We all know that children need food, clothing and shelter to ‘survive’, but besides the basic needs, how do we truly grow them into curious, strong, resilient children?
When your baby cries, s/he is telling you something – eg I’m hungry, I’m tired, I’ve have wind. As parents our response determines what message the child gets. For example if the baby cries because they are hungry, and you feed them, they learn that you will give them what they need. As you consistently do this, they learn that they can trust you to continue to meet their needs, and this is called building Secure Attachment. When you do this, it also creates new ways of understanding for the baby in his/her brain, ie new brain cells (known as neurons) are formed.
Consider a baby whose parent(s) don’t consistently respond to their baby’s cries for food. The parent may not be responding for many reasons – mental health issues, drug or alcohol issues, for example. This baby gets the message that I can’t trust that people help to meet my needs. They learn that the world is unsafe and unreliable and they don’t develop the neural pathways around trust.
I stress here that I’m not talking about the few times where you didn’t immediately respond to the baby because you were feeding a toddler, or you were in the bathroom – I’m talking about consistently not attending to the child.
There are many ways you can respond to your child. We can group them together into 5 main categories, and children benefit from all of these parenting behaviours:
- Nurturing by the parent involves meeting your child’s needs (not necessarily their ‘wants’!); showing them affection through your hugs and cuddles and also your affectionate words; providing comfort at challenging times, acknowledging the efforts they take to learn new things, and celebrating their achievements.
- Responding means the action you take to your child cues, whilst being aware of each child’s different personality – how you respond to one of your children may be different to another eg some children need more affection, or more support from you. It also includes being interested in what they are doing whether it’s playing in the sand or being part of the mini-soccer team.
- Communicating is of course about talking with them and importantly listening to them. It’s about pointing out things to babies and labelling items, or to toddlers explaining new things to them. A lot of communication with littlies happens when you sing or read to them – you communicate the words, the message and are also responding with your enthusiasm. With children there’s also a lot of communication which happens as they master speaking, and start asking 101 questions – ask any parent of a 3 year old!
- Supporting Learning – this is an essential parenting behaviour to exhibit… it’s how we motivate out child and enthuse them through providing experiences and environments which are conducive to new learning – the play, the places and the people. It’s the way we teach and encourage them.
- Designing and Guiding is an important role, and you (the parents) have the responsibility for raising children who understand the ‘rules’ and what happens if you follow them or not – helping them to learn about the consequences of their actions. Children weren’t born knowing this, they have to be shown. They learn it so much quicker when the parents are consistent with the message and they deliver it in a nurturing way – speaking softly and gently with them, rather than a raised voice when they’ve acted inappropriately. This parenting behaviour is also about establishing the routines in the home, around bedtimes, or behaviour at the dinner table, and you’ll be doing this in a way which matches the values of your family.
As parents we need to operate using all of these behaviours, using what is most needed now. Be aware of your individual strengths in these areas, and also which ones you might need a bit more practice at. Sometimes you can be lucky and between the two parents have a complete set!, or you can encourage each other to continue to grow in your parenting journey.