Phases in Childhood

In frustration, my husband recently asked, “When is she ever going to learn to obey?” I smiled and said: “She is learning… we just have to keep teaching. In child development, there is no such thing as a phase."

Phases, as they are called, are the child’s attempt at pushing the limits of their autonomy. These must be dealt with firmly, decisively and consistently, because the end result of each “phase” is a piece of the puzzle that will one day soon make up the child’s character.

The wise parent will not dismiss a child’s behavior simply because of the child’s immature age. Instead, the parent will be ever vigilant to teach their young child right from wrong, good from bad, appropriate from inappropriate, acceptable from unacceptable – holy from unholy – be it words, behaviors or attitudes.

Recently, we have been dealing with our daughter’s tendency to lift up her little skirt. Usually she has a pair of shorts underneath, but still we don’t want her to be flashing anyone! I’ve tried to be creative in how I explain why we don’t lift up our skirt in front of others: We want people to see our faces and smiles, not our legs, not our panties, not our bottoms… Nevertheless, the behavior is repeated from time to time.

I’m determined to be consistent and I refuse to get angry and I refuse to say “she’s just four” and let it go. Not long ago I was ever so grateful for my determination. We sat in a small restaurant visiting with a close friend over a simple meal. Several times I had to remind our daughter to keep her legs and skirt down, each time reminding her why and how we should behave.

We had finished our meal when suddenly the televisions in the restaurant were turned on. The show appeared to be a drama about dance competitions. Our daughter was transfixed at watching the dancing girls. Several times, I redirected her attention by playing with her. Then, we heard the loud beating of drums. I glanced up at the screen. The dance being performed was very fast-paced; the dancer’s head was rolling about her shoulders as if uncontrolled; her hands and arms lifting up the front of her dress as her legs moved wildly to the beat.

My daughter’s eyes were wide as she looked first at the screen, then at me. “She’s lifting up her dress,” she exclaimed. That’s when we all exited. The incident gave me another opportunity to talk to her about appropriate behavior, about right versus wrong, about how a Christian girl should behave.

I know that every little girl and boy goes through these types of phases. Simply telling her “no” or “stop it” may help, but I’m hoping to instill knowledge and reason. Telling her “don’t do this” and “don’t do that” is not going to teach her discernment or improve her decision making skills.

In the early childhood field, we instruct our early childhood teachers to cultivate the habit of avoiding the words “no”, “don’t” and “stop”. In fact, when I was in college, our lab instructors would observe us working with the children and keep track of how many times we said these words and briefly note the situation. Later, in class, we had to revisit each situation and practice alternative ways of redirecting. The goal was to teach early childhood teachers how to redirect behaviors with succinct, positive explanations. For instance, “Josh, let’s play over here; you will be happier if you do not interfere with your friend’s building” rather than “Josh, leave your friend’s building alone. Go play over there.”

The goal is to teach children how-to behave rather than how-not-to behave. Because we live in a world of sin the child will always attend to the how-not-to behave aspect. This is true whether we are redirecting behavior, reading a story or singing a song; hence, the importance of giving directions and guidance in a succinct, positive manner.


© 2012, C. Gillan Byrne

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