Sometime around the age of three a child begins to become self-aware. From the moment they are born they slowly begin to become aware of the world around them – first it’s simply an awareness of their environment – the lights, the temperature, everything has changed and they are uncomfortable. But the baby quickly becomes aware of Mom – the source of nourishment and comfort and warmth. Their awareness, and thus their world, continues to grow as they become aware of Dad, siblings and then strangers – oh no! Strangers. It’s more an awareness of “not” rather than an awareness of “is”. The baby simply knows that the stranger is “not”. Not Mom, not Dad, not siblings, not grandparents…just not.
Around the age of 3 a child begins to become aware of themselves. It’s a very subconscious awareness and subconsciously they begin to ask the question – who am I? I know who Mom and Dad are, but who am I? If I am also “not” – well, that’s a bad thing! So the child begins to try to figure out who they are. To define themselves.
Imagine you find yourself in a completely dark room. You cannot see anything – there’s not even a pinhole of light. What is the first thing you would do? You might sit down where you are and do nothing, thinking that’s the safest thing to do. But after a little while, you might start crawling on your hands and knees (because although you know nothing else about the room, you know it has a floor, so that’s probably a safe place to be) and you inch around the room trying to get a feel for how big it is, if there is anything or anyone else in the room.
Once you’ve determined the parameters of the room and that it’s as safe as a completely black room can potentially be, especially if hours or days have elapsed, you are likely to stand up and begin to explore the walls of the room – pushing on them to see if there is any give – if there’s any opening through which you might escape to your freedom – and to light.
For a young child, the world is very much like this completely dark room – it’s an unknown and its uncomfortable. Excruciatingly uncomfortable. So, the child begins to push. They push on everything. Things that don’t move and things that move, trying to figure out where the door to freedom is.
I recently received a frantic message from a mother of an almost three-year-old toddler. The parents have been having a battle with the child every morning. The child was refusing to get dressed. Child was getting to daycare late, Mom was getting to work late, and it was pretty traumatic for the whole family. Things had been escalating to the point where the Mom feared not being able to get the child dressed at all – and that would be a problem!
So, she called me and asked what to do. I suggested that she give her child the autonomy he was looking for – the battle was over clothing, so I recommended that she tell him that he has to go to daycare because Mom has to go to work – there is no choice there. But, if he doesn’t want to get dressed, he doesn’t have to. She would just take him to daycare naked.
The concerned Mom asked me, “what if he says ok and is willing to leave the house naked?” It was a very valid concern, and I dare say that the likelihood was very high. I suggested that she take his clothes in a separate bag and take him to daycare naked (with a diaper on, of course). When she gets to daycare, she explains to the caregiver the situation and give her the clothes to dress the child. Chances of the child wanting to remain naked in the presence of a classroom of clothed children was very small.
Well, apparently that did it. His desire for autonomy when it came to getting dressed was outweighed by his desire not to leave the house naked – that, he had already learned was not socially acceptable. So, he allowed his mother to get him dressed without fighting and went to daycare with a much happier Mom.
Now, will that work in every case? Of course not! It depends on what the issue is that the child is working through and sometimes it’s very hard for a parent to translate the behavior into a concept that can be addressed. But understanding what is driving the behavior in the first place is a start to understanding and a key to Parenting Intentionally.