In January, newspapers and TV stations all run reviews of the happenings of the past year. Has it struck you that many of these clips have to do with crime and violence involving teenagers? Drug use has increased, guns are used to vent frustrations, and 1/4 of all teenage mothers are unmarried. As your child grows older, does it make you cringe and wish there were something you could do to prevent your child from being one of these statistics?
Research with the Perry Preschool Project indicates that children who attend quality child care centers are less likely to become unmarried teenage parents, drop out of school or spend time in jail. This is encouraging but what is the reason for the differences in behavior? Is it just the routine of attending a center every day? Is there something that goes on at the child care center? Research has identified the phenomena but hasn’t drawn any conclusions as to why this is so. After a good many years of observing parents and children, in and out of day care, I have my own opinion as to the “why” of the question.
In center care, children are exposed at a young age to group situations. Situations where they are not the only child or any more important than any other child there. All children are treated with equal caring and respect. They must all learn to take turns, to wait in line, to do things they don’t want to, to share their materials and to conform to rules. In order to function child centers must teach self-control and social skills. We don’t use physical punishment, instead every action has a set of consequences which follow a child’s choices of behaviors. If appropriate behavior is chosen positive consequences follow…approval, being leader, extra time with special activities, etc. Inappropriate behavior brings less desirable consequences. Nothing extreme, just that they don’t get the extra approval, the favored place in line, the special treats and privileges. Intelligent children soon learn to control their aggressive impulses and to deal productively with frustration. They do, that is, unless their parents step in to protect them from toughing out the consequences of their own actions.
In theory, all parents recognize that negative consequences are necessary and that in order for consequences to be effective they must be things which the children do not enjoy, they must cause the child some disappointment, frustration, or dissatisfaction. Even knowing this, parents almost daily ask, and sometimes demand, that their children be excused from activities they don’t enjoy, that they be allowed special privileges they didn’t earn, that their consequences be modified so that they cause no discomfort. As parents try to protect their child from a minimal and short term frustration, they give the child the message that s/he is special and above rules and regulations or consequences. Children learn this lesson fast and well. The evidence is on the 6 o’clock news every evening.
Parents do have a responsibility to see that their children are treated fairly, but in trying to give them a childhood without restrictions or unpleasantness they may be sowing the seeds of teenage rebellion and adult heartache. Growing up is tough on parents and children. Our goal for the coming years would be that we can work productively with parents to give children a better future.