The Natural Child Project The Natural Child Project
View shopping cart

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

The Third Rite of Passage: The Right to Support

What is happening:

This stage spans from 6 months to two years. It is during this time that the child begins to take his first frail and uncertain steps away from symbiosis, toward autonomy. Until roughly 18 months, the baby has not fully learned to distinguish his mother as separate from himself, and he experiences himself and Mother as part of one continuum. The fledgling move toward differentiation is of necessity fragile at first, and tentative. There is frequent regression back to Mother's (and increasingly Father's) side. Differentiation is made real for the child as he gradually discovers and masters his motor power to set his own direction, through crawling, standing and walking. Primitive speech patterns are now erupting, and all these changes begin to give the toddler his first sense that he can exert some influence over himself, over his environment, that he can start to exercise choice. He can articulate some basic needs with growing specificity, he can reach out and independently explore the world beyond Mother. A veritable revolution is taking place; a radical and momentous shift in how the toddler experiences himself in relation to the world. This transformation is both exhilarating and frightening.

This third stage marks a tenuous threshold of transition from babyhood into childhood, from prostrate helplessness to the boldness of standing. The developmental drama which unfolds at this time is about personal power, the power to exert some control on the environment as the child begins to learn to stand, to take his first steps and to utter his first words.

Optimal developmental experience:

There needs to be an abundance of support provided at this time. Support is only true support if it meets the child's needs as they emerge. In other words, support for the child's sake, as the child needs it, rather than "encouragement" to progress at the rate expected by parents or others. The toddler needs his parents behind him as he tentatively steps out to explore. He wants us to share in his wonder as he becomes more agile, to hold him when he stumbles, to be his unfailing safety net when he becomes afraid. He does not want us to cajole or pressure him to "make progress". The child's innate rhythm sets his pace; if allowed he will come to walk and talk without hurry or push. Appropriate support therefore embraces him both at his strength, as at his frailty.

Now that the toddler is mobile, boundary-setting becomes an issue. Realistic safety boundaries can be defined compassionately, clearly and respectfully; without resorting to punishment or shaming.

Developmental task:

At this time, the toddler is learning whether he can trust in the support of others. He needs to find that it is OK to reach out for and receive support, as well as to rely on his own strength; that it is human to be vulnerable as well as strong. This includes trusting that his vulnerability will evoke care, rather than manipulation, seduction or shaming. It also involves the experience that his strength will be respected, and not exploited by others. He needs to distinguish help that is genuine from help that is manipulative, or bait on a hook. His autonomy and personal power are there to serve his own development, not others' expectations. Hopefully, he will learn by example that true personal power comes through honesty, not through domination. Finally, the toddler wants to learn that love is only real if it is love for being himself, not for being what others wish him to be.

The main wounding experiences:

The child's growing personal power is a central theme at this time. There are a number of ways in which the wrong kind of support can distort personal power so that instead of being based on honesty, it is based on manipulation, seduction or the use of force. Here are some of the ways that this might happen:

Unfulfilled or lonely parents at times seek comfort in their child, exploiting the child's willingness to be there for the parents' needs. The parent may not be consciously aware that they are loading the child with their own unfulfilled emotional needs, inadvertently leaning on the child, who then grows up too quickly. The pay-off for the child is that he gets to feel special.

It is very tempting at this time to manipulate the child to exceed his own need for supported growth. The trap lies in the temptation to make the child special for being a "champ", or compelling him to make Mummy or Daddy proud. This orients the child toward performance, or showing off: adults become their appreciative audience, as the child splits off from his authentic self to project an image or role designed to get the positive strokes. In the quest to have the "wonderful child" that we can gloat about, "support" becomes manipulative and exploitative. Encouragement to perform more competently (feats of walking, talking, being "cute") risks being seductive to the child, who willingly rises up to meet the parental expectation. He trades in his inner pleasure for the power to entertain, gratify, and thereby control others. Seductive encouragement stands in contrast to a sharing and celebrating of the child's own pleasure gained from his accomplishments.

