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shame and growth for the young child – some reflections

I found this in my notebook from September 28th, 2016. I felt this was a good summary (if you can call it that, ha.) of the information I had been accumulating at that time and my synthesis of it regarding creating a positive environment.

In retrospect, I had been a bit harder on Quin due to our experience with her brother. In all fairness, her brother had had more of his needs satisfied as he went from 2 y/o to 3 y/o as, in my hopes of staving off jealousy of his baby sister (Quin), our daily activities were centered around His needs, whilst Quin was largely along for the ride. I was still relatively inexperienced back then with the 2nd child, and as a SAHM, barely having time to myself for reflection, my growth was not as well-rounded as I might have hoped.

I am considering this today due to an observation for assignment that I had conducted, hoping to identify the cause of Quin’s exclusion when a girl who had just turned five comes over to play. In my search concerning the social development of children I came across these passages from Tina Bruce, Carolyn Meggit and J Grenier’s 2010 Child Care and Education:

From 2 to 3 years

  • The child quickly become frustrated – for example, when something does not go well. The child needs a great deal of support from adults (…)

We had speculated that Quin’s personality was coming to the fore when she started throwing tantrums shortly after age two. She was previously a fussy baby but I understood it to be due to indigestion, if not colic, that settled down prior to age one. Often the tantrums were over things perceived out of order, but more often it appeared to be over doing things that she had previously been capable of doing, if not of trying. This was frustrating for me, for I felt that to do things for her would spoil her for doing things for herself. I see now that I had not accessed more specific information regarding her development, for the same textbook mentions:

From 1 to 2 years

  • The toddler loves to do things for him or herself.

As Quin had not yet developed much social interest before, she was content to attempt things driven by her inner guide (Montessori). However, at age two, in between the development of social awareness and drive for independence / autonomy came an awareness of her need for assistance. And when I insisted that she try for herself, she would have a melt down. In retrospect, I feel that I could have been more immediately helpful, as these past few months I have discovered the beautiful side of her personality when we are more supportive of her emotional needs.

This discovery was preceded by a change in my own approach, which (sad to say) came not from the natural maturation of my parenting abilities, but from a crisis in our relationship that arose from MY mistaken approach to her. In this situation, Quin had been, for half a year at least, not wetting her bed and what we considered potty-trained. The bed-wetting then started again. We had her go to potty before bedtime and placed the potty close to her room so she might access it in the night if she needed. We reminded, reasoned and remonstrated. To no avail. The atmosphere in our home was becoming toxic.

And then I read about a Taiwanese mother’s experience with her son’s poop situation, and her detailed use of the Kazdin method. I started preparatory work to apply this method (explain and send reference to husband, buy book on kindle and start reading…) and in my approach I started to change my attitude towards the accidents. We got training pants and when she had an accident we did not emotionally react to the situation, but tried to be supportive. “You can do better next time.”

It particularly struck me at this time how she would : 1. Pretend that it hadn’t happened and insist that it was not wet. 2. Later on, in the process of recovery, look at us very sadly and with some fear when she discovered that she had wet her bed again.

For 1. I realized that it was a protective mechanism. She was lying because she wished it were not true. Having read the article about children and lies beforehand, I understood that children (prior to about 5 or 6 years old, when they begin to be able to fantasize), are not capable of willfully lying. What we thought were lies were actually wishes, and often responses to environmental pressures that they were incapable of resolving. I was sorry that I had put my daughter into such a situation where she had to deny reality in order to cope.

For 2. I saw that she felt shame for having peed her pants. For young children, shame is always an emotion that arises from social referencing – they are learning what is considered unacceptable (lower status behavior) from the reaction of others. While it serves useful for their socialization, our experience proved that it did not help her control her bed wetting. Only served to demoralize her.

Shame is now known as a less effective emotion for behavioral change (growth), particularly for young children. The attendant pressure from shame promotes cortisol, which is shown to inhibit the establishment of neural connections. In converse, dopamine is shown to be effective in helping neural plasticity, which is the ability for the mind to change – learning! It is therefore true that happy children learn best.

While it is possible for some behavioral changes to occur through shame, it is usually more possible through individuals who have better control of themselves, and have a social interest in the matter (ex: teenagers want to fit in). But such a change comes at a cost, a social cost – in giving the individual a sense of inferiority, which predisposes the individual to later ‘bullying’ others in oblique or overt ways in order to regain a sense of self-esteem.

I personally believe shame as an incentive also has costs in preventing someone to fulfill their full potential in development and learning, so that the individual presents with an inferior sensibility. I am inclined to believe this in my observation of cultures (or meta-cultures within larger cultures, such as individual family units) where shame is used as the main tool to inspire behavioral change. The children present as disoriented, or lacking initiative, often frivolous and inefficient, and appear to express below the intellectual capacity of their age group.

When such is removed, the rebound is impressive for young children, as I had observed when I changed my own reaction to Quin’s bed-wetting. Being more neutral concerning the situation, and positively noticing times when she showed behaviors we approved of. It was amazing how, when we stopped noticing it and instead bolstered her self-esteem by noticing her other capabilities, how much she blossomed! She became more vocal, lively, and within two weeks had stopped wetting the bed! Without my even implementing the Kazdin rewards chart system! (which, btw to all behaviorists out there, is meant to be applied ONLY as a temporary support to chronic situations.)

The recent observation showed me something further in her development.

First off, background info: Quin had just turned 3. I observed that Quin had been excluded from the older two children’s play, largely because, developmentally, her play had yet to reach the give-and-take socio-dramatic play level that the other children reveled in. Moreover, the other two children were using English, a language Quin was less expressive in (compared to Mandarin).

But Quin did show an interest in other children playing with her.

From 3 to 4 years

  • They begin to be interested in having friends. (Bruce, Meggit & Grenier, 2010)

As was apparent when she said “But no one is playing with me!” and when she would follow the other children around, and stand there staring at them play. She might have known the words for requesting to join their play, but she was not able to yet utilize it (3rd period in the three period lesson, Montessori). So even if I told her it she is unlikely to be able to use it organically.

At one point she was invited to pull a cart with the other children sitting down. She made a masterful effort, grunting as she tried very hard to pull the heavy cart.

What surprised me when seeing this was how, usually, she would throw a tantrum immediately after she tried and didn’t succeed. This told me that Quin is now able to subsume her own frustration for a greater interest. In this case, social – the opportunity to play with others.

It had come to my attention that after her 3rd birthday, there were less incidences of tantrums over things she wishes we would do for her. It hadn’t entirely gone away yet. But it is a worthy lesson for me to understand that, as much as she has her own personality and always shall, having a meltdown all the time is not an aspect of her TEMPERAMENT, but a developmental phase. It is necessary that I understand their stages and continue to view the children in the most positive potential light possible, so that I do not prove an obstruct to their growth (Montessori).

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