When the new child comes into our lives we immediately adore it but we soon find that it is not an unmixed blessing. It interferes with our orderly lives. It cries in the middle of the night, it is messy and smelly. Most of all, it wants to be always underfoot. We never have a minute to ourselves for years.
The child is not only dependent upon us, it loves us as much or more than our parents loved us, this from the moment of birth. The child also venerates the parent because from the parent comes all the wisdom to guide the new life. The child wants to be with the parent every minute. Even a small baby will wail when separated from us. Even when it goes to bed it wants to do so in the company of someone it loves. The parent thinks, “This must stop. My child will be spoiled.” The child is indeed crying for attention, but for the attention it desperately needs in order to find out about the world.
Parents are in some ways afraid of the children, especially when they have more than two and are outnumbered. They are afraid of losing authority, afraid of any unsocial behavior, particularly afraid that they may not give proper leadership. In that case they feel sure that the children will grow up with bad character. They feel they must carefully watch for every lapse and correct it, or all will be lost.
However, children are not wax for you to mold. The mistake is the identity of the molder. The child must shape his own character, no one can do it for him. The best way for you to help is to be yourself, not worry, and allow them to be underfoot as much as you can stand. They really do not want to walk all over you, they just want to be in on everything. They don’t want to go play with their toys in a playroom, they want to see how dinner is made, how hammers and nails work, how far the toilet paper will unroll. They want to see how you do everything. When you sit quietly there is not much to watch so they climb all over you, it feels so very good.
When you try to get a minute to yourself the children are sad, and don’t know exactly what to do. This underfoot desire is built in by nature, cannot be denied, and when you stifle it they have very odd feelings which you don’t really understand. It is not rejection as you know it, but resentment against fate. It is inconceivable that you should not want them around. They don’t know how to handle it. Behavior at these times can become obnoxious. You then think only of the obnoxious behavior which you feel obligated to do something about, and trouble sets in.
The children listen to every word you speak, copy every little intonation, every little gesture. Frightening, isn’t it? When they seem to be wandering about they still hear and see everything. When neighbors comes in they imitate them. Sometimes they practice some word you would rather they not use, but this soon passes when another neighbor arrives. You can discuss these things, but you cannot stop them.
When you are busy, harried, tired it is hard to remember all this, but it is good for you. You are forced to look at things as they really are instead of how you are told that they should be.
Even teenagers resent being left out, though they have learned by this time to be more considerate of your feelings. They will come in on Saturday morning when you would rather sleep and ask, “What are we going to do today?” The emphasis is on “we”, they feel so much a part of you. However, they are also easily alienated in these years if you feel that they are a nuisance. Defensive behavior takes a different form, but you need to recognize it. Teenagers are dealing with social and emotional issues, so these are the areas they watch most closely. They want to talk about them ad nauseum.
Children are far more mentally and emotionally profound than is generally supposed. They think about such things as life and death as much as you do, with not much less knowledge. They dream, they imagine. just as much as you do. To keep going they need to amass facts and words as fast as possible. Especially they need to know all the nuances of social behavior, what every gesture means, what a rise in voice means, how to tell how people feel, and without watching it is quite impossible.
One of the hardest parts of enduring this underfootness is the fact that you must always be on your best behavior. You can’t use bad language, you can’t burst into tears, you can’t do anything wrong! It is a strain. It may be a comfort to know that children see through you and forgive little lapses. They have watched you from birth so are pretty much aware of your peccadillos, even though they don’t understand them. By the time they are four or five they take most of your behavior for granted. They know how to get your attention and they know what to say and do to keep you from giving them a hard time.
Children watch you so carefully for clues to the world that they think of you as part of the environment to be absorbed, to be used for their purposes of finding our everything. They believe everything you say. They want to know everything about you, your own childhood, where you lived, what you did, how you felt, what your parents were like, how you learned to swim. They are building adults, and they want to know how you did it.
We are concerned today with the idea of self-worth. Children whose parents find them a nuisance will not feel they are worth very much, no matter what you say. It is necessary to have them participate in our lives, necessary for us as well as for them. They cannot learn well if they do not see how things are done (in great detail), just as they cannot learn to talk naturally if they are deaf. To allow children to be underfoot is difficult, but it is not as expensive as buying them toys to keep them occupied.
We enjoy our children much more if we have some idea of how their minds work. Try to watch them in the way they watch you. You will be less likely to scold and punish. Adults who have never noticed the real needs of children have indeed missed something. Some day they will be grown, no longer underfoot and you will miss it.
by Marietta Rawson