Role of the Child in the Family
In any society, the birth of a child brings with it celebrations and preparations to receive the child into the world. A whole community comes together around this tiny creature, to care for it and to support the mother as well. Adults in these times display extreme emotions of joy and a kind of love that is unconditional. This response to the coming of the child into a family is universal. A child’s arrival shows us the capacity that humanity has for love, and for unity through this love. And every time a child is born, this capacity is kindled, again and again.
Since children are completely dependent on adults for their care, it is important for us to think about the relationship we share with children, and the relationship with the world that we want to pass on to them. With very young children, adults around them are naturally drawn to speak to them, pick them up, to sing and talk to them. Babies are cute for a reason! It ensures that they are taken care of in the most loving ways. The relationship with the world, however, develops through active engagement, where children are occupied gainfully and are able to see the benefit of their efforts for the others in their family and community. To help them do this, children below 6 years old possess an immense capability to absorb from and imitate the people around them – their emotions, their behaviours and their languages. Through this imitation, children are able to create characteristics that are particular to the group of people they live with and the community they belong to. In this imitation, children are able to create the essential connection that we mentioned earlier and end up mimicking the adult’s world through the language they use, the manner in which they move and how they interact with the world.
When we think about how important this aspect of their development is, we realise that we as adults have an immense responsibility to create a suitable environment for children. This environment should be one that is worthy of emulation. Our own interactions in the world around us have to be respectful, kind and tolerant. When children see their loved ones in this light, that becomes a motive and a compass that directs their interactions with the world too.
What is important about this environment is that it should be dynamic – one that evolves and grows with the child, to suit the child’s changing needs and growing capacities. For adults, one of the ways in which we can keep up with their changing needs is by watching our children. When we say ‘watch’, it means an objective awareness, where we are non-interfering observers. We can do this by moving about two feet away from the children and giving them their time and space to engage with their environment. If we have created an environment that is for the child, then we will see the benefits of it when we step back and let the child truly take ownership of their space. This can be done, for example, by having the kitchen set up in a manner where the child has access to a snack and a drink of water whenever they want. Specifically, this would mean storing snacks at their height and have a child sized jug filled with water and a child sized glass, both on a tray, and leaving them where the child can reach comfortably. Maybe even have a table and chair where the child could sit at and have this said snack and drink. Often, when children learn to care of their own needs, they move on to caring for the others around them. So if we want them to be caring individuals, we need to help them care for themselves first.
When they have created the skills required to care for themselves, and when they have the language to interact with a wider world around the age of three, these children then become ready to expand their circle of influence and interaction. They use the home and the people in the home both as a point of departure and as a guiding light to include more people in their lives. They also become interested in expanding their responsibilities to include the wider world. Just as they have cared for their family, they can now feel great joy and pride in being able to bake cookies for a friend’s birthday, in feeding birds, bathing the dog or weeding the garden. We find that even as children step out of the home to engage with the wider world, they have an eye on the home to ensure stability and safety. It is this stability, security and consistency in the home environment that helps them find comfort in school, the playground or at a friend’s during a play date.
The biggest contribution that adults can make to a child’s growth is in evaluating the environment around the child and re-setting or correcting the environment when necessary. Often, parents become aware of the language they use when their children are born. Pregnant women start creating spaces in the home in preparing for the child that is to come. Once the child arrives, life takes over. And if we are mindful of the kind of life skills and values we want to pass on to our children, then it becomes apparent that it can only happen in helping the child find their place in the world. This world expands from the home to the wider community around the home (school, neighbourhood, supermarkets, parks, the city) to finally include the entire world itself. As the world expands, the child’s role has to expand as well. That is when they belong and become contributing members of the community.
(From the talk, we have chosen three questions which we felt captured the concerns of a majority of parents)
Question 1: My child gives up easily on slightly challenging tasks, even on things that he is interested in, or activities that we believe are important for this period of his development. What can we do?
Pavithra: We need to remember that they are still very young, and while we want them to face challenges, we also don’t want them to be overwhelmed. However, the hesitation or reluctance to take on something challenging may also be due to other contributing factors. To find out what these other contributing factors are, you might come to know only by watching.
