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Excerpts from Interview with Penelope Leach (Full interview is found at http://www.todaysparent.com/main/feature/article.jsp?cId=2948)

Penelope Leach is described as "one of the world's leading and most trusted authorities on parenting and child development. The author of numerous books, including the classic Your Baby and Child , now in its fourth printing, Leach lives and works in London, England."

 

What about children learning to regulate or live with their emotions? What part do parents play in that?

They play a very big part, but the part depends tremendously on what stage of development we're talking about. It's very important for children from the beginning, even very small babies, to be allowed to experience and express emotion. "Don't cry" isn't a helpful thing to say to a kid who's hurt himself. Why shouldn't he cry if that's what he feels like doing? And avoiding crying, say, by sneaking out of the house without your nine-month-old baby seeing you go, isn't helpful either. If your going makes her feel like crying, it's better for her to cry and find comfort from the other parent or the caregiver she's been left with.

We want to - and should - comfort distressed children (all distressed people, come to that!), but not by hiding the bad feelings away or covering them with a Hershey bar. You only learn that feelings are survivable by experiencing them and surviving - and seeing parents and other significant people do that, too. If you aren't allowed to feel and express feelings, and nobody helps you understand them, express them and recover from them, you cannot grow to feel confident of your own ability to manage yourself.

So our task is to help kids gradually learn, through the repeated experience of being comforted, that "When I feel bad, I will feel better some time."

Yes, but there's more to it. It's also important to learn, gradually, that feelings won't harm you and won't harm anybody else - you're allowed to feel what you feel. What matters in terms of developing social control is what you do with your feelings, that the way you act because of your emotions affects others.

But that takes much longer than many parents realize. If you see a two-year-old crying because another kid hit him, and then he hits that child back, it's hard to believe that he's surprised that they're now both crying. He probably is, though. Most children are three years old before they realize that if they feel something, it's reasonable to expect other people will have those feelings as well. As for developing that vital skill of being able to predict what another person will feel in reaction to a particular situation, children really can't do that at all until they develop what psychologists call a "theory of mind" - that is, the ability to understand that other people have minds and to be able to predict what another person will think or feel. This awareness begins at around the age of three or four and emerges gradually, usually by six years or thereabouts.

Apart from lack of experience, what makes it hard for parents to help children with their emotions?

I have to say, some parents act as if the main part of their job is disciplining and correcting bad behaviour and that a concern with a child's happiness as opposed to "learning" might be somehow indulgent. In truth, happiness matters - not the instant gratification kind of happiness that comes from always being able to talk an adult into buying you the Barbie doll, of course. The kind of happiness that matters is more like being comfortable in your skin, and therefore feeling confident, optimistic and able to cope with whatever you have to cope with.

Where does all of this begin?

I think it starts with unconditional love - the love that doesn't say, "I love you because you are so pretty and you are cleverer than the baby next door and you don't wake me up in the night. I just love you because you are you (and I am me)." Unconditional love says, "I love you even when I hate what you do."

People can say that to a child, but doesn't the child have to see it?

Yes. Children aren't mind readers. I meet parents who say, "They know I love them to bits..." when their behaviour makes me wonder if the kids do know, and what makes the parent think they know, and when he last told them. And what the child thought his words meant. Children need to know that parents take pleasure in them. So when did this parent, who's so sure his kid knows he loves him, last ask for more company from the child than the child wanted from him? When did he last ask the child if he had time for a game? When did he last ask for a hug? All too often it's the other way round, so kids feel that they always want more of mom or dad than is willingly offered.

How would you complete the following statement: I wish parents could allow themselves to...

Enjoy everything they can and hang loose about the rest. Bringing up a child won't be all fun and games and it doesn't matter that it isn't. I sometimes get really irritated by the fuss people make about the bits of parenting that aren't fun. I don't know of any really worthwhile creative activity which is non-stop enjoyment. Why should people expect parenting to be? Enjoy the moments, hours, days or years of quiet happiness and occasional spurts of ridiculous excitement that come with the processes of growing up. Enjoy today for itself rather than for its contribution to the future.