On Monday Super PG went back to school after two weeks at holiday club (the “Accueils de Loisirs”) for the winter holidays. He enjoys it here because he gets to play with some of his friends every day, but he told me that he prefers school as he will see all of his friends there.
One morning at holiday club he was reluctant to hurry into the middle of the room after taking his coat off. His best buddies weren’t there and he wasn’t sure which boy or girl to approach. He hugged me for longer than usual and I knew it was because he was mulling over this dilemma in his head.
“Look there’s Pierre over there, why don’t you go and say hi to him?” I suggested. “No,” he mumbled, looked at the floor, and then paused, as if there was a reason why, but he didn’t feel like he could explain, or wanted to, at that moment. Having spotted Super PG’s hesitation to join in, one of the organisers came over to help him feel more welcome. Super PG trotted off with her to do drawing with some of the other kids at the table.
He picked up a pencil and started talking to the girl next to him. I watched on, hoping my heart wasn’t going to break for him. She looked up and replied, and he glanced over to me with a smile. “Okay?” I mouthed to him. He nodded. That was my cue to breathe a silent sigh of relief and leave.
The need to belong starts so young, even at birth. I went through life – for psychological reasons I’ve come to understand over the years – constantly looking for people I could feel a sense of belonging to, whether a group of girlfriends, a best friend or a long-term relationship. This desire was linked to many feelings, including self-worth and self-esteem.
More often than not the need was unfulfilled. Why? Perhaps the girls were too bitchy, the best friend wasn’t loyal enough and the relationship lacked intimacy. But I would still try to fix it, maybe I’d try to be bitchy too (yet feel ashamed), or attempt to stick by my friend (yet feel rejected), or desperately try to make the relationship work (yet experience mental distress and isolation).
The human need to belong and form social attachments is so strong that the psychological pain involves the same regions of the brain that respond to physical pain (Leary and Macdonald, 2005). Humans are always going to be this way, and the need will likely be stronger in childhood where emotional development is still in progress.
Psychologist Erik Erikson believed that the psychosocial development of humans happened in eight stages, each crucial because they were crises that pitched individual and social needs against each other. His theory is that each stage must be passed successfully to have a healthy personality. Stages failed mean a more damaged individual results, although it’s possible to resolve issues later on.
The pre-school stage (age three to five) is known as “initiative vs guilt” where exploration is vital and where children need to learn how to assert control and power over the environment. Success in this area, believes Erikson, leads to a sense of purpose.
I’m determined to give Super PG – and my other children as they grow up – coping mechanisms for dealing with this difficult journey.
Allowing Super PG to make decisions so he feels independent and listened to is one of the ways we’re trying to build on his confidence and his feelings of self-worth. Both my husband and I want to treat him with the same respect we would another adult and not dismiss his desires “because he’s just a little kid”. While growing up my feelings were sometimes belittled by my parents. It was “because of my age” or because I was “going through a phase” and this led me to believe that my feelings were not important.
Super PG can’t make all the decisions – he’s three – but we are learning that letting him decide, wherever possible, has a highly positive effect on him.
If he wants to dress up as a dinosaur before breakfast, why not? Before I would have tried to talk him out of it, feeling it was a hassle or we might be late. But now I tell him it’s fine as long as he agrees to put his school clothes on before we leave the house.
On the way back from the soft play centre last Saturday we were heading home for lunch, even though we often eat out at weekend lunchtimes. As we drove past the Chinese “all you can eat” buffet, where we’ve been several times in the past, Super PG suddenly asks from the back seat if we can eat there.
He has never specifically requested to have lunch anywhere before and is usually happy to go along with our suggestions. We were surprised, caught off guard, and not having that intention in mind we told him that we’d planned to eat at home and continued driving. He insisted that he really wanted to eat there. “Can you tell us why?” I asked him. “I like the rice,” he said.
Super H and I looked at each other – that was a pretty good reason. We were approaching a roundabout and after a hurried discussion decided to go back the way we’d come. “Okay then kiddo, we’ll eat there instead of at home today,” I told him. His eyes sparkled and he beamed from ear to ear. “Yay,” he shouted. He was so pleased that he had been heard, that his request had been validated by us.
Another strategy has been to start – subtly that is – talking to him about his uniqueness. I want him to be confident about his identity so that when challenged by the desire to belong, he might be strong enough to resist if the particular circumstance isn’t providing him with enough positive feelings.
I want him to know that there is only one him in the world, that he’s an individual. I want him to understand that what he thinks, feels and says matters, and that he can make a difference. I want him to understand that he must try make decisions that will make him happy, and to have the strength to change his mind when they do not. He can’t understand all this yet at his age, but we can start to talk about these ideas now as they are seeds that will grow.
There is a book he likes called “Only One You”, by Linda Kranz, which helps to convey this message. It is the story of a mother and father fish sharing their wisdom with their son Adri. A colourful and beautifully-illustrated picture book, it can be enjoyed by kids as young as three, but contains messages that are important even into adulthood, including:
“Blend in when you need to. Stand out when you have the chance.”
“Find your own way. You don’t have to follow the crowd.”
“If you make a wrong turn, circle back.”
At the end, before Adri swims away, he tells his parents: “I will remember.”
After kissing him on the head, his mother says: “There’s only one you in this great big world. Make it a better place.”
Yesterday after school we were walking through the playground and I noticed Super H had a big bump and bruise on his forehead. Not the bravest of souls (who loves putting on a plaster on but despises taking it off because “it hurts”) I asked him how it happened.
“Tombé over there,” he said, meaning he fell over at the playground.
“Did someone come and help you?” I asked him.
“No,” he replied.
“Were you okay by yourself?” I asked.
He spotted my relief.
“But,” he raised his head and looked me in the eye with a slight grin, “I think I need bonbons,”
Haha, we might need to work on Super PG’s confidence, but he’s certainly nailed taking the initiative in some areas.