The Critical Importance of a Child's First Years: a Baby Speaks
Statistics tell us that something has gone wrong in our world. A steadily rising rate of social ills, and the proliferation of self-help books and therapy techniques for "reparenting the inner child" attest to the sad fact that we have lost our way in raising our children.
It is up to us as parents - despite our personal limitations - to give our children the right start in life: to help them become fulfilled, emotionally healthy adults, capable of loving and trusting others. Philosopher Blaise Pascal wrote that "the entire ocean is affected by a pebble." Our children should be like pebbles bringing forth waves of joy, not more sorrow and suffering.
Current thinking about our failure to fulfill our children's needs points to the importance of the earliest years of childhood, making it clear that the first three years are especially critical. What should we be doing during those years to ensure that our children have the best chance of becoming healthy and happy - as they deserve to be? Consider what a member of that age group might recommend to us - if only they could speak:
I am eleven months old. I can't talk yet, so when I am hungry, tired, wet, lonely, ill, or in pain, I cry. It is the only means I have to let my parents know that something is wrong.
If my crying is ignored, all that happens is that my needs become greater - I get even more miserable. On top of that, I have to face the fact that apparently no one cares about me. I'm sure Mommy would feel the same way if she were crying and Daddy ignored her. Believing that no one cares about you is a very devastating thought.
When my tears are ignored, I begin to believe that no matter how hard I cry, and no matter what is wrong, no one will ever come. If no one ever comes, I worry that I will die, because I cannot meet my own needs yet. You see, I have no concept of time, and two minutes is forever to me.
Sometimes I stop crying - but I am not learning patience - I am learning despair. When I stop crying, it means that I have lost all hope of ever being loved again, and all I feel is helplessness and despondency. I worry that I will never learn to communicate with words if I am not allowed to communicate with cries. And I worry that if I feel this frustration too many times, I will withdraw and stop feeling anything.
It sure can be frightening to think that no one cares enough about me to meet my needs. In fact, when my cries are ignored, I begin to think the world is a really bad place, and I worry that this will give me a negative and selfish outlook on life. But when my needs are met, I feel loved and secure enough to return that love to others, and eventually to my own children. I do so want to become a loving, caring person, but how will I learn to be like that if I don't see examples of it?
I get very lonely if I am separated from my parents. For nine months, my mother and I were inseparable, and I felt so much love inside her. She was all I knew when I arrived on this strange planet. It will require a certain amount of time - perhaps three years or longer - before my sense of trust is established and I am ready to spend extensive time with other caregivers. The more secure I can feel now, the sooner that time will come. if I am forced to face this separation before I am ready, it will take a lot longer; in fact, I may never reach the level of maturity that I hope to reach by the time I am an adult.
At night, I like to sleep next to my parents. Being able to touch them and hear them during the dark hours of the night are my only means of knowing that they have not disappeared. There are other reasons for wanting them near: their presence helps to regulate my heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and sleeping cycles, and their breathing regulates my own breathing.
I love to breastfeed. Breast milk is the best food for me; it contains important substances, not found in formula, which will help to keep me healthy for many years. When Mommy breastfeeds, she produces a hormone which keeps her happy too. Best of all, breastfeeding keeps Mommy and me close.
I have no desire to take unfair advantage of my parents. I love them very deeply. I am simply asking for
the same care that was given to babies for thousands of years until recent history. If my needs are met, I
will be free to demonstrate all the love and trust I was born with. All I want is a chance to express that
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Jan Hunt, M.Sc., offers counseling worldwide, with a focus on parenting and unschooling. She is the Director of The Natural Child Project and author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart and A Gift for Baby.