IQ Is Only Half The Picture:
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.
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.
The Fifth Rite of Passage: The Right to Love
What is happening:
From around three years to six years of age the focus of biopsychological development moves fully downward to the genitals, so that the child becomes aware of a full infantile sexual charge permeating his body. Up until this point, nerve endings in the genitals had not provided for so much awareness or arousal there. As this new consciousness function emerges, it is experienced by the child as integral to his being; his genitals, heart and head are one. For the child of this age there grows an exploratory preoccupation with his genitals. He is delighted by the deeply pleasurable sensations discovered there, and the way these can radiate throughout the rest of his body.
Children are in love with their parents at this stage, and when they reach to embrace their loved ones they bring their infantile sexual energy to the embrace. Loving contact now encompasses the whole, connected, physical self. The child's sexual longing for the parent is not to be confused with adult sexuality or the adult sexual act of intercourse; it is merely about the sensual energy of love flowing throughout the whole body of the child, for whom affection has become increasingly physical and sensual. As the fact of gender differences dawns on the child, he is overcome with curiosity about the nature of his own sexuality, and the variances between boys and girls.
Optimal developmental experience:
Optimally, the parents are unashamed and unafraid of loving-sexual energy, and are enjoying a fulfilling and active adult sexual partnership. These conditions (quite rare!) enable the parents to remain open, unthreatened and loving in the presence of their child's sensual aliveness, without censuring or turning away from the child. Moreover, the sexually healthy and satisfied parent does not over-respond to the child's emerging sexuality with overwhelming and inappropriate adult sensually charged advances. Continued warmth and non-interference support and free the child to develop the basis for an adult sexual self-identity that is free of shame, guilt, or fear; as well as an inclination to be respectful of self and other's sexual boundaries. As self-discovery unleashes the child's curiosity and thirst for understanding, his questions need direct, simple and truthful answers.
Healthy children will begin to fondle and stimulate their genitals around this time, and at times they innocently exhibit themselves. If the child's masturbation is not interfered with in any way, he learns in a natural way that he is master of his own body, and thus avoids developing distorted attitudes to sexuality. It is, after all, the child's right to explore and celebrate the abundant pleasure that his body so generously grants him. A child is better protected from violation or interference if he is confident in his right to self-regulation and privacy. It benefits him to learn that he has the right to expect and demand privacy: "my body is my own, and I decide what happens to it!"
The "genital" stage of development is a precursor for mature sexual love; the seeds are sown here for the child to learn about loving and being loved with his whole being, his whole body. He seeks to acquire and develop the psychological foundations of sexual love unencumbered by shame, or by disrespectful attitudes. If he can become well grounded in the pleasure function of his body, the child evolves a positive and balanced attitude to pleasure in general.
The main wounding experience:
Injury to the child's sexual identity can take the forms of rejection, condemnation, or violation. Shaming or moralizing responses to the child's burgeoning sexual exploration can produce an up-tight temperament, or result in rebellious sexual acting-out later in life. The child defends from parental judgment or disgust with a rigid and inflexible attitudinal armor that protects his heart by blocking soft and tender feelings. Both direct injunctions against his sexuality, and unspoken parental embarrassment or discomfort, are experienced by the child as a heart-breaking rejection of his expanding self. Fearing punishment, or sensing a withdrawal of parental affection, he blames his emerging sexuality and reacts by suppressing or splitting-off this part of himself. Thus begins the separation of sex from love, genitals from heart. The need for love and for pleasure is sublimated, and substituted by a need to achieve, hence he re-diverts his energies toward competition and a high accomplishment-drive.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is the child whose emerging sexuality is exploited or violated. Some children suffer increased and inappropriate physical embraces at this time, from adults who, without necessarily realizing it, are turning to them to satisfy their own unmet physical needs. An alarming proportion of children (conservative studies say 25%) are exposed to some form of outright sexual molestation. Violation in any of these ways can have a wide range of disturbing and devastating long-term effects for the child.
Emotional function and core beliefs
Core beliefs arising from positive experiences at this time include: I can love with my whole being, and be loved for my whole being. Life is meant to be pleasurable. Work is meant to be pleasurable, interesting and fulfilling. A healthy passage through this stage produces a self-identity based on one's gender, grounded in sexuality. Sex and love remain united, the sexual act being about loving union and surrender. Strengths that we are trying to develop at this time include: a balance between work and play stemming from a healthy attitude to pleasure and relaxation. Acceptance of failure with grace. Acceptance of tenderness, sweetness. Flexibility of opinion, tolerance, non-rigidity.
Some core beliefs arising from negative experiences at this time include: I am unlovable, I am not good enough. I am sinful. If I am fully sexual I am dirty or shameful and I'll be rejected. Or: "my worth comes from pleasing others sexually". "Sex is just a nice, fun discharge of energy, and it is separate from love". "Sex is about conquest". "Good" sex is about performance, "skill", and points on the score-board". "Rightful" sex is defined by strict "moral" codes; things like masturbation, oral sex, homosexuality, are "wrong", "kinky" or "evil".
