When your child is a newborn, it may be difficult for you to imagine her ever growing up, and yet your main purpose as a parent is to encourage, guide and support her growth. She depends on you to provide the food, protection and health care her body needs to grow properly, as well as the guidance her mind and spirit need to make her a healthy, mature individual. Instead of resisting change in your child, your job is to welcome and nurture it.
Guiding your child's growth involves a significant amount of discipline, both for you and for your child. As she becomes increasingly independent, she needs rules and guidelines to help her find what she can do and enlarge that. You need to provide this framework for her, establishing rules that are appropriate for each stage of development and adjusting them as your child changes so they encourage growth instead of stifling it.
Confusion and conflict do not help your child to mature. Consistency does. Make sure that everyone who cares for her understands and agrees on the way she is being raised and the rules she's expected to follow. Establish policies for all her caregivers to observe when she misbehaves, and adjust these policies along with the rules as she becomes more responsible.
Another way you nurture your child's growth is by teaching her to adapt to changes around her. You can help her with this lesson by coping smoothly with change yourself and by preparing her for major changes within the family. A new baby, death or illness of a family member, a new job for a parent, marital problems, separation, divorce, remarriage, unemployment and chronic illness all deeply affect your child as well as you. If the family faces these challenges as a mutually supportive unit, your child will feel secure in accepting change and adjusting to it. By being open and honest with her, you can help her meet these challenges and grow through them.
Minimize Frustrations and Maximize Success
One of the ways your child develops self-esteem is by succeeding. The process starts in the crib with her very first attempts to communicate and use her body. If she achieves her goals and receives approval, she soon begins to feel good about herself and eager to take on greater challenges. If, instead, she's prevented from succeeding and her efforts are ignored, she may eventually become so discouraged that she quits trying and either withdraws or becomes angry and even more frustrated.
As a parent, you must try to expose your child to challenges that will help her discover her abilities and achieve successes while simultaneously preventing her from encountering obstacles or tasks likely to lead to too great a series of frustrations and defeats. This does not mean doing her work for her or keeping her from tasks you know will challenge her. Success is meaningless unless it involves a certain amount of struggle. However, too much frustration in the face of challenges that really are beyond your child's current abilities can be self-defeating and perpetuate a negative self-image. The key is to moderate the challenges so they're within your child's reach while asking her to stretch a bit. For example, try to have toys that are appropriate for her age level, neither too young for her nor too difficult for her to handle. See if you can find a variety of playmates, some older and some younger. Invite your child to help you around the house and have her do chores as she gets older, but don't expect more of her than she realistically can manage.
Do Not Pressure Your Child
As you raise your child, it's easy to get carried away by your hopes and dreams for her. You naturally want her to have the best education, all possible opportunities, and eventually a successful career and lifestyle. But be careful not to confuse your own wishes with her choices. In our highly competitive society, a great deal of pressure is placed on children to perform. Some nursery schools have entrance requirements. In some professions and sports, youngsters are considered out of the running if they haven't begun training by age ten. In this atmosphere, the popularity of programs that promise to turn "ordinary babies" into "super babies" is understandable. Many well-meaning parents want desperately to give their children a head start on lifetime success. Unfortunately, this is rarely in the children's best interests.
Children who are pressured to perform early in life do not learn better or achieve higher skills over the long run than other children. On the contrary, the psychological and emotional pressures may be so negative that the child develops learning or behavioral problems. If a child is truly gifted, she might be able to handle the early learning barrage and develop normally, but most gifted children require less pressure, not more. If their parents push them, they may feel overloaded and become anxious. If they don't live up to their parents' expectations, they may feel like failures and worry that they'll lose their parents' love. Your child needs understanding, security and opportunity geared to her own special gifts, needs and developmental timetable. These things cannot be packaged in a program, and they don't guarantee the future, but they will make her a success on her own terms.
Offer Coping Strategies
Some disappointment and failure are inevitable, so your child needs to learn constructive ways to handle anger, conflict and frustration. Much of what she sees in movies and on television teaches her that violence is the way to solve disputes. Her personal inclination may be either to erupt or withdraw when she's upset. She may not be able to distinguish the important issues from the insignificant ones. She needs your help to sort out these confusing messages and find healthy, constructive ways to express her negative feelings. Begin by handling your own anger and unhappiness in a mature fashion so that she learns from your example. Encourage her to come to you with problems she can't solve herself, and help her work through them and understand them. Set clear limits for her so that she understands that violence is not permissible, but at the same time let her know it's normal and okay to feel sad, angry, hurt or frustrated.
Recognize Problems and Get Help
An enormous challenge, parenthood can be more rewarding and fun than any other part of your life. Sometimes, though, problems are bound to arise, and occasionally you may not be able to handle them alone. There is no reason to feel guilty or embarrassed about this. Healthy families accept the fact and confront difficulties directly. They also respect the danger signals and get help promptly when it's needed.
Sometimes, all you need is a friend. If you're fortunate enough to have parents and relatives living nearby, your family may provide a source of support. If not, you could feel isolated unless you create your own network of neighbors, friends and other parents. One way to build such a network is by joining organized groups, such as "Mommy and Me" and baby gym classes at your local YMCA or community center. The other parents in these groups can be a valuable source of advice and support. Allow yourself to use this support when you need it.
Occasionally, you may need expert help in dealing with a specific crisis or ongoing problem. Your personal physician and pediatrician are sources of support and referral to other health professionals, including family and marriage counselors. Don't hesitate to discuss family problems with your pediatrician. Many of these problems can eventually adversely affect the family's health if not resolved. Your pediatrician should know about them and is interested in helping you resolve them.
Excerpted from Caring for Baby and Young Child: Birth to Age 5, Bantam 1999
© Copyright 2000 American Academy of Pediatrics