I occasionally teach a four-hour class in our local community for parents who are considering a divorce or who have actually divorced. The class is called “Children of Divorce.” The focus of the class is on understanding the experience of children during divorce and what parents can do to make the experience less traumatic for children. During the class at one point I always ask parents the same question:
“What is children’s greatest need?”
I get lots of interesting answers. “Fun.” “Love.” “Communication with parents.” “A place to call home.” “Reassurance from mom and dad.”
These are not bad answers, but it usually takes a little while to get the answer I’m looking for. Is there a right answer? I think there is.
Understanding Children’s Greatest Need
The problem with much of how we approach children today is that we think their lives need to be exciting. Nothing could be further from the truth. I’m not saying that a little energy and creativity and spontaneity are bad things when it comes to kids, in fact, they are great-but these things are kind of built in with kids. I’m a fan of boredom, actually. Is that statement a little bit tongue-in-cheek? Yes. But let me explain.
The entertainment and advertising industries have caught on to the idea that children are an exploitable resource. If they can get a child to ask mom or dad repeatedly for a new video game, a designer shirt, or a really cool CD, then money will often make its way from mom or dad’s pocket into the pockets of the advertising and entertainment giants. How do these groups convince children to ask for such stuff? They make it “exciting.” They play to a child’s emotions that if they do not have just the right outfit then they don’t really fit in. Or they tell children that they need to get the new toy that is “all the rage – right now!” because if they don’t, they’ll get left behind. In other words, “excitement” sells to kids. Somehow, in the process, a lot of adults have become convinced that excitement itself is a fundamental need of children. They particularly start to believe this when children and youth come to think of an “exciting life” as an entitlement which their family or community is supposed to provide on demand.
Let me share a little research I’ve recently done. A collaborative team I am working with met with adolescent youth in 9 different communities around our state, and sponsored interactive discussions about youth issues over a computer network. The issues ranged from alcohol and drug use to teen sexuality to youth empowerment to parents. The findings have been rather fascinating, but one that has come up repeatedly has startled me. For nearly every issue that provides a risk to teens, such as alcohol use or sexual activity, the discussion has followed a similar direction regardless of the community. “Why do kids pursue these things?” we ask. The pattern has always been pretty much the same:
There is nothing else to do around here (things aren’t “exciting”).
Our parents, our families, the community at large – they should do something and provide us with some exciting things to do!
Of course, when we then follow up and meet with adults in some of these communities and they read the perceptions of the youth, they are flabbergasted. They describe the parks, the baseball fields, the skate rinks, the community youth centers, and other efforts to provide opportunities for children, youth and families to be together and have meaningful activities. Too often, the response by the adults is that maybe we’re just missing the boat and need to provide even more “exciting” things for our youth to do. Wrong answer.
Dr. William J. Doherty, a respected educator and professor at University of Minnesota, has called the drive to respond to children’s needs in this manner “consumer parenting.” He writes:
“Parenting has become like operating a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week store, with service on demand. Of course, parenting has always been a full-time job, but nowadays it’s not just being on call for children’s core needs, but being ready to respond instantly to their wants and whims as well at any time of day or night. (Take Back Your Marriage, 2001, p. 53)
Doherty’s concern is that parents have become full-time “parental service providers” who are drawn into the never-ending cycle of trying to provide children with the excitement to which they have become accustomed and which they often perceive to be an entitlement.
What is my response to this pattern? Well, I love kids like crazy and actually like to spend a lot of time with them. But I don’t feel that excitement is a child’s greatest need. Not even in the Top 10. Why? Because 95% of kids come with a built-in “excitement generator” called curiosity. Children are primed to learn. A child’s brain operates at twice the speed of the normal college student’s brain. If you feel that your life is boring, follow a kid around for a while. It probably will not stay boring. For example, if I follow my 17-month-old daughter for a few minutes outside, she will inevitably try to eat a bug. Talk about excitement! If I follow my 3-year-old daughter for a few minutes, she will insist that I sit down and read or tell her a story about how she is going to be a “scary witch” at Halloween. More excitement! Or maybe if I follow my 9-year old boy around for a few minutes, I will usually find myself engaged in a debate about the finer points of dinosaurs and whether he should save up his money and buy an RV so that he can someday travel around as a paleontologist. Truthfully! Kids don’t need to be provided with excitement, they generate excitement!
Now, I’m overemphasizing this point to make a point. It is not that children have no need for interesting things and fun and excitement, they do. But they are able to generate a great deal of that if adults give them guidance and opportunity and feedback.
There is a greater need.
In the class I mentioned, someone usually gets around to giving me the answer that I am looking for. It is very simple. Children’s greatest need is security. Let me say it again. Children’s GREATEST NEED IS SECURITY!
