He for she – redressing gender inequality

Many of you will be aware of the #heforshe# campaign instigated by none other than Hermione Granger of Harry Potter fame – aka Emma Watson. Clearly as clever outside her famous role, this formidable young lady makes a number of pertinent points about the gender inequality that is still rife in the world, ways to address it, and the need to enlist ‘a few good men’.

In fact, she might well have channeled my own thoughts, so closely does her wording follow the argument I’ve been having inside my head, and with a few brave friends, for the past 15 years. I’ll leave it in her capable hands. Click on the link below to listen to her impressive speech to the UN.

Emma Watson on gender inequality

Vulnerability

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Salvatore Vuono at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Yesterday, I received a stark reminder of just how vulnerable I still am, and how close to the surface my fears and anxieties yet reside. It was a simple MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging) I was to undergo and I arrived at the radiology centre in a relaxed state with my 12 year old granddaughter in tow, chatting happily about anything and nothing.

I made the obligatory joke about how fetching was the gown I had to wear and how it complemented the colour of my stockings. The assistant, a lovely young woman, handed me earplugs and fitted me with ear muffs to deal with the excessive noise I was assured the magnets would make, secured my head in position, and instructed me to just close my eyes and zone out. At that point, the equipment began to slide me, conveyer-belt style, into the belly of something akin to a mechanical coffin. I’d been warned it might not be pleasant but I’m normally not claustrophobic, so was well-prepared.

Or so I thought. Continue reading

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt – 18 months to 3 years

Cranky child

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles/FreeDigitalPhotos.com

Goodbye sweet baby and hello terrible twos! This stage of childhood development is notorious for its often sudden and confusing onset, as well as for the tumult it leaves in the wake of tantrums, defiant behaviour and general hijinks. Even though we’re told to expect it, many parents still find themselves dumbstruck, asking each other and whoever else will listen, ‘Where has my placid, good-natured baby gone? And is she going to be like this forever?’

The answer, of course, is that she’s still there somewhere, waiting for you to help her through this awkward stage, which is every bit as difficult for her as it is for you, and that, no, she shouldn’t be like this forever; though we all know adults who can throw a memorable tantrum! Perhaps they never resolved this particular psychosocial stage and so remain locked in it, forever at the mercy of their own uncontrollable emotions. That’s not a fate we want for our children.

Erik Erikson called the period of time between approximately 18 months and 3 years of age, a stage of ‘autonomy versus shame and doubt’. The child is just beginning to realize that she isn’t a part of mummy and daddy, that she is a separate human being with a whole set of unique needs. Her task is to develop the skills to maintain a healthy will. She needs to accomplish certain tasks for herself, without the help of her parents and to be able to set boundaries that define her as separate. That’s where that jarring ‘No!’ comes in.

Rather than taking it personally and becoming locked into an ongoing battle of wills with your child – a battle that no-one can win – it makes more sense to understand where she’s coming from and how imperitive it is for her to go through this stage and come out the other side with a sense of accomplishment and autonomy. As she grows into an adult, that autonomy will stand her in good steed as she negotiates a world that will often want to prevent her from achieving her goals. A self esteem that includes a balance between independence and connection with others, will allow her to reach her goals while still maintaining healthy relationships.

This time of life is a period of rapidly growing brain function. Nerve connections are advancing at a truly amazing rate as children gain more control over their bodies and acquire new skills, particularly language. But because their motor skills are still developing it can be a frustrating time for parents as they learn to stand back and let their children try out their newfound abilities. Many of us want to rush in and get the job done quickly, or to rescue our child from the pain of struggle. The reality is, however, that we’re really rescuing ourselves, not our children. It’s our own anxiety we want to put an end to. That might be a bitter pill to swallow for those of us who prefer to think of ourselves as helpers, wanting to cushion the rocky path for our little ones so they don’t stumble and fall, but the look of sheer determination that we see on the faces of our little ones should tell us that they’re more than up for the challenge. In fact, when we step in and do things for them that they’re capable of doing themselves, we end up causing them untold frustration. More importantly, we give them a very clear, unspoken message – that we don’t believe in them.

A good rule of thumb for any stage of our childrens’ development is: Never do anything for them that they’re capable of doing themselves. This is contrary to the popular belief promoted by pop psychologists ie that a child’s self esteem is acquired through constant praise. The research shows clearly that self esteem is developed through feelings of ‘self efficacy’. What that means is that when children and adults acquire new skills, they feel good about what they’ve accomplished – this, in turn, raises feelings of self worth and self esteem. It’s still important to acknowledge our childrens’ conquests with warmth and a timely ‘well done’, and to encourage their efforts so they don’t give up. However, going overboard with a barrage of, ‘Wow, aren’t you fantastic, amazing, brilliant!’ every time they remember to pick up their shoes, simply doesn’t ring true – and the kids are painfully aware of it.

Despite their roaring voices and volatile behaviour, toddlers this age are really vulnerable. They can easily be shamed by parents who criticize their efforts or take over a child’s attempts to learn a new skill. As difficult as it is, we need to be wary of our own frustrated outbursts. We’ve all been guilty of this at some time during our children’s lives. An exhausted, bleary eyed parent with a headache can be forgiven for saying, ‘Oh for goodness sake! Let me do it,’ while watching their child fumble with their shirt buttons for the twentieth time in a minute. But by and large, we need to do our best to prevent our children from feeling ashamed of their efforts.

