Family Health

David Coleman: 'Why you need to be conscious of your own growth and development as a parent alongside your children'

As parents, we focus closely on our children’s growth and development. Especially in their early years, we can see rapid change and we are very conscious of things like the development of their speech, their physical growth, when they learn to walk and so on. In the primary school years we may notice their skills development in sports or their greater academic ability. By the time they are moving through their teenage years, we might again notice the rapid physical change and their growing independence.

Are you as conscious of your own growth and development as a parent over this time too? Most of us aren’t. Indeed sometimes our lack of flexibility in changing our perceptions of children, or our parenting habits, can be the cause of real conflict, as their development continues to charge ahead.

Usually growth, development or learning are incremental things. We build on the previous experiences, or achievements, to be ready for the next steps. One model to understand this process of learning is known as the zone of proximal development (ZPD). Essentially, the ZPD proposes that we have what is known to the person, and then we have what is not known, and the gap between the two is called the zone of proximal development. Usually our learning occurs to fill this gap.

Generally when we learn or develop, we need the next challenge, or stage, to be far enough ahead that it is novel, interesting or even exciting and we are motivated to achieve it, but not so far ahead that we believe it is unattainable. In education, we can see that children learn simple concepts first, then these act as building blocks for learning more complicated concepts as they get older. If the concept is too complicated, too soon, then the child may not be motivated to try to learn it, as they can perceive it to be too hard.

We can apply the same process to our experiences of parenting. When your first child is born, you typically have a very steep learning curve that is focused primarily on meeting the basic needs of your infant. For many of us, the first six to twelve weeks are a bit of blur, as we are discovering what it takes to be a parent.

Our next challenge comes as our babies become more mobile, and we have to think about their safety in terms of what is around them that might cause them harm. We also have to learn about how to engage with them and involving them in new activities as they hit their toddler years.

This is also, often, the time that we first have to flex our disciplinary muscles, as they have more of a mind to try things out, and more physical capacity to get themselves into bother. Our core parenting style will probably be quite firm by this point. We will have a habitual way of responding to them, which will probably be relatively authoritarian, based on some elements of punishment and reward.

Many parents will stay comparatively fixed in whatever parenting approach they adopt, right through their child’s primary school years. However, in my view, we need to be flexible and adaptable in how we parent our children, simply because they are adapting and changing and we need to move with them, rather than staying stuck in a single approach.

The ZPD model, suggests that we need to be ready to move too, since the challenges we face, as parents will change as our children get older. Many parents get a huge shock when their children hit their pre-teen or teenage years, because their parenting style hasn’t changed much since their child was a toddler.

I often think of the parenting journey being a process of letting go, slowly and gradually, from the early days when we had to do everything for our infant, to the point at which they move out of home for work or college, independent of us and fully responsible for their own care.

To achieve that we need to have a flexible mindset, where we can accept that we may not have all the answers, and that we have to adaptive to changing circumstance. It is possibly easiest to see this when you have several children and you think about how you deal with the youngest, compared to when your oldest was the same age. Chances are you will have “softened” by the experiences of parenting your older children.

One of the most difficult tasks, is often recognising that your children are older and more able. Because their growth and development, particularly in the primary school years, is so incremental and even invisible, we often miss opportunities to allow them greater freedom or responsibility, such that they can practice their growing independence.

My suggestion to you is that you take stock of how you have been doing your parenting and look to see if there are opportunities for you to do things differently. Do your children need you to grow as a parent, just like they are growing? Do they need you to take account of their changing needs, and changing abilities, so that your whole family is acknowledging that change is good and necessary.

If you can achieve this outlook when they are small, then the sudden acceleration of their development in their teenage years may not catch you unawares, and you may have that flexible mindset ready to meet the new challenges.

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