Posted by Kesang Menezes who is a facilitator at Parenting Matters and mother of two girls aged 11 and 15.
In our last article we shared the story of a mother who did not feel comfortable about pushing her children to learn swimming in a way that was distressful for the child. So she waited till her children were ready and motivated to learn without being forced.
This kind of incident brings us to a dilemma that parents face all the time. Should I push my child? When is it ok to push? If I do not push, won't my child lag behind? Do children ever do things if not pushed?
To understand this dilemma better, let us look at the beliefs we hold which lead us to push our children. How true are they? Do we need to reconsider some of them?
BELIEF 1: Children do not know what is good for them. They will not work for their self development unless they are pushed.
Actually, most research on child development has proved the contrary. Over 100 years ago,Dr. Maria Montessori observed that when children were presented with toys and appropriate
learning material, they actually chose to engage with the learning material rather than the toys. She discovered that this was because every child has a fundamental desire for self development.
Every developmental psychologist will tell you that children have their own motivation. But we are not able to really believe that. Would man have reached this pinnacle of achievement without inner motivation? How did we reach from being apes to being able to go into space?
It is the basic human drive that exists in all human beings starting from birth. We do not need to tell a baby that he is six months old and hence must now try to turn over. We do not need to prompt him to learn to communicate or to learn to walk. Obviously every child has an inner timetable which drives him to become like the adults he is surrounded with. And if this is true – THAT EVERY CHILD IS CONSTANTLY WORKING TOWARDS HIS OWN DEVELOPMENT- then why do we need to constantly push our children?
Maybe if we parents took a step back and watched what motivates our child, we would actually discover a great deal. Think about the time your child wanted to climb to the highest part of the jungle gym while you had your heart in your mouth! That's the inner motivation we need to harness. That is the inner motivation that gets buried in later years due to unrealistic expectations and constant pressure to perform.
Belief 2: Children may be motivated, but not for the things that matter. They only care about play.
So another reason we push is because the child may not show motivation in those things which we believe to be best for him. A parent of a young boy may say, "He is only interested in playing with his cars. I have to force him to practice writing." Why can't we take into to consideration
the kind of learning that is happening when that child plays with cars? He runs it over different types of surfaces and watches where it goes fast and slow. That's basic physics where he discovers friction and speed and incline. The more we watch children we will realize that every activity the child takes on has meaning and is helping his development- even digging a hole in the mud! Dr. Montessori wisely said "follow the child." (Not expect them to follow us). And Montessori schools all the world have proved that when we follow the child, we find that she
moves on her own to take up every challenge with interest and dedication- including reading and writing. Why is that hard to believe?!
It is our anxiety (and comparison to others) which comes in the way of allowing the child to develop at his own pace.
BELIEF 3: Children are like clay. It's the parent's job to mould them.
As we have already discussed above, science shows that children are not pieces of clay or empty slates. They are born with their own personalities, talents and drive to grow. But we do not trust that. We believe that if a child is not thrown into the deep end when he is three, he
will never learn how to swim and nor will he have any desire or motivation to do so on his own. And with that thinking we enroll them in every class possible as well as push them to study. We truly believe that this is the role of a good parent- giving my child that edge. As a result our interactions with our children become focused solely on our own expectations about what they should achieve, leading to constant lectures and nagging.
What then is the alternative?
Can we ask ourselves if this really is the best way to parent? What would happen if I followed my child's cues? What if I believed that she deserves to be trusted in choosing what to do or learn and when. And that she will learn with complete interest when the time is right.
Is that vast exposure and cutting edge I want to give my child really in his or her best interests or is it more to do with my fears and my ego that my child must be the best.
The point of this article is not to be moralistic about whether pushing our children is right or wrong. Neither is it to advocate that we should never do it. There may be times when we might feel our children need a gentle push (I would prefer to call it encouragement). But what if at
most times we believed and trusted them a lot more. What if we redefined our role to be one not of "pushers" but "facilitators" who help what is best in the child to come out (at its own pace!)
Just like a gardener would not pull the leaves of a plant to make it grow but nurture it with the right soil, fertilizer and sunlight. We could see our job as parents more in terms of nurturing and providing the right environment. The right environment is one in which there is very limited exposure to addictive materials such as video games and TV since these will come in the way of the child's natural desire to work. It should be rich in materials which allow children to explore and work with their hands as well as provide plenty of opportunities for social interactions.
Footnote: In our experience of facilitating parent groups over the last ten years we have numerous stories from parents who decided to step back and support their child's inner motivation. They are always amazed at the challenges their children take up and the choices and decisions they make. From the smallest things such as taking responsibility for their own eating or getting ready for school to larger more important choices. Most of all these parents treasure the change in the relationship with their children when they move from pushing to trust. They say, "It's not easy but once you discover how capable your child is, you just keep going."