Too often, we mistake children for being little adults rather than tiny, growing humans. We expect for them to have an adult level of self-control and emotional expression, and then we’re frustrated when they act like the kids they are.
We want them to be better children so that we can be better parents, but we’re defining their behavior off an adult set of criteria.
But children aren’t little adults. They’re growing and learning, and their reactions are based on their developmental stage, not on ours. It would be easy to dismiss their struggle, to minimize their emotions, and to tell ourselves that they won’t remember that much of childhood anyway. Maybe we’ve consigned our own childhood to a box in some dark and dusty corner of our memory, never to be opened again, but most people are impacted by their childhood in ways they may never fully realize.
I’m a single mother of two, and I still remember exactly what it felt like to be a child. I try to walk the line between respecting their experience and projecting my own onto it. It’s not easy. I see my own sensitivity in them, and I have to remind myself that my experiences and theirs are already vastly different. I have to learn every day to support and encourage their development while still supporting and encouraging my own as a single mom who’s still learning how to be a parent.
Reminding ourselves that children aren’t tiny adults terrorizing us with their tantrums is always a good place to start.
Children have big feelings and little bodies, and it can be easy to accidentally invalidate those experiences by telling them- by our words or actions- just to get over it. To stop crying. To move on. To forget about it. And yet we, as adults, often get stuck in our own feelings. We may not throw ourselves down in the aisle at the local grocery store and scream about it, but how many hours do we spend venting to friends or posting dark memes on social media to express our own feelings?
Remembering that they are not, in fact, little adults doing things to make our lives harder helps us put their behavior in perspective.
Children learn in natural ways. They test limits and experience the world to learn about it. Their reactions are often primal, and they’ve not yet learned all they need to know about consequences and making good choices.
Children have big feelings and little impulse control, and many of them won’t learn how to express those feelings in healthy ways and utilize effective coping skills unless someone teaches them. Too many of us didn’t learn those skills for ourselves. We have to learn them and then teach them to our children for any hope of having them grow up with a better understanding of regulating their emotions than we had.
They’re not tiny adults, and they also aren’t miniature replicas of ourselves- no matter how strong the physical resemblance.
This may come as a shock to many a stage parent or sideline coach, but there’s a difference between sharing with our children the things we love and encouraging them only to do what we wish we had or the things we love ourselves without giving them the opportunity to explore what they love.
Instead of trying to turn them into who we are or want to be, we’d be better-served learning who they are and who they want to be. Then, we can encourage them to stay true to who they are and become who they want to be. We can support their choices, even if those choices aren’t the ones we’d make in their place.
Being a parent is a learning experience, too.
We’re called upon to do more than just give them shelter, feed them, and buy them clothes. We’re here to support their growth from tiny humans to fully functional, independent adults. They aren’t there yet, and maybe they won’t be for a while. And maybe we think we’re just supposed to teach them what to believe and the difference between right and wrong, but I think that’s too simplistic.
I think we’re here to encourage and support their growth.
We’re here to see them for who they are and figure out a way to help them be secure in themselves.
We’re here to provide them with confidence and unconditional love and to help them understand their place in the world and how their actions impact themselves and others.
We have a responsibility to teach them effective coping skills and good communication, and if we didn’t learn that ourselves, then we have the responsibility to learn it and to teach them.
We’re here to show them the value of kindness and to teach them what healthy love should look like.
We’re here to show them that we’re not perfect by admitting our own mistakes and setting that example.
We’re here, as parents, to help them see their own flaws as challenges and not as unforgivable parts of their humanity.
We’re here to love them, to encourage them, and to help them manage the process of learning how to be little humans before they one day become adults.
Because they aren’t tiny adults. They’re children, and they should have the freedom to be that. We’re the adults, and we can’t be the ones to engage in tantrums (I’m looking at you, adults who spank still despite all evidence that it’s not effective and is, in fact, harmful). We have to be the ones to help them navigate childhood (their own, not ours).
It’s a big job, and there are days we may not feel up to the task. There will be days when we’d love a nap, a time out, or an early bedtime — for ourselves. There will certainly be days when we screw it all up completely and need to take ownership of that. There are more days when we’ll feel like total failures and wonder who thought we were ready to be parents.
But if we can show them how to love by loving them for who they are, if we keep trying to do better, and if realize that we’re supposed to do more than raise tiny miniatures and hold them to our own stage of development, we’re not doing a bad job of parenting at all.
In fact, we might even give ourselves a Good Job sticker for learning and growing and trying really hard to be good parents. The failures? They’re an opportunity for us to learn how to be better and for our tiny humans to see that even adults aren’t perfect. We’re all learning, after all.