As children reaching their teenage years I notice parents grappling with the question of trust. When do I start trusting my child to.... be alone at the mall with friends, date, drive a car, manage their own money, decide what time to go to bed, be on the internet without me checking up on what they are doing, be responsible for their own homework????
Once again, I have come up with a different question. Why do we stop trusting our children? When our children are born we trust them. If they are screaming we trust that there is something wrong. We work to figure out what is wrong, what they know is wrong and are trying to communicate to get their needs met. We trust a baby to eat when it's hungry and sleep when it's tired.
For some parents the switch to not trusting their child comes very early. They put their trust in the experts or a grandparent or a doctor or a friend instead of their child. These other people who may never have even seen this baby, much less held him and soothed him and looked into his eyes, know more about what this baby needs than the baby could possibly know. They know more than his parents. These very parents who could be learning from their baby, growing in their understandings of his communication and needs and desires, stop trusting him to let them know what he needs. The parents are convinced that the baby needs a feeding schedule and a sleeping schedule and to learn how to sleep alone in his own bed. They ignore their hearts and leave him in a dark room crying. The baby is learning. The baby is learning that he may be hungry but he can't eat until someone else says it's time. That what his body is telling him is not valid. "You can't be hungry already, you just ate 2 hours ago. You need to learn to eat every 4 hours." He is learning that when he is in a dark room scared, or with a gas bubble in his tummy, or just needing the comfort of his parent's heart beat, that using his only form of communication isn't going to work and so he stops trying to get his needs met. He learns that his needs are not as important as other people's in the family. He learns helplessness, not that he can listen to his own body, know what he needs, communicate those needs and someone will pay attention and meet them the best they can right then.
For other parents it happens when their baby starts to explore the world. The baby learns by touching and feeling and putting things in her mouth. The parents start trying to control their child in an effort to make their own life easier or because they think that making a 10 month old behave a certain way will determine his future. "I know you want out of your bouncy seat, but you can wait until I'm done on the computer. Why are you so fussy? " "You dropped your toy and I'm tired of picking it up so you can't have it again until tomorrow." "Eat your food, don't play with it!" The urge to control their child and determine what she needs grows as the child becomes more eager to explore. "You need to eat your peas before you can have any yummy bananas." "It's nap time right now. You have to stay on your bed until I come get you." "We are going to sit in this bathroom until you pee in the potty."
And from there it grows. Parents tell their kids what to eat, when to eat, when to sleep, where to sleep, and often what to wear and what to do as well. Then the parents often step back and trust the school system to take over for a large portion of the day. In school a child is told what to do all day long: when to read, when to talk, when not to talk, when to sit, when to stand, when to eat, when it's possible to go to the bathroom, who they can sit next to, who they will work with, even when to sing and when not to sing. Schools even tell a child when to learn. However, children are learning all the time. At school children are learning to listen to all the outside voices. Their own inner voice that tells them what they need grows so quiet that most of the time they don't even know they have needs anymore. And if they do still listen to their inner voice and try to get their needs met, chances are they will end up in trouble for being disruptive or disrespectful or not following the rules.
What would happen if we never stopped trusting our kids? What would happen if supporting them in getting their needs met was the most important job in our life?
Imagine infants who ate when they were hungry and slept when they were tired and were comforted by the presence of their parents. Toddlers with parents who made their world as safe as possible so that they were free to explore and see just how high they could climb, knowing their parents were right there to catch them. Imagine toddlers who were provided with a wide variety of foods to eat and who were supported in eating what they wanted when they wanted to eat. Children know what they need. It's been proven with studies if you are the kind of person who needs a scientist to tell you something is true. If you don't control a child's food choices, or their eating patterns, they will grow up eating the fuel their bodies need. Did you know that anorexia isn't really about body image? It's about control, and not just control relating to food. What if we never stopped trusting our children?
Imagine children who still recognized their own needs and trusted that those needs could be met. If we trust our children to know what they need, and support them in getting their needs met from birth, the trust grows as the child grows. The child's ability to know what they need grows and their ability to get their needs met grows. When we trust that our child is growing and learning in the way that is best for them the child feels this and doesn't have to feel uncomfortable in their own skin.
Fast forward to the teenage years, w/ lots of years of learning and support and trust preceding them. Teenagers who have a relationship with their parents built on trust, not on control, look different from what you are told to expect a teenager to be. These teenagers know that people's needs are important and support others in getting needs met just as they have been supported. These teenagers don't have to fight for control of their lives. No one else has been controlling them. These teenagers know what is best for them because they've spent the last 13 or more years learning what works for them and what doesn't, figuring out what their needs are and how to get those needs met, learning and growing as they were ready. They haven't been pushed to grow up or held back and told they weren't ready. They have been learning and growing with lots of love and support and trust. Their parents will never have to ask other parents "when should I trust my child to go to the movies alone with a friend?" Actually, their teen probably brought that up first. "Mom, I'd like to go to the movies with my friends. I think I'm ready to do that." Or, as just happened in my house, they may actually enjoy having their dad at the movies along with their friend.