By: Joe Newman
In my last blog I said that our culture had swung its emphasis from teaching children that respecting others (parents, teachers, community members, etc.) to teaching them that respecting themselves was most important, and that either extreme was unhealthy for children.
This swing was a natural reaction to generations of authoritarian parenting. We had grown up with the scars of parenting that judged, shamed, and manipulated us, sometimes with violence. Then we became parents. We looked at our children and said, “I’m going to give my child the thing I so needed – recognition.”
Yet, mental health can be understood as the extent to which a person has developed mutual recognition. Mutual recognition occurs when a person has developed a healthy recognition of self and a healthy recognition of others. These two are internalized and held in tension, one’s own needs and desires and the needs and desires of others. The tension between these two gives rise to emotional regulation, feelings of connection to others, resilience, self-discipline, and intimacy.
When I was in the second grade (1970) I was diagnosed as “hyperactive” (later to be called A.D.H.D.), and even on medication I was very difficult to manage in a classroom. By the time I left high school my sense of my own power and worth (recognition of self) had taken a beating. The authoritarian and judgmental methods teachers used to set boundaries had left scars. After ten years spent repairing those scars the last thing I wanted to do was create them in someone else. My challenge was to set firm boundaries (recognition of others, connection) that also acknowledged and respected the spirit and independence of the child (recognition of the child, power).
The changes in our culture, media, and child rearing that shifted the importance from recognition of others (connection) to the recognition of self (power) have unwittingly caused a fundamental shift in the development of our children’s self-identities. A child’s self-identity can be understood as developing through three stages: oneness, omnipotence, and interdependence.
The first self-identity is oneness because the child does not yet fully recognize the separation between himself and those around him. This stage is from birth to around fourteen months. It is only at around fourteen months that the child realizes that his mother (or primary caregiver) makes her own decisions. Until this point, the mother, while a separate person, seems effortlessly guided by the child’s wishes and desires. The child in oneness will fearlessly crawl off the edge of the table fully expecting to be caught before he hits the floor.
Then, at around fourteen months, the child realizes that he and his mother are independent and he is limited in his abilities and dependent on the mother for his survival. The child’s previous joy and euphoria at being able to explore and exercise his power without fear vanishes with the realization that the mother could decide not to do what the child wants. (Mom could decide not to catch me.)
This anxiety and fear from the toddler’s newly-realized vulnerability drive the child to try and make his world safer by attempting to assert his will over everything. The toddler insists that the parent share everything, validate his discoveries, give in to his demands, and participate in all his deeds. The child often becomes tyrannical in an attempt to get the parents to give him not only everything he needs, but everything he wants. And what he wants is complete control. Because the child has now shifted into imposing his newly discovered willpower over others, but hasn’t yet discovered that others have wants, needs and willpower of their own, this second stage is called omnipotence.
The stage when the child’s self-identity is omnipotent is a stage of conflict. Commonly referred to as the “terrible twos,” it is a battle between the child’s attempt to assert his will over his parents and the parents’ ability to set firm limits and boundaries. (When, as a toddler, I continued to defy my father and, while looking him in the eye, repeatedly put my finger on the electric socket, I was exercising my power from an identity of omnipotence.) Almost all of the problems I see in the children I work with stem from issues that began during the omnipotent stage. However, if parents are successful at setting firm boundaries and in strongly asserting their own will during this stage, the child will shift out of omnipotence and begin the third stage of interdependence at around age three.
The third stage is called interdependence because the child realizes he is both independent of others and dependent on them. At this stage he has realized that others, like himself, have power and desires. He has developed the ability to regulate his emotions and desires in balance with, and in consideration of, the emotions, needs and choices of others.
The key to a healthy transition into interdependence is to preserve in the child a sense of being recognized while bringing him fully into the recognition of others. This state is called mutual recognition and is the basis for healthy psychological functioning.
Children should be transitioning from oneness to omnipotence at around fourteen months old and they should be transitioning from omnipotence to interdependence at around age three. There is some remnant of each identity that remains throughout the child’s life. It is the strength and dominance of each of the different identities that determine how a child views himself and those around him.
Now here’s the problem: most of our nation’s children are not transitioning to the interdependent identity as early and as completely as children did in the past. Consequently, many children’s dominant self-identity remains omnipotent long past age three, and they have underdeveloped abilities for self-control, emotional regulation, and recognition of others. Understanding how a child with a strong omnipotent identity sees and reacts to the world is the key to recognizing how a majority of the psychological disorders suffered by children in this country is the result of –or at a minimum, is greatly exacerbated by –this developmental shift.
In my last blog I said, “Child-centered parenting is dangerous.” What I consider “child-centered” parenting focuses on two things, one of which I support and one which I think is dangerous. The first, empowering children through choices –praise, empathy and language –I support (with some caveats around how praise and choices are used). The second focus, which I find dangerous, is replacing action consequences (that are often frustrating and difficult) with reasoning and conversation (that are usually neither frustrating nor difficult). The problem with this combination is that it strengthens the child while he is still in the stage of omnipotence, while weakening the boundaries that make transition into interdependence possible.
So rather than coming up against boundaries that thwarted his attempts at controlling and dominating those around him, a child’s problem behaviors are often successful in allowing him to get what he wants, which further strengthens his feelings of being more powerful and important than everyone else (omnipotence).
While this may not sound like the basis for a psychological disorder, imagine the implications with a four- or five-year-old. If a child has successfully maintained control through tantrums and manipulation, feigning inability, or through polite conversation, he will rightfully believe that he is the most powerful and capable person in the house/school. If this is true, who is in control of things? The child believes that he is –and the unknown world he is just discovering becomes a place he must control at all costs. A sense of fear and isolation will create anxiety that drives the child to further assert his power and will. This is not a logical, but rather an emotional, decision. Children with a strong omnipotent identity will instinctively push the boundaries and try to control the adults around them until they have transitioned out of omnipotence and into a self-identity dominated by a sense of interdependence.
This shift in our culture of parenting has not affected all children in the same way. It is the most willful children who are at the most risk from this shift. But our parenting is shaping children who are more and more willful. If we want to raise strong empowered children, we must be ready to set firm, action consequences.