When Structure and Supervision Become Barriers to Child Development: 3 Important Ideas for Parenting Young Children

Structure and supervision are important principles in raising healthy, curious, and connected children. But when these become too rigid, anxiousness and inflexibility begin to seep into a child’s developing mind. Structure provides a framework for expectations, and about how time and the day flow. But much like a house, the space defined by the structure is where the magic of “home,” relationship, and learning happens.

The same holds true for supervision. Monitoring and guiding are important parental responsibilities. Safety matters and a secure base is what a child holds in mind as he or she explores and widens their sense of self, relationships, and how the world works. But strict and rigid supervision does not allow for autonomy and intrinsic exploration, and over time a child learns to wait to be told what to do and how to do it. When this happens, key developmental conditions are supervised out of the exploration process and the skills of creativity, taking initiative, problem-solving, frustration tolerance, and risk-taking suffer accordingly. Notably, over time these skills develop into personal qualities and are hallmarks of success in each stage of life.

The challenge is balancing the need for control. When we think too much in terms of behavior rather than development, parents gain a sense of control by emphasizing the management aspect. This may feel “on course” but behavior management is only one side of the developmental equation of continuity and change. Without the vision and pathway development offers, children have less control over their exploration and their needs are stifled. 

Control lives somewhere between chaos and inflexibility — and learning and exploration can get messy at times. But this sweet spot is the essence of authoritative parenting which leads first, then manages. Further, this balancing act is complicated by the fact that no two children are alike.   

For practical purposes, here are three important needs children have that can be stifled by too much structure and supervision. Consider what these processes look like in the present for you and your children. Do you need to adjust? 

  1. Play. Opportunities for open-ended free play are important to the development of cognitive and social-emotional skills, and executive functions. This does not mean un-monitored, but a child can explore, make mistakes (even make a mess!) without the intrusion of an adult mind and body. If you are invited into the play, follow their lead. Admire the development of play themes, the taking on of pretend roles, negotiation, conflict resolution, and turn-taking. This type of play truly feels like a process in that the adult need for end goals and outcomes should not enter this sacred space.  
  2. Practice. Often schedules, at home or in the care of others, are so structured that children move from one activity to another without time to practice the challenging skills of regulating self and attention. Over-scheduling becomes too predictable, but produces many hard-stops and transitions, and not enough time just “being with.” Leaving intentional gaps in schedules or building in “quiet time” allows the space for recharging, relating, and reflecting. During these times, children learn how to play independently and the dreaded “I’m bored” is less likely to become a part of a child’s repertoire. Instead of another block of screen time, car rides can become a time to practice conversation, for wondering (what if?), a good game of I-Spy or connecting with music. These interactions integrate a child’s mind, developing important connections between the right and left hemispheres.  
  3. Problem-solving. On some level, the only way to build resilience and develop perseverance is getting better or getting through. Too much structure or supervision may bring a sense of control — but it minimizes life’s complexity. We need stress to grow. As parents, we can model that problems are a part of everyday life and opportunities to build cognitive and social-emotional skills. While we innately do not want our children to suffer, providing a clear problem-free path each day does not prepare them for the world of school, extra-curricular activities, and peer relationships. And there is no need to go looking for problems as living life on the developmental path will offer more than a fair share.

Structure and supervision are important parenting principles we implement each day. Too much or too little of each can negatively influence a child’s development of important skills. While striking a balance is different for each child, management tasks need always be informed by development and the leadership aspect of parenting. When in doubt, ask the question: “At some point in the future, what do I want my child to be able to know, to do, or to be?” This opens the way to visioning and aligning that honors a child’s development at any stage. 

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