed them when they’re hungry, and let them sleep when they’re tired. When they have to make a decision, you give them all the information they might need, and enough time to think it through.** In that way they can recognize for themselves what needs are real for them, what it is they want, in the most basic of ways.
*Rather than direct the child to the ‘right’ knowledge, the job of the adult is to be a resource for the child, sharing knowledge about experience, introducing them to sources and choices they may not have thought to ask for, referring them to where to find out more, being a sounding board when the child needs to make a decision, creating a space where the child can explore and grow without risk of excessive harm. Basically the job of the adult is to give a child the things they need when they need it. How do you know when they need it? It’s really simple: You’ll know because they’ll come to you and ask for it.
**For example, my niece wanted to go to the airport with her mother to pick up her father. My sister, forseeing that taking a three year old on a four-hour trip with lots of waiting and driving might end up in tears and anger, said to her, “Sarah, let me tell you what will happen if you go, and what will happen if you stay. Then you can choose which one you want to do. She described the long car drive, the waiting at the airport, the possibility of the fight being delayed, and the long ride back. “And you can see Daddy soon enough when he gets home!” She then described what it would be like to stay at Sarah’s babysitter’s house and everything she could do there.
When Sarah had absorbed all that, my sister said, “Now, of course if you want to, you can come. But if you decide to come, you’re also deciding to agree that you won’t whine, complain or cry about how long it is and how boring it is.” They talked through what that would mean, and talked about how at the babysitter’s she’d be free to run around and do whatever she wanted, she wouldn’t have to sit quietly and be her best grown-up self. In the end, Sarah decided she still wanted to go to the airport, and during the long four hours, she was quiet and patient. She complained only twice, and each time her mother reminded her of their agreement.
Is this a short or easy process? Definitely not! But once all the work was done of sharing information and negotiating what everyone needed out of the situation, it made for a very easy and pleasant trip for the family. More importantly, this kind of conversation builds trust between Sarah and her mother.