The area in which this is most crucial is, naturally, toilet training. While Erikson doesn’t agree with Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, he does agree that if we’re shamed in the process of toilet training (as in learning other important skills), we may end up feeling ashamed of ourselves and doubt our capabilities. The result can be a lifelong struggle with low self-esteem.

My next post focuses on the ages between 3 and 5 years, a time when it’s all about play, play, play! Yet, as much fun as that sounds, if the social conflicts of this particular stage aren’t resolved in a satisfactory manner, a child can be left with a pervasive sense of guilt.

Next post: Initiative vs Guilt

Until then, thank you for visiting.

Trust vs Mistrust – the first stage of human development

It is human to have a long childhood; it is civilized to have an even longer childhood. Long childhood makes a technical and mental virtuoso out of man, but it also leaves a life-long residue of emotional immaturity in him.

Erik Homburger Erikson (1902-1994)

ImageImage courtesy of David Castillo Dominici/FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Before a child is born, it experiences ever-present security, warmth, nourishment and comfort from within its mother’s body. During this glorious time, there is no fear, no unmet need, no threat and no frustration. Then suddenly, a helpless baby is expelled into a world of bright lights, unfamiliar faces and voices, hard surfaces, discomfort, hunger and thirst. Danger lurks at every turn. No wonder we enter the world screaming.

At this very first stage of a child’s journey through life, it is a parent’s primary responsibility to instill a sense of trust in their little ones; trust in other human beings, in the world that surrounds them, and ultimately in themselves. Long before babies can talk, they are learning. Is the world a safe place or is it full of unpredictable events and accidents waiting to happen?

This stage, which lasts from birth until approximately 18 months, is one that parents do, at least, receive some training for – through antenatal classes, talking with midwives at baby clinics and via parenting magazines that are readily available on newsagent shelves. (Rarely do these publications go beyond the scope of the first few years of childhood.)

Building trust may seem like a daunting obligation because it is so crucial for the healthy development of a child’s personality, and later happiness. Yet, despite the sleep-deprivation and anxiety that almost invariably accompanies early parenting, the initial steps toward helping a child become a trusting, and trustworthy human being are relatively simple. In short, babies need to be given food when hungry and drink when thirsty; they need to be kept comfortably warm but not too warm; they need to have nappies changed regularly; they need both their bodies and their environments to be kept clean; they need to be kept safe from harm and they need to be comforted when they’re in pain, or are lonely or frightened. Some infants need to be rocked to sleep if they’re unable to settle themselves, and all babies, without exception, need the tender loving touch of, and eye contact with, other human beings, particularly the primary care givers.That’s usually mum and dad. And that’s really all there is to it.

It’s worth pointing out though, that in spite of our best efforts, no child negotiates this stage having had every single need met, every single time. There will be times when baby must wait to be fed – perhaps mother is driving or in the middle of grocery shopping. There will also be times when it’s necessary to wake a baby up in the middle of a nap because brothers and sisters need to be picked up from kindergarten or school, or for any number of plausible reasons. Often too, it’s just not possible to know why a baby is crying. Is it colic? Is it teething? A headache or sore throat?

Relax. While it’s true that the care we give our children needs to be consistent, predictable and reliable, if we provide a basically stable environment in which needs are generally met, a child will pass through the first 18 months of life with a basic sense of trust intact. This, in turn, gives him hope for the future and the capacity for healthy relationships.

Sadly, if a child fails to experience trust and is constantly frustrated because his needs are not met, he may end up not only fearful of the world and people in general, but also with a deep sense of worthlessness. As well as having no confidence in the world around him, he will doubt his own ability to influence events, leading to feelings of helplessness and hopelessness. This is what we see when we encounter children who have been neglected or abused. We see the fear in their eyes and the dejection in their steps. It may take years to gain their trust, or perhaps we never will. They underachieve and are over-represented in the juvenile justice system because they don’t believe in, or trust themselves. Their self-worth is heart-breakingly fragile and unless they receive a lot of guidance in later years, they carry this mindset throughout adulthood. And perhaps not surprisingly, research on suicides and suicide attempts point to the importance of the early years in developing the primary belief that the world and its people are trustworthy, and that all human beings have a right to be here.

While abuse and outright neglect are extreme examples of parents failing to meet their responsibilities, there are other parents who, through ignorance or circumstances like physical or mental illness, poverty, or being stuck in unsafe environments, may inadvertantly foster degrees of mistrust and low self-worth in their children. The good news is that the capacity for learning and personal growth continues until we die or lose our mental faculties. The bad news, of course, is that it’s very difficult to unlearn the deep-seated fears and feelings of worthlessness that develop as very young children; then to replace these with new habits of trust and a sense of worthiness. It takes a lot of work and consistent support from therapists, friends and significant others.

In third world countries where poverty and starvation are the norm, or in war-torn and disaster torn nations, parents are genuinely unable to provide the consistent and reliable care a baby needs; but in environments where basic survival is assured and the people have been educated, ignorance is a choice. To help you stay informed, I’ll continue this series with my next post:

Autonomy vs Shame and Doubt: 18 months to 3 years