What is a good childhood? Is it one that is happy? For the most part, yes. But happy in terms of being confident about self, rather than happy meaning without any sadness? Parents who cannot bear to see their child feeling sad may do them a disservice by trying to eliminate this feeling prematurely. If the child is sad because he or she wants a certain toy, or to watch television, and the parent gives in rather than allowing the child to feel sad, this is creating an unhealthy pattern. The child learns to intensify or extend the sadness until they get what they want. As an adult, this person may feel sad for years awaiting a promotion, a certain car or a special house. If, on the other hand, parents use opportunities such as the ones above to explain to the young child that it is not always possible to have what we want, when we want it, and model for the child productive strategies to use at such times, healthy coping behaviours are developed. “No you can’t watch TV now. I know that you are feeling sad about that but what can you do instead?” We can explain, in language that they understand, that we create our own sadness by limiting options. Many adults are still stuck in this pattern.
The same applies to conflicts with playmates. If we rush in too quickly to come to the child’s defense, or take up the issue with the other parent, we deprive children of a valuable learning opportunity to communicate to another about the conflict, and to find a way to resolve it. The other extreme is not helpful either — when a child comes to an adult with a problem he or she is experiencing with a playmate or sibling, and is told to go away and stop tattling, this does not teach problem solving skills. These are complex skills which traditionally have not been taught. This is why relationships struggle and office politics present continuing problems in adult life. We were never taught that conflict is a natural part of life, nor taught to deal with it in ways that may move past it with trust and respect for one another. Grudges held toward others, whether family or co-workers, are testimony to our rather restricted understandings about human feelings and behaviour; and our lack of models of positive communication patterns. This is no one’s fault, it is simply where we are in our evolutionary development. But we now know there is such a thing as peaceful conflict resolution.
Perhaps our generation is on the leading edge of a new kind of literacy which is more profound in its implications than modern computer literacy. “Communication literacy” may allow children not only to get along with others meaningfully and peacefully, but also to create the inner dialogues which will help them to cope productively with whatever challenges life brings.
Gwen Randall-Young is an award-winning psychotherapist sharing insights and inspiration via her published writings and audio products. For MP3s, CDs and books please visit www.gwen.ca.