For example, if the child is working on a puzzle, and they come across a piece that doesn’t fit, and they try in different ways and it still doesn’t fit, the little child might get upset. The dilemma for us as parents in that situation is whether to step in to help or not. Sometimes children are used to us stepping in too early to help, and if they have had the experiences of adults (could be from any adults around them) stepping in too early too often, they get used to the help. This leads to children facing a wall before they even encounter a challenge. They put up this wall, and they say “Now help me”, because that is what they may have experienced in the past.
At other times, the language that we use around children may also be very cautionary language. For example, even before they pick up the plate to go and put it in the sink, we might have said to them “Be careful!”. “Be careful” really doesn’t carry much meaning. How will they know that the plate will break? They will learn via the actual experience of handling it. And if it does break, how then do we handle that situation? How do the adults around the child help the child manage that situation? That is something that we should observe as well.
What happens when the child faces a challenge? Or in other situations, what is the response of the community around the child to help the child address everyday issues? Observe those times and see if you’re able to get some answers from that. Thank you!
Question 2: My child does not always keep the toys or books away after use, and I (parent) have been trying to lead by example, but it seems that the following-the-example part from my child does not happen. Do you have any advices on that?
Pavithra: Sometime children are very good at gauging how far they can push and knowing at a certain moment that if they just keep on trying, they might get what they want. This is a situation about boundary.
In this case, the boundary we set is – ‘We need to finish doing one thing before we can move on to the next’. You need to let the child see that till we finish this, we cannot move on to the next activity. You might want to say to the child, “I will help you. Come, I’m going to pick up this toy and put it into the basket. Will you help me?”
For example, if the child is playing with toys, and the next thing on the agenda is to go and bake cookies, don’t start off baking the cookies before the toys are put away. And if the child is not putting the toys away themselves, help them to see that only when we finish this can we actually go on to the next activity. They need to get used to this boundary, to this expected behaviour that is going to be consistent in the environment, and not just from this one person but all the adults in their environment.
Question 3: You mentioned earlier that we should hold them to the responsibility. Does that mean that we need to give them positive or negative reinforcements? Could you give some examples of how we could hold them to the responsibility?
Pavithra: For adults, when we have a responsibility, for example, to do the grocery shopping, then that job is that person’s, and if it doesn’t get done, there is a natural consequence. And this consequence is not just for the person who is responsible for the job, but for the whole family. If the shopping does not get done, there is no yoghurt in the fridge today – for the whole family. The consequence is a natural consequence, because of somebody not doing something.
It is the same for children. For example, the child can be given the responsibility to ensure that there are clean plates for dinner. If they didn’t wash that from lunch, the family will not have clean plates for dinner. As adults, maybe we should try and get this organised before dinnertime. We could suggest to the child, “Would you like to wash the plates now, or in another 15 minutes?” We need to help them to see their responsibility through by planning with them. What help might they need to fulfil their responsibility? If they did not do the work they are supposed to do, let them see what happens when they don’t, so that they realise there is a natural consequence to things.
This is not for them to only have a personal consequence, where if you don’t do this, you don’t get something else. That kind of positive or negative reinforcement doesn’t relate to this idea of responsibility that we are trying to cultivate. If they only do things for the sake of an external reward or negative reinforcement, the motive for the activity changes from “I have a role” to “If I don’t do it, I won’t get my 15 minutes of screen time”. We don’t want them to develop that thinking. We want them to look at what happens naturally when something doesn’t get done. To bring that awareness, it takes patience and persistence on the adult’s part. And when it does happen in the child, it goes a long way.
Profile of the Author: Ms. Pavithra Rajagopalan
Pavithra Rajagopalan has worked with children for the last 21 years in formal, non-formal and informal settings. She is a qualified teacher trainer in the Montessori Method of education. After gaining her AMI Primary diploma In 2005, she worked in Montessori schools in India, the US and New Zealand. She has also worked to understand other systems and schools of thought in relation to child development.
Pavithra is faculty at the Sir Ratan Tata Institute on the course in Bombay, India. She is also part of the faculty for the Diploma course in Taiwan. She conducted the first Primary Assistants Course in Israel in November 2019. In addition, Pavithra works closely with the Gandhian Institution, Shanti Ashram, India, where she is involved in strengthening pioneering projects related to Early Childhood Education in vulnerable communities. She has also co-led Ethics Education training in India and Sri Lanka for children, young people and educators.