While these games may seem like child’s play, they actually teach children very important lessons for this stage of development. Games like Grandmother’s Footsteps and What’s the Time Mr. Wolf? enable six and seven year olds to begin to consciously regulate and control their own impulsivity. Playing games like these helps them find their way into this region of childhood where a new awareness is dawning. Older brothers and sisters also teach their younger siblings these important lessons. Young children instinctively know if they want to play with the older children, they must follow the rules. They understand that they can’t just do what they feel like doing.
One popular and revealing game for children at this age is Simon Says. To be successful at Simon Says, children must be able to resist the impulse to imitate. In doing this, they are being asked to exercise control over what was previously, in the early childhood years, an uncontrollable urge. In this game, it is not acceptable just to do what others do. A child whose urge to imitate is immediate and unrestrained and who simply mimics the movement of hands to the head or hands to the knees, is out of the game.
Recently, I was in downtown Washington, D.C. on a weekend afternoon when I came upon a cluster of inner-city boys, some teenagers, some younger, all dressed in baggy trousers and hooded sweatshirts. They were rollerblading on the pavement. Each one got a turn to skate quickly down the pavement, and then suddenly leap up about fifteen inches, do a 360 degree spin and land on the long flat ledge of a rectangular stone planter. At this point, they continued skating another ten feet before leaping back down. They did this in perfect order, one after another, at even intervals of about twenty seconds. No one argued, no one pushed, no one went out of turn. The older boys had simply worked out the arrangement on their own and the younger ones followed suit.
“Learning through play In years past, neighbourhoods, schoolyards, streets and playgrounds all provided informal opportunities for children to play in unstructured and unsupervised multi-age settings”
Learning through play
In years past, neighbourhoods, schoolyards, streets and playgrounds all provided informal opportunities for children to play in unstructured and unsupervised multi-age settings, situations that enabled them to teach each other important lessons. Today, there is less of this, as we tend to plan and regulate our children’s playtime. However, even without the benefit of informal, child-led opportunities such as these, we can expect children to acquire the ability to suppress what they feel like doing and do what they need or are expected to do.
If we look at the words of Daniel Goleman, author of the bestselling book Emotional Intelligence, we see that this learning has implications for who our children will be as adults. “There is growing evidence that fundamental ethical stances in life stem from underlying emotional capacities; the seed of all impulses is feeling bursting to express itself in action,” he writes. “Those who are at the mercy of impulse – who lack self-control suffer moral deficiency. The ability to control impulse is the basis of will and character.”
Another place where children used to be able to learn this lesson, so fundamental to self-discipline, was in school. Today, however, that appears to have changed, in the US at least. In a large city school where I worked recently, it was common for some students to come to class ten minutes late. When one English teacher asked a tardy student to give her a note explaining his lateness, the student wrote: “I was late because I forgot what time it was. If you don’t like it, so what.” Teachers can attest that this sort of response is not unique and that our standards for acceptable behaviour are declining.
Without schools or playgrounds to teach these lessons, parents are left to do the important work on their own. Children now depend almost entirely on parents to teach them how to discriminate between what they feel like doing and what they shouldn’t do. During the second phase of childhood from around the age of six or seven, this is a parent’s essential undertaking.
Having stated that young people need to learn to separate what they feel like doing from what they actually do, I hear a voice within me rising up in disagreement. It reminds me that there are times when the opposite statement is also true, when we should marry our feelings to our actions, do what we love and pursue our passionate interests. In fact, those instances may be the most important undertakings of our lives.
The distinction I want to make is this: if, during the course of childhood children haven’t been helped to develop the capacity to finish their homework or the job they’re doing even when friends are outside playing, they may not be able to distinguish between those special moments when they need to follow their heart and those other times when they need to just say, “No”. This is a complex understanding that only develops over time. It requires a higher form of intelligence, one that depends on the maturation of our brains. But it is also highly dependent on the willingness of mothers and fathers to assume the role of parental authorities and to help children learn these lessons at an early age.
The word authority has the same root as the words author and authentic. They all derive from the Latin word auctorias, which translates to author, authority or originator. When the word authority is connected to authorship and authenticity, it begins to lose its stigma and can be seen as a creative, original position of influence through which parents try to convey their deeply held, heartfelt values to their children. To find these values which are at the heart of authentic discipline, parents need to do some soul-searching, both at the beginning of the parenting journey and along the way, especially at those moments when we feel the aching disappointment that tells us that something in our parenting is not right. If we take the time to explore these feelings, we will discover our aspirations and longings as parents. These longings are integral to authentic parenting and at the core of what will make us authorities in the truest sense.
Good parenting is not about an elaborate, delineated system of beliefs; rather it is about simple understandings. These can be as simple as how we speak to each other, how we share the work that needs to be done in the home and how we meet and interact at the dinner table. Once these core values emerge, then we begin to author the script (call it a family mission statement) that allows these values to become real in our home. Because these values are unique to us, our script is original; we are the authors. We don’t embrace these values to impress others or to oppress our children, but rather to quietly convey to those dearest to us what we believe is important and what we hope, one day, they will value as well.
Importance of family
The busyness of modern life often keeps us from paying attention to what is most important. We move from the school run to work, from shopping to children’s football. We don’t have time to reflect. But sometimes events intervene – an illness or the death of a loved one – and make us stop and take stock of what truly matters. Tragic events teach us most emphatically that life is too short to ignore what matters most – our family. It is out of this commitment that we take up our parental responsibility of being an authority for the sake of our children. Then, with keen and sensitive observation, regular introspection and repeated conversations with our spouse or other involved adults, we create a home that reflects what we value, with the understanding that in the long run these values will support and gladden the hearts of everyone in our family.
Effective parenting continually evolves. In the first phase of childhood, from birth to around the age of seven, what matters most is what we do. Our actions and our willingness to be actively involved with our children are of greatest significance. More will be asked of us in the second stage of childhood. What we do with a child of seven, eight or nine still matters, but what we feel – that is, what we convey emotionally – matters most of all.
Our feelings and the way in which we express those feelings will instruct our children. All the admirable emotional qualities that we want our children to develop, qualities like empathy, resilience, joyfulness and gratitude are best taught by example. Our emotional life matters to children because they are keenly sensitive to what we feel. They will detect our feelings in our facial expressions, in our tone of voice, even in our posture. That is why we can be standing in the kitchen doing the same thing we have done a hundred times before and our children, detecting a different mood, will ask, “Is something wrong, Mummy?” During the middle stage, the heartland of childhood, children will experience the world strongly through feelings.
Strengthening the bonds
Family time plays a significant role in our parenting in the second phase of childhood. It provides us with the opportunity to strengthen the emotional bond that we have with our children. The emotional bond that forms between a parent and child through shared activities, celebrations and experiences will warm and soften all the discipline that is needed at this stage.
This is key because parental authority is not a position that we just assume. It is one that is given to us by our children and we must earn it. When our children are young, they grant us authority out of their childlike love and devotion. But as they grow older – nine, ten and beyond – our authority will depend more on how we respond to disciplinary situations. If we are calm, consistent and caring, our children will continue to accept our guidance. If we are rushed, tense and short tempered, resistance will surface. As children grow, their acceptance of authority is more selective. This acceptance of authority will last if it is based on love and respect, not on fear of punishment. And remember, as our children grow, they need to test boundaries and limits.
Jack Petrash is the father of three children and grandfather of two. He and his family live in Maryland, USA. He has over 25 years of experience in the classroom as an educator and has written extensively on education and parenting. This is an extract from his book Navigating the Terrain of Childhood.