When we lose our understanding of how a child develops, we no longer provide or support appropriate opportunities for learning. I think back to my own daughter, who is now almost 14 years old. Ten years ago, I was the volunteer soccer coach for our community association team. The practices we had once a week were a lot of fun. They consisted of follow-the-leader warmups, stomp-the-bug to practice ball control, and other playful interactive games. However, the actual soccer games were more an exercise of frustration and thwarted expectations for me, which was often true for the other parents on the sidelines as well. Players would run the opposite way, step aside for opposing players, or gaze up at the clouds. Meanwhile, parents would yell for the kids to chase the ball and score a goal. I shook my head at my own participation in the madness. I’d worked with children and families for years; I should have known better!
Children are developing skills and capacities within windows of time, with differences of weeks, months, and sometimes years as they scaffold these new abilities in layers, which often build on previously acquired skills.
Children are not miniature adults – as much as we want or wish them to be, they possess brains which are still largely “under construction.” This means they require time, experiences, interactions, rules, expectations, consequences, nurturing, and attention to learn, grow, and develop their capacities. These include, but are not limited to:
• Communication skills
• Logical thinking
• Cognitive flexibility
• Emotional literacy
• Emotional regulation
• Moral reasoning and decision making
In our achievement-based society, every parent wants (and expects) their child to be the first, to be the best, and to sail through their development smoothly. It seems like we put undue pressure on kids to excel and to acquire “advanced” skills. There have been increasing numbers of articles published decrying the singular focus of many young athletes, driven by the belief that they will be more successful if they specialize in one sport. This has led to many sports being played year-round, and points to another misunderstanding of a child’s developing needs. Some people have observed the physical, social, and emotional impacts (among others) on children when the adults around them co-opt their activities. In his article, “Fear, greed, broken dreams: How early sports specialization is eroding youth sports,” J.J. Adams explains that, “While other activities, like video games or the rise of alternative, non-traditional sports, have contributed to the bleeding, specialization is the cause of most of it, from overuse injuries, emotional and psychological damage, to straight burnout.”
How can we bring more balance into children’s lives to ensure that we are guiding them towards optimal development? Here are a few suggestions:
Parents and caregivers should be engaged and involved, but not intrusive.
As a parent, I sometimes wonder if we focus on the wrong areas of our children’s development. We are often overwhelmed and stressed out, and it just seems easier to step in (and over) when we are trying to help our kids be successful. Our good intentions can often turn into us taking over, when what we really need to give our kids is more independence.
Help kids to problem solve and figure things out for themselves.
This point naturally builds on the previous one: we are so concerned with protecting our kids that we forget that they need to accomplish mastery. We can do this by allowing them to work toward tasks independently and with occasional assistance from the adults around them. Children need to have opportunities to learn how to take responsibility, practice communication skills, manage conflict, and work toward independence.
Encourage emotional expression and regulation.
In our multi-tasking, media-saturated world, it’s easy to ignore our children and how they are feeling. Emotional expression requires adults to be tuned in and listening. We must also model how to regulate our own emotions, display impulse control, practice delayed gratification, and demonstrate the ability to calm ourselves down.
Remember to have fun with children and provide opportunities for play.
Having fun, being spontaneous, and staying in the moment are essential to healthy child development. Play provides opportunities for learning and developing physical, social, psychological, and emotional skills. Sports and recreational activities need to be seen through this lens as well.
Be bigger, wiser, stronger, and always kind.
Having secure attachments with our children requires us to ensure we are caring for all their needs and responding appropriately as they mature and gain new skills. This means setting limits and boundaries with love, and treating children with respect. One of the ways to show respect is by not putting our needs first or misunderstanding what they can handle or how they feel.
Let’s re-invent our commitment to our children by remembering where they are at developmentally and honouring who they are and who we want to help them become.