Some children are turned to by one parent to fill the space of an absent, inadequate or alcoholic partner. Responding to the parent's cues, and sensing the parent's pain, the child grows prematurely to become "Mama's little man", or "Daddy's little girl". In order to meet the adult's emotional need, the child must learn to deny his own frailty, his own need for support. He quickly learns to abandon his true, childish self, and to present a false self-image scripted to enchant his parents. Inside, he feels deeply betrayed, and becomes suspicious and mistrustful; yet he adapts: he gains control over the parents by pleasing them, by disguising his vulnerability, and by becoming indispensable. It is alarming how young a child can mold himself to the role of protector, healer or confidant. This prematurely developing child becomes astute about other's unspoken needs, and gains control by promising to meet those needs. The abuse this time consists of over-empowering the child, who is given (or intuitively picks up) the message that the parent is dependent on him.

As boundary-setting becomes increasingly important, punishment, shaming and humiliation rear their heads in authoritarian families. Dismayed by the new exuberant mobility of the toddler, parents try to wrest control by dominating or overpowering the child. Children respond to domineering parents with alternating "good behavior" and rebellion. They soon get the impression that relationship is about control, manipulation, about might-is-right; and they begin to act accordingly. As babyhood wanes, boys in particular are humiliated for their vulnerability; they begin to hear such messages as: "Boys don't cry, Be a man, etc." He soon learns to puff up his little chest and be "tough" for his Dad.

The more the child strives to act out the qualities he feels are expected of him, the more he loses touch with his natural self. The child is metamorphosed into the clever, precocious little grown-up that takes care of his parents, or impresses their friends. There is the tough little kid, the seducer or actor who by rising above child-like innocence and vulnerability, reaps parental pride and positive strokes.

Emotional function and core beliefs:

Optimal support at this time leads to core beliefs such as: I have the right to be supported. I can reach for support from others without shame, and without fear of being used, exploited manipulated. I have the right to be afraid, to feel vulnerable, to feel weak. It's OK and not shameful to ask for help. Being "up-front" and honest works better than manipulating, scheming or pretending. I am loveable for who I am, not for the image I present.

Core beliefs and attitudes arising from injurious experiences at this stage include: Never trust anyone. Always suspect other's motives. Always stay on top, in control, preferably in authority. I am not a worthy person unless I am a "winner". If I lose, then I am a worthless, shameful "loser". If I let people in close to me, they'll see my weakness, and I'll be used. Vulnerability is shameful. If I'm really honest, I'll be manipulated. People only love me for what I can give them. I am safe as long as I can manipulate others. People can be easily manipulated, once you know what they need.

Potential adult manifestation of injury:

When he learns early in life that he has the power to gratify his parents, this gives the child an over-expanded sense of ego. The introduction of harsh "discipline" or control at this stage begins a hardening of the personality. The results are either an overly dominant personality, or an individual who has learned to control through making promises and being seductive; through pretense. Personal power is distorted in meaning, and is exerted through domination, threat or seductive promise. A proclivity to mistrust others inhibits any show of weakness, and he therefore maintains control through denial of his human vulnerabilities and shortcomings. The persona presented to the world can be charming, charismatic, intimidating, even larger-than-life. Yet he will seem unreal and inauthentic to those who look for his humanness, or his earthy-ness. Personality types range from the charmer to the tough-guy; from the actor, the rock-star, the wily salesman, to the dictator.

Our system of commerce is based on the interplay of seduction and gullibility; a dovetailing of dysfunctions stemming from the second and third rites of passage. The generally credulous attitude to "image" and P. R. springs from unfulfillment at the second stage, and provides a fertile ground for the work of seductive advertisers, marketers and P. R. illusionists. Our model of "strong" and implacable authority breeds submissiveness and hero-cults, and dates back to unresolved issues from this third early-childhood rite of passage. The stage is set here for a "winners-and-losers" mentality, and an attitude of exploitative dominion toward the world and its resources.

Next: The Right to Freedom PreviousContents