A sense of security is perhaps the most fundamental of all human needs in several ways, but it is primary for children. As young children, adults and caring parents provide the food, warmth, shelter, affection, and attention that are needed for any child to survive, let alone thrive. This is done by doing a lot of simple, rather boring things like giving the child a bottle, holding him or her in your arms, tucking them in at night – over and over and over and over again. That’s what I mean by think boredom. These small moments can actually range from challenging to delightful to exhausting, but they must be done to build a sense of security in a child’s world. Over and over again. And again.
Building Security in a Child’s World
How do I know that children’s greatest need is security? I could run to some research on this topic, but I won’t. Let me tell you a story.
Several years ago while I was traveling on a business trip, one night I called my wife as our children were going to bed. It has been a habit of mine since becoming a father to sing to my children each night at bed time. I usually sing three or four songs, often the same songs, as my children go to bed. My wife took the phone with her as our kids were going to bed, and then she told me to listen. My kids could not hear me sing over the phone. But I didn’t need to sing that night. What I heard was the sound of my children’s voices singing to themselves the same songs that they heard me sing to them night after night after night. I was gone that night. But the songs remained. Their voices filled the void that my absence had left in their evening routine.
Why was that important? I still get emotional when I think about it or write about it. Because it was such a remarkable example of a child’s greatest need. My children get a sense of stability in their lives, of security about how things will be and who will be there for them, by such a simple act as me singing to them over and over again at night over a period of years. That they needed to feel that security reinforced was made clear when they sang to themselves the songs that I would have sung for them. They needed to hear that which helped them to know that things are normal and our family is okay and we are secure and cared for and loved.
What happens when divorce strikes a family where children live? Often it is these changes to the little patterns that provide security that are so challenging to children in such a process. No more dad singing every night when they go to bed. Many things can upset the security patterns in a family’s everyday life. How do you build and maintain security for children if it is truly their greatest need? Just a few ideas.
Presence. A child cannot benefit from the security a mother or father or grandpa might provide if you have no presence in the child’s life. That might mean you are there at bedtime each night. It might mean that you go to lunch together on a certain day each week. It might mean that you talk on the phone for fifteen minutes a day. But what it means is that you will find a way to be present in a child’s world in a consistent and caring way. The key to building security with a child and the trust that accompanies it is consistency.
Affection. There is something about the caring embrace of a mother, a kiss on the forehead by a father, or the snuggle time with a grandma that cannot be replaced. My wife and I had an ongoing struggle with a young son several years ago who came to sleep in our bed with us almost every night. I was advocating that we needed to help him sleep in his own bed. So, one morning my wife had a conversation about this topic with him and he said, “But Mom, I just want to be with you every single, single day!” What could Mom say? “Sounds good to me,” she said. The point was that maybe he needed our affection and reassurance over time before he was ready to sleep every night on his own. He does so now, but that was a point at which security was a greater need for him and my wife recognized it.
Routine. The small routines of a home and family provide some of the most important elements of security to a child or adolescent. It is important to establish routines that are reliable and reflective of your family’s particular personality. And it is important to maintain them over time. Children look to routine for a sense of security and familiarity in their home environment. I can share many examples, but let me provide just a couple. Bedtime is a great time to build particular routines. I have a son who likes to have three blankets on his bed at night. They have to be the right blankets in the right order or he will not go to sleep! What is the big deal? For him, it is the security of having something small in his life that he can depend on-it gives him security.
We usually brush teeth at our house before saying prayers at bedtime. When I try to change this pattern around in any way, all five of my children point out, “Dad, we have to brush teeth first before prayer!” What is the big deal? For them, it is the stability of a particular family routine and pattern that they can depend on-it gives them security. This is the essence of what I mean by “think boredom.” At the level of basic home and family living patterns, it is such elements of routine that are maintained over time which provide security to children. I still remember what we ate almost every Sunday night when I was growing up-pancakes and scrambled eggs. I love that memory. It was a similar routine over and over again and after a while it just wasn’t “Sunday night” without a dinner of pancakes and scrambled eggs. It was security.
Traditions. Family traditions provide another source of security beyond the occurrence of basic family routines. There is some overlap in these areas, and traditions are worthy of fifty columns alone, but again the point is to establish and maintain some meaningful family traditions. At Christmas, in my family we would trade off every year between a green tree (Dad’s favorite) and a white flocked tree (Mom’s favorite). We kids would look forward to the tradition of going to pick out the Christmas tree, whatever the type, because it was a tradition. We could depend on that tradition.
Now, don’t think that I am “against” a little excitement. After all, I did take my boys to the “monster truck rally” last year. My daughter, appropriately, threw a fit that she did not get to go and so Dad and three kids all plan to go together this coming year. But, we know that going to the monster truck rally is not the sum and substance of what it means to create lasting family bonds and the security of knowing that we love each other. We don’t need the monster truck rally. We need brushing teeth each night and saying our prayers. We need songs that we all will remember. We need pancakes and scrambled eggs on a Sunday night. We need each other’s presence and affection. We need our family’s routines and traditions. These provide security.