10 Talents of Parenting: Responsiveness
Recognizing and Responding to Your Child's Needs
The key to providing security to children is recognizing and meeting their needs. It isn't always easy. Babies' needs are pretty obvious: feed them when they're hungry, change them when they're wet, hold them when they want to be close, show them the world when they are curious. But as children grow up, their needs become more complex.
They might want to be comforted and nurtured like a baby, and want independence at the same time. They often need more connection, comfort and affection than we have available to give them. Children of all ages have needs that clash with our own needs (they want to play when we want to sleep).
Whining children disguise their needs; they sound like they need that cookie or that truck, but usually what they really need is a chance to reconnect with us after a long day or to let out a good cry after a big frustration. Children need limits, but they don't need limits to be delivered harshly or angrily. I've never met a child with a deep-seated need for yelling, scolding or punishment. Sure, they might need some guidance and direction, but if we are responding to their needs, we will give them that discipline with love and respect.
To nurture this talent of responsiveness, try stepping out of the power struggle, the irritability and the aggravation, and ask yourself, "What does my child need right now?" (If your answer is "a kick in the keister," keep asking yourself until you come up with a real need!) Think about how you might meet that need, without sacrificing your own basic needs. You will probably discover that in order to meet that need, you have to tune-in more closely to what your child is thinking and feeling.
You may also want to consider how your own needs were met - or left unmet - when you were young. Do you feel resentful when your child needs something from you, especially if it's something you never got? Is there some way that you can get your own needs met now, so that you will feel better equipped to meet your child's needs?
Here's an example from a mom who decided to stop focusing on her son's behavior and instead to respond to his needs:
Last summer, my son Roy, 7, started misbehaving as he'd never misbehaved before. He was picking fights with his sisters and deliberately ignoring me. I was angry with him most of the time. One day was particularly bad. I yelled at him and told him to play nicely. Then I left to do laundry. He followed, his arms loaded with Playmobil people. Then he threw his favorite character, "Jonathan," down the stairs after me. I turned around to send Roy to his room.
"Did you throw that at me?" I asked sharply.
"No. His whole family kicked him down the stairs," Roy said. His tone was so angry and offended, I just said, "Wow."
"What?" asked Roy suspiciously.
"That must have really hurt him."
"Well," said Roy, "Jonathan is an idiot."
I was almost afraid to ask but I said, "Why is he an idiot?"
"Because," Roy explained, "his family just tells him to get away."
I took a deep breath and said, "Let's you and me bring Jonathan upstairs and see if we might make him feel better about himself."
Twenty minutes later, Roy was a different person. We didn't have a deep conversation about his feelings - or mine. Instead, we played.
I let Roy direct the play so he could feel in control. We set up the people at their farmhouse. Jonathan was the expert with all the answers. My people didn't know an apple ready for picking from a cow ready for milking. Roy loved it. He would groan, "Oh, my gosh, you'll never survive if you don't know how to do that." At one point he looked up at me and said, "I love you, Mamma."
I don't always recover so successfully with my kids, but I find that things always go better if I can think about where they are and what they need, rather than where I would like them to be.
This mom managed to be responsive to her son in a very tough situation. She overcame her urge to send him away, and instead drew him closer, since that's what he really needed.
Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D., is a psychologist who specializes in children's play and play therapy, and is the author of several books, including the award-winning Playful Parenting.