Children’s fear of the unknown includes everything from a suspicious new vegetable to a major change in their life. For better or worse, children are confronted with change daily, which is a growth opportunity, but also stressful.
The very definition of growing up is that their own bodies change on them constantly. Babies and toddlers give up pacifiers, bottles, breasts, cribs, their standing as the baby of the house. New teachers and classmates come and go every year. They tackle and learn new skills and information at an astonishing pace, from reading and crossing the street to soccer and riding a bike. Few children live in the same house during their entire childhood; most move several times, often to new cities and certainly to new neighborhoods and schools.
And few of these changes are within the child’s control.
Children, like the rest of us, handle change best if it is expected and occurs in the context of a familiar routine. A predictable routine allows children to feel safe, and to develop a sense of mastery in handling their lives. As this sense of mastery is strengthened, they can tackle larger changes: walking to school by themselves, paying for a purchase at the store, going to sleepaway camp.
Unpredictable changes – Mom called away on an unexpected business trip, a best friend moving, or more drastic, parents divorcing or a grandparent dying – erode this sense of safety and mastery and leave the child feeling anxious and less able to cope with the vicissitudes of life. Of course, many changes can't be avoided. But that's why we offer children a predictable routine as a foundation in their lives--so they can rise to the occasion to handle big changes when they need to.
While helping children feel safe and ready to take on new challenges and developmental tasks would be reason enough to offer them structure, it has another important developmental role as well. Structure and routines teach kids how to constructively manage themselves and their environments.
Kids who come from chaotic homes where belongings aren’t put away never learn that life can run more smoothly if things are organized a little. In homes where there is no set time or space to do homework, kids never learn how to sit themselves down to accomplish an unpleasant task. Kids who don’t develop basic self-care routines, from grooming to food, may find it hard to take care of themselves as young adults. Structure allows us to internalize constructive habits.
Won’t too much structure dull our sense of spontaneity and creativity?
Sure, if it's imposed without sensitivity. There are times when rules are made to be broken, like staying up late to see an eclipse, or leaving the dinner dishes in the sink to play charades. But even the most creative artists start by mastering the conventions of the past, and find the pinnacle of their expression in working within the confines of specific rules.
There's no reason structure has to be oppressive. Think of it as your friend, offering the little routines and traditions that make life both easier and cozier. Not only will your kids will soak up the security, they'll internalize the ability to structure their own lives.
Does this mean infants should be put on routines as early as possible?
NO! Infants tell us what they need. We feed them when they're hungry, change them when they're wet. Over time, they learn the first step of a routine: We sleep at night. But forcing an infant to accommodate to our routine is not responsive to your infant's needs. She is not capable of adapting to yours yet. If her needs aren't met, she will simply feel as if the world is a place where her needs don't get met, so she has to resort to drama to try to meet them.
As your infant moves into babyhood, she will establish her own routine, settling into a schedule of sorts. Most babies settle into a fairly predictable pattern. We can help them with this by structuring our day around their needs, so, for instance, we make sure conditions are appropriate for her nap at the time she usually sleeps. Gradually, over time, we can respond to her natural schedule of eating and sleeping by developing a routine that works for her and for the whole family.
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