Emotional competencies established at this time include: Strong boundaries around sexuality, that is, the ability to say "no": "no" to unwanted sexual demands, "no" to others" expectations of "good performance". A respect for other's boundaries. A self-confidence that means not feeling compelled to agree to sex or use sex for contact or social acceptance. Lack of shame of one's body. A connectedness to one's sexual needs and a willingness to express those needs, appropriately and respectfully. Confidence in one's sexuality based on being a lovable, sensual and vital individual, rather than on fashionable looks or performance targets. Full orgastic potency.
Possible adult manifestation of injury
Almost none of us have emerged unscathed from this developmental stage. The immensely rich and diverse range of human sexual behavior is suffocated by shame, ignorance and rigidity. We think we live in a sexually liberated society, yet much of what passes for "liberation" is compulsive, exhibitionist, or based on high-performance or "conquest". Compulsive, serial promiscuity and rigid fundamentalism are two extreme poles, both reflecting a legacy of either repressive or abusive up-bringing. Inner conflicts and tensions surrounding our sexuality keep us from experiencing our full potential for pleasure and fulfillment. The human body is in its entirety capable of integrated orgasm, yet for most people pleasurable orgastic pulsation is restricted to the genitals at climax. Deeply held bodily tensions that defend against childhood hurts inhibit our capacity to fully surrender to the loving ecstasy of a total-body orgastic release.
When sex and love are separate entities, this reduces sex to a discharge function that lacks tenderness or intimacy. For some, sex is used as a currency to bargain for company, comfort or control, a means of proving our worth. Conversely, some find it difficult to be sexual with those they really love.
Our exaggerated emphasis on looks, tight bodies, washboard stomachs and fat-less thighs reflects our displaced eroticism: we are more excited by superficial and transient qualities, than by sensuality, warmth and vitality. Pleasure is viewed with suspicion in our repressed society. Instead, we take pride in how "hard" we can push or drive ourselves. Unbalanced task-orientation gives birth to the workaholic and the compulsive high-achiever for whom the playful poetry of living remains out of reach.
As psycho-emotional development continues throughout life, there are additional stage-specific learnings and challenges that we all face, each adding new layers to the personality. However, psycho-emotional structures formed during these first five stages comprise the core of our emotional make-up, and hence govern our characteristic or pattern-like relationship styles. Some caution is warranted to avoid over-simplification or rigid determinism in the interpretation of how early-childhood emotional injury affects personality. Although most people carry some wounds from childhood, many are able to compensate by creating unique and surprising traits and abilities. It is a common paradox that wonderful gifts can have their genesis in childhood injury. What can be said with certainty, however, is that significant deviations from meeting the child's stage-specific, basic emotional needs, are always hurtful and sometimes damaging to the child.
Parenting instruction manuals tell you a lot about "what to do when?", or "what to do if?". What they rarely help you with is how to cultivate your own emotional capacities: the strength, groundedness, endurance and spaciousness required to be lovingly present for your child. Certainly, our education, socioeconomic circumstances, and the amount of emotional and practical support available are important factors in how we fare as parents. However, it is the parent's own personal childhood history, with its unique blend of oft-forgotten joys and sorrows that holds the key to any individual's parenting capacity. In order to become effective parents, it is particularly important to recollect how we ourselves once felt as children. We need to re-establish contact with our own emotional histories if our parenting decisions are to be driven by an empathy that can see and feel the world from a child's point of view. How often do parents discover, sometimes with mortification, that under stress they begin to sound just like their own mother or father did? It is when we have lost our connection to our own childhood feelings that we risk being automatic in passing on to our children the way we ourselves were treated, for better or for worse.
A holistic approach to parenting includes a continual yet sensitive self-inquiry. Areas that we find persistently difficult may at times reflect our own forgotten wounds. When we are perplexed or confronted by challenging parenting situations, it can be fruitful to ask ourselves, "what was happening to me at the age that my child is now?" By re-activating our childhood feelings and memories, children help us to highlight that which wants healing inside each of us; and thus they furnish us with countless opportunities for personal growth. Our children not only make us better parents, but also better people, and in that regard they give us as much as we give them. Without knowing it, they help to shape our emotional intelligence as we contribute to theirs.
Recommended Reading List
Conger, J. P. The Body In Recovery, Frog Ltd. (pages 95-118), 1994.
Goleman, D. Emotional Intelligence, Bantam Books, 1994.
Greenspan, S. Building Healthy Minds, Perseus Books, 1999.
Kaplan, Louise. Oneness and Separateness, Simon & Schuster, 1978.
Liedloff, Jean. The Continuum Concept, Arkana Penguin Books, 1986.
Lowen, Alexander. Bioenergetics, Penguin (pages 151-173), 1984.
Myers, David. Heartful Parenting, Bluebird Publishing, 1996.
Steiner, Claude. Achieving Emotional Literacy, Bloomsbury, 1997.
This article is Part 3 of a 3-part series.
< Part 1
Robin Grille is a Sydney-based psychologist. He has a private practice in individual psychotherapy and relationship counseling. For further information and articles, visit Robin's website and blog hearttoheartparenting.org.
Robin Grille's book Parenting for a Peaceful World (Longueville Media, 2005) is available from Amazon.
Reprinted with permission of the author.More Articles by Robin Grille