The United States of Children

Even though I am not a child psychologist, my work as a psychologist has intensified my devotion to children. One experience that (I sincerely hope) is common among therapists is that through our work, we develop a deep awareness of the rippling effects of childhood experiences. In my office, for instance, I hear endless tales that link psychological symptoms to earlier childhood experiences. These stories (shared with me by my brave and strong patients) have shown me, time and again, that we have to do a better job with our children. Because how we treat them has a direct effect on how they will feel about themselves, what they will expect from relationships, and how they will treat others (including their own children) as they age.

But, how? How can we do a better job?

American culture needs to develop an open discourse about child development. Most parents enter parenthood with very little, if any, knowledge of the stages that children go through as they grow. And this is a shame. A crying shame. Because there are vast stores of information about childhood freely available to us. It goes without saying that psychologists and neuroscientists and pediatricians and anthropologists and sociologists (among others) have been studying and categorizing children’s development for decades. We know about brain development, cognitive development, social development, emotional development, motor development, and moral development. We even know about the development of cognitive feats such as deception. That’s right: lying is a cognitive developmental milestone! There are clearly delineated stages for all of these trajectories. And we must understand them and help our children to navigate them well.

So, why is the vast information on child development not commonly dispersed? Why is it not talked about freely, as a matter of course in our society? I find this incomprehensible, because children have a right to be understood. And we can’t understand them without this basic, simple, readily-available knowledge.

Our ignorance about child development does our children a tremendous disservice. In my practice, the single most effective intervention I make with parents is to give them basic education about the developmental stage of their child. When a parent understands their child’s behavior within a developmental context, their patience with their child grows, and their compassion and empathy for their child is restored. It is quick. It is simple. It is an effing no-brainer.

I hope that in my lifetime, our society will begin to take a hard look at the ways that we can do better by our children. One start, one very simple start, would be to introduce the basics of child development into our cultural language.

If you agree with me, then I recommend that you read this recently-published book:

“The Children’s Bill of Emotional Rights” by Eileen Johnson.

I’m sure I will get back to this book in future blogs, but quickly… Johnson lends clear and simple insights into understanding and communicating effectively with children. Her formulas are straightforward and no-nonsense, encouraging respect for children while offering advice for how to raise them into psychologically healthy adults.

Do our future a favor: read it. And then tell your friends and neighbors what it says.

©2013 Stephanie A. Heck, Ph.D.

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