There are deep, valuable lessons at each stage of life despite seemingly menial tasks that should just be grasped onto. Still, I find myself asking my ten-year-old, “Did you even wash while you were in the shower for thirty minutes?!”
I am not sure of your parenting style, but I take great comfort in those who have gone before me and laid out a plan. Did a manual come in my home birth kit on what to do with this fragile being (emotionally, not just physically) after I used every ounce of energy to push them out? Nope, sure didn’t. But Erik Erikson has a cool name and seems to have a worthy grasp on what this human who communicates through crying and gnashing of teeth is reaching for at each stage of life.
0-18 months: Trust vs. Mistrust “Can I trust the world?”
From newborn to crawling to walking about, babies are wondering “Who and what can I trust?” Even kids growing up in the safest of homes still test this with behaviors. For example, when a child screams and throws their food across the room. Lesson: Don’t throw your salsa at the waiter just because Mommy told you that you couldn’t drink it from the jar. No, that waiter won’t give you sympathy as he is shifting eyes between parents while wiping off a mess he didn’t sign up for in birthing this questionably demon-possessed child who squeals in delight of their terrible ways. “Can I trust you, Mommy? Will you still be there even when I push you (and pull and twist your milk giving suppliers)?” To all three of my babies, I will answer “Yes, you can trust me. I will always be there for you. Even when bending over in gut wrenching pain from mastitis. Even when you refuse to sleep and I can’t keep my eyes open to fight it, so I bring you into bed with me.”
2-4 years of age: Autonomy vs. Shame/Doubt “Is it okay to be me.”
Those terrible twos. Sometimes these don’t show up until age 3 3/4. Mothers, take heart, you will make it through. I’ve been through this stage three times and it’s been different each time. Toilet training is the big to-do at this age. With my first son, dirty diapers did not faze him. He could sit in poop for what seemed like endless amounts of time. Those stand-off times would beat all the suspense of a Wild West quick draw. There was nothing quick about him deciding to poop on a potty. Why, oh why, the mess and stench did not bother him is a question I’m tempted to ask at his wedding rehearsal dinner — be warned in passing me the microphone! But alas, shame was not the way to get him to see, “You may be you, but you are not meant to sit in filth.” Lesson: Let’s respect our bodies by placing poop in the potty. To a sensible adult it seems obvious, “You sit on the toilet and release the toxic waste into the porcelain water hole. Wipe from front to back! WITH TOILET PAPER, CHILD! Then, flush. Easy peasy!” To a child between the ages of two and four you have disrupted his plans of forever being wiped by their caretaker. Responsibility? No thanks!
With my third child (I’m skipping the second, because she was an angel sandwiched between two strong willed siblings), I believe she thought her poop was the best art medium at her fingertips during nap time. “Ah, squishy warm goo. This would look great plastered on my wooden bed and all across Mrs. Baby’s face. Oh, how funny! Mrs. Baby has a poopy mustache!” Lesson: Kid, you can’t touch your poop. “But why?” The single most asked question at this stage. What has life come to that you are now explaining to a kid the dos and don’ts of where poop goes. I was once a Dean’s List scholar progressing in the field of mathematics. Pythagorean theorem did not prepare me for this equation of life. They rarely verbally ask for permission as they are insinuating “Is it okay to be me?” That poop artist of a kid really does have great creativity! I promise in a couple of years I saw the light at the end of the finger-paint tunnel.
Don’t skip through this stage with shame. Be shifty in your distractions and laugh at the messes. Post it on Facebook for other Moms to think “It’s not just my kid that does these gross things!”
4-5 years of age: Purpose Initiative vs. Guilt Exploring using tools or making art. “Is it okay for me to do, move, act?”
These Pre-k years will give you great insight to your child’s innate gifts. You might think all children are stubborn at this age and need to be broken. No and no. You don’t break a strong will; you skillfully guide it (read psychologically manipulate). It’s at this stage we pulled my son from a nice, quiet private preschool and kindergarten to homeschool. Aggression towards not being able to complete goals and answer the question at this stage “Is it okay for me to do, move, or act in this manner?” turned into fist-fights, acting out in class, and biting everyone and everything that got in his way. A few years away from harming peers did him real good. Not to punish, but to focus. Goodness be, he needed some one-on-one attention! I was able to encourage activities that pushed his mind and showed his abilities — fancy way of saying we played a lot of “beat the clock” games to prove that he really was a math whiz! For every negative thing I said during this stage to my kids, I had a wise woman’s voice in my head reminding me to counter with ten positives. These positives often got interrupted shortly after one or two…“SON! Do not beat the cat with that wooden hammer!” Lesson: Let’s use those tools for useful things like building a birdhouse. Anything but becoming an animal abuser!
5-12 years of age: Industry vs. Inferiority “Can I make it in a world of people and things?”
My children are ten, five, and four-years-old. I have minimal advice for the 5-12 years of age stage. Currently, we are pushing against the grain of couch potato/laziness and signing our son up for every activity he shows interest in. Do I truly enjoy sitting in the car for three hours for activity pickup and track practice to end? Not necessarily. But if it means that this boy of mine jogs out, entrusting me with the nitty-gritty details of his day, I will sit and wait for him through each stage to come.