In parenting, turbulence is good

When you look at old pictures of yourself, you may wince at your outfits and hairstyles. You may also see a reclusive turning away from the camera or a post-adolescent overconfidence that are no longer part of your adult self.

Old stages and phases are long outgrown and it’s hard to imagine they were once such a critical part of our persona and self-perception. As we went through the stages on our own journeys, we didn’t realize how much they were being influenced by the adults around us. But we didn’t wake up one day and decide on our own that pinching our brothers and sisters or surly responses to adults were out of style. Something, or someone, moved us from there to a new stage, a more mature one.

Parents watch with great interest as their children go through developmental stages. Books and articles describe the “terrible twos” and the righteousness of six-year-olds. But our job is much more than just enduring these stages. Our job is to understand what can be learned from each one and to teach our children how to move through them successfully.

Children develop their standards and values from the standards and values of those they love. Their ability to move from one stage to the next is driven by their search for love and approval. It’s this search that leads them to incorporate the ethics of their parents into their evolving personalities.

Quite simply, they move out of one stage and into another, gradually giving up negative behavior in favor of that love and approval. Stages aren’t magically outgrown; their turbulence slowly weakens as children bump up against the reactions of the significant adults in their lives.

To a two-year-old, things are “bad” either because they bring the disapproval of a loved one or because they result in a punishment. At five or six, a newly developed conscience can be extremely zealous in pushing for fair punishments.

We know that each developmental stage has characteristic patterns of mental and physical growth, of social and emotional behavior and of play and interests and activities. We know that the sequences are relatively consistent from child to child and from culture to culture. So as our children move through these stages, we should attend carefully to the lessons inherent in each one. Our understanding, guidance and ethical coaching are the gentle pushes toward the light at the end of the tunnel.

As your children mature, you’ll see them alternate between calm and turbulence, between equilibrium and disequilibrium. This is rooted in a universal sequence of steps: Explore, practice, achieve skills, stay still and enjoy, regress and explore again. It’s a pattern that repeats itself over and over, even into young adulthood.

So, make peace with the turbulence; the ride is bumpy, but it’s the best one in the world.

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