It can be difficult to really know how our parenting is going. There are many children who seem to be fine when they are young but then go off the rails, and others who seem rather childish and end up being more mature in the long run. It can be useful to remember that we are raising good adults, and day-to-day events may not necessarily be indicative of our children’s future.
I’ve posted about signs of great parenting in babies and toddlers here: Signs of Great Parenting: Babies and Toddlers.
(Firstly, don’t panic. Often being a good-enough parent is good enough. The information is indicative of things going really well, if it doesn’t match your children – consider how you might make small changes rather than feeling guilty and doing nothing, or dismissing it out of hand because the information makes you feel uncomfortable.)
Children with great parenting, in this age group, are open and enthusiastic about life. They are brave and adventurous, but understand their limitations.
There is no sign of cynicism or sulkiness. They like to spend lots of time with other children their age, but still need to have a strong sense of connection with their parents. They don’t tend to be attention seeking (Attention Seeking is a Big Fat Lie). They greet their parents warmly after separations and have great natural eye-contact with an increasing range of people.
Other adults generally respond to well-parented children of this age, in a calm, matter of fact and age appropriate way. Contrast this response with other children with whom adults often become controlling and angry, or others again whom they indulge, excuse and infantise. (The behaviours of the children illicit these responses from adults – unless the adults are conscious of what’s going on and can deal with them in a more helpful way.)
Likewise, children with great parents can respond to other adults warmly, and meaningfully. Those with an Owl temperament may be reluctant to do so with people they are unsure about, but with those who are familiar and ‘safe’ they will usually engage with others as comfortably as any other child. Owls will still, however, hate being the focus of intense adult attention.
Another great indicator, from the age of four, is their ability to manage delayed gratification. This is an old test, but a good one. Put a treat food in front of your child, say a chocolate biscuit. Tell them they can have this one now or two biscuits in 20 minutes time, and leave them alone with the first lone biscuit. The child who can wait the 20 minutes for two biscuits is doing just fine.
Being cuddly but not clingy at the pre-school to age six stage is a key indicator of healthy parenting. Children may be cuddly to different degrees, but generally a cuddly child is a contented child. This does not give us permission to foist our cuddles on them, however. A truly cuddly child will come to us. If a child is still clingy after the age of four-and-a-half it is unlikely to be because of temperament. (The exceptions would be Owls when tired or in a very new situation: who I would still expect to be clingy under those circumstances, but otherwise fine.) Boring Cuddles ( Quick Way to Stop Children Fussing) are a great strategy for dealing with a clingy child.
The most important thing to remember at this age and stage is that constant independence is NOT a great sign. These children are still developmentally checking in with us: are we as there for them as they need us to be; are we a reliable source of safety – day and night; and are we the constant in their lives. It is feasible that they still want to be with us at night; they still might want help getting dressed some mornings; they might want us to wipe their bottom; they might want to be carried sometimes; and they may want to eat off our plate. It is important to understand the reasons behind what they are doing – it’s not because they are baby-ish or poorly raised – they are checking us out – are we really as there for them as we claim to be. These behaviours are not going to continue forever, and biologically children are built to have our dependency needs met first, and then independence naturally follows. In small bursts. Sometimes in very small bursts.
At some stage between the age of four and a half and six-ish children go through a time where they seem a bit lost. It was suggested to me, and it seemed to hold true for our older children, this was a sign that they were changing how they used their imaginations. Prior to this stage, the stick really was a snake – after this stage they consciously understood they were imagining the stick to be a snake. I was told to be patient. During this period (a few weeks), the children followed me around the house but, like all stages, it passed. Working with them on physical jobs like folding washing, bringing in wood, gardening, sweeping or baking helped us to get us all through with minimal stress.
By the age of six, differences in temperament are beginning to mellow if things are going well. Highly sensitive Owls are not always clingy and shy; Hares are measured in their risk taking; Butterflies don’t use their charm or cute-ness to manipulate; and good old Tortoises are as often outside playing as they are inside eating, sleeping or blobbing out.
And lastly, well-parented children at this stage are happy to comply with reasonable requests, and sometimes volunteer to help out when things need to be done. They still naturally mimic our behaviours, speech and gestures. In their minds, adults are still heroes, who know e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g.
If things at your house don’t seem to match this list, it’s not too late to change direction and follow different advice. Human brains are hugely adaptable: we learn, unlearn and relearn constantly. If things at your house do match this list, you’ve put in the biologically* correct ground work. Keep going in the same direction and from now on, aside from major hiccups, life will be easier for you than for other parents. Congratulations.
* It doesn’t matter if we believe the biological template for great parenting came from God or evolution – it is there, and how well our parenting matches that template directly affects on how well our children develop into moral, healthy, mature, self-assured people.
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