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IQ is Only Half the Picture: Cultivating your Child's Emotional Intelligence

The Fourth Rite of Passage: The Right to Freedom

What is happening:

The theme of this rite of passage is about the development of "free will". Between the ages of two and four approximately, the child is trying to learn that she can be separate and different from her parents. She wants to find that she can have her own will, her own mind, her own body, while retaining a sense of her inner "goodness", and still be loved by her parents.

Having been nurtured at the earlier, more dependent stages, the child is starting to explore the larger world, wandering further and staying away longer from the safety of a parenting presence. To the extent that dependency needs have been fulfilled, the toddler now starts to bring boundless energy to the flight to freedom, as she asserts her separate self-identity. Tentatively, the child is learning the safe and appropriate range of autonomous individuality, her freedom to want and feel differently from Mother. Efforts to differentiate begin in earnest, so the child now needs support in the shape of being let go of, yet warmly received when she runs back to the parent's side. The parents act as a safe "home base" for the exploring child.

A vigorous assertion of individuality takes many shapes at this time: she runs away, she yells at her parents to "go away!". The child is now finding immense pleasure in saying "No!", she will want to taste the power of this word over and over. The maddening frustration of childhood powerlessness is momentarily averted through the joy of being contrary. This experiment serves the critical function of strengthening her boundaries and her separate self-identity, which she is now defining through opposition. Flaunting her new-found strength can be delicious; she may occasionally relish defying her parents just for the delectation of feeling her selfhood, and her "otherness".

The organic basis of any individual's will power comes from having been respectfully allowed, in those early years, one's own rhythm around vital functions such as toileting, feeding and sleeping. If the child is not excessively controlled around these functions, a strong sense of autonomy will be rooted in a healthy trust of her own body and internal biological rhythms. It is fortunate that these days, toilet-training is decreasingly a battle-ground, ever since pediatricians and psychologists began to advise a later and more self-regulated transition to the potty.

Bliss is now found in freedom, rather than in symbiosis with the parents. The toddler has become more robust, as long as the emotional and psychological needs of earlier stages have been fundamentally met. This enables and prepares the child to withstand a certain measure of conflict. It is of paramount importance that she be given the right to protest her disappointments and not be crushed for speaking out. As long as she isn't cruelly punished or humiliated, her tolerance for disagreement grows stronger and her resilience matures.

Optimal developmental experience:

The child at this time needs to be allowed her to-and-fro forays into independence, at her own pace. She needs to be given the right to self-regulate and thus find her own safety boundaries wherever possible. The challenge for the parent revolves around the imposing of healthy, safe limits and introducing respect for others without guilt-tripping, shaming or otherwise crushing the child's spirit. The toddler asks us to farewell the baby, and to welcome the self-regulating child; she is adamantly wanting to make her own mistakes and thus develop competency.

We need to understand that although the child at this age will defy and oppose us, she still deeply needs security and holding. It is important for the parent to not get caught up in a power struggle, not to contribute to a battle of wills that pits the "righteous" against the "misbehaved". Children have too long been condemned for their powerful emotionality at this age; they stand accused of all sorts of nasty "attention-seeking" schemes - as if the need for attention is an offense! Much has been written about how to conquer and defeat the tantrum-throwing child, precious little has been said in support of the powerless child's right to express her rage. Toddlers don't need "taming", as the pedagogical Dr. Christopher Green (1986) professes; they need our empathy and respect, and they need to witness the respect you have for yourself. Might we instead, as parents, wonder at the astonishing emotional potency of our children, something which for most of us has been buried. When the child defies us, resists and protests, she needs to be given some space to do so. Her self-confidence depends on being allowed this strength. She doesn't need parental capitulation, just some empathy and some leeway, for all she is saying is: "respect my free will".

Indiscriminate permissiveness is not an alternative; it is not OK for the child's behavior to be damaging to herself or to the parent. This is the age when kids begin to need to know you through your boundaries. If you can set strong limits non-violently and non-abusively this sets a powerful example and helps them to feel your strength and your presence. Without realistic interpersonal boundaries then you don't seem "real" to them and they feel lost, confused and sometimes angry. They may provoke you, searching for your solidity. Opportunities abound at this time for the child to acquire a healthy relationship to the notion of interpersonal boundaries.

Developmental task:

The child is now learning much about the pleasure of aloneness, of wandering off and exploring the world unaccompanied. She is also beginning to learn that differences and distance are substantive to healthy relationships. By learning to withstand and survive conflict and disagreement, she learns that love encompasses and includes opposition. She can now begin to articulate her frustrations and disappointments, a function that will be vital to her well-being throughout her life. Now are sown the seeds of the ability to "follow one's bliss"; to become self-regulating and self-directive, to locate and trust one's "inner authority". She is now attempting to relinquish, sometimes forcefully, her identification with her parent's emotional states and attitudes. This disentangling process is essential if she is not to feel overly responsible for others" feelings later in life.

