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The Chaos of Childhood

Children crave structure; it is one of the things that separates them from the chaos of the world. Young children think that without loving adults, they are vulnerable to awful things. Why? If no one feeds them, they will die; but of course, they do not know what death is. If a child perceives something wrong in the parent-child relationship, the child KNOWS it is HIS fault. Why? If the parent is at fault, the child loses his lifeline.
 
Much of temperament is inborn. Some is formed in the family (especially by sibling interactions), and some is just luck. I had one friend who was all sunshine, even though everyone else in her family carried serious psychiatric diagnoses.
 
Imagine you are are two or three years old. You can talk some, but usually you’re looking at a grownups’ knees. There is an entire world going on above your head. Adults are talking — occasionally to you.
 
You hear everyday noises but can’t tell a truck from a motorcycle, a crow from a cardinal. There are flickering images on television that are hypnotic, and you absorb them as real. By the time you turn four, you are sorting out the world: red lights, stop signs, and such. Emotionally, you are learning cues: when mom has that line between her eyes, you’d best leave her alone.
 
You are also learning empathy.
 
When I was a doctor and health reporter, an anxious three-year-old patient said, “Dr. Dixie, I saw you in my television.” I explained that it was just a picture of me and relief flooded his face. Any normal three-year-old thinks I was shrunk and put in a box.
 
Structure created by calm adults lets the child grow gently into someone who can withstand the chaos of the world. Most want breakfast at the same time every day. Many want the exact meal for breakfast. Not only do they want structure, they want to know what is coming next, especially if it something “off plan.”
 
When children are blindsided, they act up. If they thought they were going home and mom stops at the grocery, they throw a tantrum — unless you tell them in advance what is happening and the behavior you will expect from them. How would you like it if you were headed home after a long day at the office, looking forward to some downtime with the dog, and someone hijacked you to the grocery store?
 
When children know what is coming, they have a better chance of behaving well. A message such as “it’s going to be bath time in five minutes” helps with transition and makes children easier to manage. The easier it is to manage your child, the more self-esteem they will develop. Why? They are not in trouble all the time.
 
Everyone natters on about self-esteem and there is now a backlash against giving children a trophy for showing up, once, for their T-ball team. Good. Children know fake praise and distrust it. It undermines their realistic appraisal of themselves.
 
Self-esteem for a child is knowing where you fit: you are in a loving family that will protect you from monsters under the bed and get you what you need. The adults are rock-solid, whether it is mom, dad, the neighbors, the policeman, or a fireman.
 
Let me tell you what self-esteem is not. It is not the knowledge that you can annoy your parents until they give you what you want to shut you up. It is not being allowed to be rude. It is not getting everything you want. (But it does involve getting everything you really need, including limits.) It is not having privileges of someone older.
 
A newborn is a naked, pre-verbal tyrant. You have two decades to get him or her to become a responsible member of society. You do it by incrementally letting them see age-appropriate examples of chaos and guiding them away from it. You provide a loving structure that they internalize over time. This is not only self-esteem; it is self-discipline.
 
With both self-esteem and self-discipline, your young adults will be ready for the chaos of the world. They will stumble but usually be able to catch themselves. They will learn from their mistakes. Hopefully, they will make choices that keep them well away from the edges of the life’s cliffs: bad life partners, substance abuse, and dangerous behavior.
 
Oh, and remember, you’d never snatch the Nobel Prize out of your child’s hand and say, “I caused this.” So when your well-reared child turns into an adult and screws up, you can’t say, “I caused this.”
 
Adults, by definition, are responsible for their own behavior.