The Exponential Impact of A Child

Dano Jukanovich

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Do not worry that children never listen to you, worry that they are always watching you.

Robert Fulgham, Author

Research recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences indicates that for fathers acting as primary caregivers, the part of the brain responsible for “vigilance and reward” and for “interpreting a child’s needs” show increased activity., According to Ruth Feldman, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, the neurological structures within the father’s brain literally change as he fills the primary caregiver role.

A Child Produly Saluting

When I got a call from the principal asking if I was available to come to school “right now” to help comfort my daughter, my heart sank. When I arrived, I could hear her screaming from down the hall. As I stepped into the room, she was highly agitated, not in control of her emotions, wandering around the room tipping over chairs and screaming about how she hated this place and her teachers. I was heartbroken for her pain and panicked not knowing how to quickly de-escalate things in this public space. We survived the immediate crisis, left the room and headed toward the car. As soon as the door shut, I could no longer hold back the tears, full of sorrow for what she was going through. My emotions were so raw and uncontrollable. According to the research, it was because my brain chemistry was literally changing. The natural human imperative is for ourselves to become less as others become more.

Investing in Relationship

Training and Time

“I’m so angry right now. I keep messing up. I’m no good. It’s not fair.” Those are some of the phrases describing what my five-year-old feels when he gets in trouble, even if he can’t verbalize them. A couple of mine and my wife’s go-to consequences for him are push-ups and time-outs. The process goes something like this: the family sitting at the dinner table and Nate doing something he’s not supposed to do or not doing something he is supposed to do. After a few opportunities, he gets sent to time-out on the front entry stairway and told that he can self-select when to return after he has thought about what he was doing wrong and is ready to do it differently. We expect a five-year-old to engage in this complex process of introspection, to decide when he has achieved an appropriate level of contrition. It is utterly irrational. Usually he forgets why he’s sitting there and after being reminded, returns and apologizes. Substitute timeout for push-ups depending on the context. In most cases, at the beginning of the engagement, Nate is either visibly angry (tears, grunts, and stomping feet) or clearly dejected. He usually returns with some mix of artificial and genuine contrition. Mission accomplished. Behavior change achieved and maybe even character change achieved. Not really.

Consider the unreasonable expectations and illogic of the whole concept of time-outs: we take children who emotionally need connection and who cognitively need direction and have them sit alone until they are able to succeed. When we send them away, we teach them not to trust us as someone they can lean on in times of trouble. We effectively teach them to disassociate and we wonder why when they are 14, we no longer have a relationship with them. With a time-in, we still create structure and accountability and ask the child to consider what it was he did wrong. But we never break the cognitive and emotional connection to the child. The difference is as simple as us staying in the same room within a few feet of the child, allowing him to actually process what happened without the overwhelming distraction of being segregated from his relational source of strength. With a time-in we communicate that we will not abandon them. We teach them how to solve problems for life – go to the problem and figure it out together.

But when the rubber meets the proverbial road and parents are faced with total defiance and disrespect, it seems this trust-based approach to parenting needs to transition into coerce-and-reward. Karyn Purvis, author of The Connected Child, disagrees, arguing that when faced with that defiant child, we need to look first for opportunities to playfully redirect and if that doesn’t work, for opportunities to compromise. But why reward that child’s bad behavior with compromise? Trust-based parenting would say the “goal is to give that child a voice and to connect with them and to do shared problem solving, not to use force. If we have relationship, we don’t need force.”

Play, Money and Words

Dr. Stuart Brown, Founder of The National Institute for Play, makes a compelling case that play signals are actually the basis of human trust. It is out of these trust-based relationships with our children, with our colleagues, and even our oppressors, that we are able to change character. 

True confessions – my wife and I seldom think strategically about how our kids’ activities will launch them on a life trajectory of valuing others. If anything, we are thinking almost entirely about what will be in our children’s best interests and implicitly encouraging them to do the same.

Beyond quality and quantity of time, play and purpose, our words may matter most of all. We all know this intrinsically. When we use language that communicates empathy, curiosity and guidance, our children know their needs are being considered; they feel respected, worthy, and loved unconditionally. When we use language that communicates judgment and evaluation, we discount feelings and needs. Our children feel controlled; they sense our love is conditional. This language disrupts the connection with that most important person relative to whom the child defines himself.

Parents are the case study for losing ourselves in something greater than ourselves. They personify relationship as the pre-eminent means of building character. 

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