Her task now is to carry her inner feelings of pleasure, fullness and satiation, which were previously dependent on Mother, into autonomous existence, that is, to begin to master the making of her own "bliss".

The main wounding experiences:

Most wounding at this time is brought about through our attempts to control the child's powerfully expanding sense of self, and her movements toward freedom and self-mastery. When the child begins to assert her independence, it is not unusual or unnatural for parents to feel rejected, and hence react possessively. Parental love can become smothering at this stage if we over-protect, or douse the child with so many rules, "shoulds" and "no's" that their natural exploratory impulses become stifled, and held in. It is much more desirable to child-proof the environment and accept some degree of chaos, mess, disorder and lack of punctuality. The child's exuberance and freedom wither under a parental regime of obsessive or excessive interference, over-preoccupation with cleanliness, orderliness, propriety, "good" manners, or obedience.

The guilt-trip is used as a major form of control at this time. This dynamic creates a child who is excruciatingly aware of her parents" discomforts and hurts. The child learns to crushingly constrain herself in order to not "upset Mummy or Daddy". She or he copes by becoming "nice", a "good girl" or "good boy", yet harbors spitefulness deep within.

As the child's language becomes more sophisticated, words are often used to impose shame on the child. Labels used to scold her can accumulate a powerful resonance in the impressionable mind of the child. Her self-identity is being shaped around the things that she hears about herself, and thus words used against her have a profound impact on her behavior and self-image. Words such as "bad", "naughty", and "wrong", all strike a blow at the heart of her self-esteem. Dualities of reward and punishment, or "good girl/boy" and "bad girl/boy" admonitions, split her consciousness, and reduce her to an approval seeker. The more the child orients herself toward gaining reward and escaping punishment or shaming, the more she abandons her natural self-hood. Her spirit crushed, she survives by becoming submissive and compliant, by presenting an outward "good little child" image that conceals her spite and obstinacy.

The premature parroting of "please" and "thank you" reflects the child's attempts to meet adult expectations, or to do "the right thing". "Good manners" will therefore rarely have meaning for the "well behaved" toddler other than in pleasing authority. Social etiquette, when imposed at this stage, will do very little to instill in the child a true empathy for the needs of others.

Emotional function and core beliefs:

Core beliefs arising from positive experiences at this time include: I have the right to be free, to be autonomous, to make my own decisions. I have the right to be assertive, to be different, to stand out. I have the right to strongly and vigorously express who I am, my feelings. I have the right to be unique and creative. I have the right to my own space and privacy. I can approve of myself even when others don't approve of me.

Some core beliefs arising from negative experiences from this stage include: It is up to me to take care of others. If people who are close to me are hurting it is my fault. To be free means to be alone. To be intimate means to be trapped. Deep inside, I am shameful. I am safe if I follow suit. Life is a struggle, to be toiled at. Love is duty, obligation. Life is a series of "shoulds".

It is a major goal of this rite of passage to master differentiation, an ingredient that is pivotal to the formation of mature relationships. Intimacy can be experienced as confinement unless it encompasses distance and separateness. When we remain unnecessarily responsible to or burdened by the feelings of others, this indicates that we have not fully embraced our separateness. Consequently, self-assertion or saying "no" are often closely followed by feelings of guilt or shame. This rite of passage finds the child endeavoring to learn to strongly express feelings, assert differences, and let go of grudges.

The opportunity exists here to lay a strong foundation for freedom of thought, which rests upon a non-compulsive response to "authority". A heartfelt, spontaneous tendency to be caring and considerate toward others stands in contrast to, and should not be confused with, a "good-boy" or "good-girl" persona. The latter is usually fueled by deeply held feelings of shame, guilt, fear of punishment, and longing for approval.

Potential adult manifestation of injury:

Many of us live our lives saddled with "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts", our relationships bound by an excessive sense of duty or obligation. Pleasure and spontaneity elude us as we battle inner demons of guilt and shame. We groan under heavy burdens of self-imposed responsibility. An exaggerated concern with "doing the right thing" restricts our mobility, creativity, and the willingness to take risks. A smothering, shaming or punitive environment at the fourth stage can leave us tending toward negativity, pessimism and lack of self-confidence. At work, we plod slowly and painstakingly, guarding against the disapproval of others. When we are over-awed by "authority", we live defensively, as if afraid of "getting into trouble". We suffer from hypersensitivity to the expectations of others. Self-protection takes the shape of either excessive and unquestioning compliance; or obstinacy and stubbornness. When our own natural exuberance has been crushed, the exuberance of others can make us uncomfortable. Fourth-stage wounding is discernible in the "martyr", who whines and complains instead of expressing anger directly, who holds grudges, and festers with resentment and spite.

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