Peter Ernest Haiman Ph.D.

Work: (510) 277-3601
Home: (510) 525-1718

Ending the Violence

As a society, our future can only be as strong and secure as our child-rearing practices. We must understand the relationship between early experiences and the healthy development of children. Yet, as famed psychologist John Bowlby stated, "There have been, and still are, clinicians and others...who have found it difficult to believe that accessibility or inaccessibility of an attachment figure can of itself be a crucial variable in determining whether a child (or an adult for that matter) is happy or distressed."

To ignore this essential need for early attachment is to set the stage for chronic violence during childhood. The absence of appropriate nurturing or of key attachment figures is an act of violence, as experienced by the young child. All those who make decisions about a child's life-everyone from parents to teachers to those who produce the songs and videos that children watch-must recognize the devastating impact of such violence and instead strive to create a more peaceful and loving world, emphasizing humane values, for the next generation.

Freedom and Responsibility

Too often I hear parents blame their young children or adolescents for misbehavior when the true responsibility lies with their misguided parenting. I have seen parents punish and scold infants, toddlers, and preschoolers for behavior that was directly caused by ignorant child-rearing. A large and increasing number of parents today don't know how properly to rear children. They don't make the effort to find good quality information about child and adolescent development and parenting. The result is more child-parent alienation, adolescent drug use, gang membership and violence, school dropouts, delinquency, and depression.

I also hear people who are parents blame members of Congress for not solving our nation's problems-whether it be the debt crisis, lost jobs, or international conflict. I've read statements by some recommending members of Congress have their pay withheld as punishment, as if that were a solution. If these parents had studied the candidates more thoroughly before they voted, they might have recognized their authoritarian personalities. They might have anticipated their capacity for stonewalling, and their inability to work toward balanced compromise or to govern effectively.

When it comes to parenting our children and managing our democracy, who is really responsible?

Participatory Decision Making

As a youth, were you given opportunities to learn how to make good decisions? By this, I mean knowing how to evaluate the pros and cons of each available option, and the effects of these options on others, before making your decision. I also mean knowing how to select a good alternative, should your chosen plan fail. Such skills are important for youth to practice.

Yet many parents and educators fail to regularly give today's youth these opportunities.

Parents and classroom teachers should engage youth in making decisions about their learning, classroom procedures, and their behavior and its consequences. In schools, student-elected policy councils could meet periodically with the principal to participate in decision making regarding the school's overall administration. At home, weekly meetings between family members could engage children in deciding how the family will operate, especially with respect to actions that directly affect those children.

Research has shown that when youth in home and at school are allowed to participate in making decisions about their life, they are more responsible for themselves and their learning than are youth who have decisions about their life made for them by others. Guess what else happens? They become better decision makers.

Advocates for Children in Family Court

Decisions made in family court that affect the life of the young child, but that are not based on well-researched theories of psycho-social development, such as attachment theory, hurt the very validity of the court. These decisions also can result in short- or even long-term psychological damage to the individual.

In many states, young children do not have legal representation of their own. Every child should have the right to have his or her developmental needs fully described in court. That child's unique life history must be understood if informed decisions are to be made on his or her behalf, and appropriate parenting plans created. This requires an understanding of the research as well as of the individual child. It cannot be accomplished by lawyers alone. Children also need advocates who understand developmental theory and research, and their particular needs.

When evaluating a parenting plan, toddlers and preschoolers have the ability to indicate how well it is working. Even nonverbal infants can express their needs in a subtle manner. Advocates are essential at this stage, as well, to let the court know if the plan is working. When will this vital process become standard in the family court system? It seems we have a long road to travel.

Teaching Children to Become Democratic Citizens

As US citizens, we pride ourselves on being part of a democracy. However, what is the best way, as adults, to help our children and adolescents gain the skills to become competent in the practice of being democratic citizens? In both home and school, we teach children how fine a political system democracy is. We talk about how much better it is to have personal freedoms than to live under dictatorship or authoritarianism. We examine the lives of Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Adams, Lincoln, and others. Yet we often fail to give our youth the attitudes, skills, and practice they need to become thoughtful and competent decision makers. For the most part, neither our homes nor schools have as a prominent goal the creation of skilled choice makers and skilled democratic citizens.

How can we expect our democracy to survive when, for the most part, parents and teachers not only fall short in educating youth to be skilled choice makers, but continue to model for youth largely authoritarian interpersonal and political styles? The message too many parents and teachers give the next generation is that true power is earned and maintained through authoritarian control, rather than democratic means. As a result, our democracy will be at risk until our homes and schools realize it is time for a change.

Encouraging Children to be Curious

Children, by nature, are full of verbal and nonverbal questions. Often, adults provide answers to these questions instead of encouraging young children and youth to find out on their own. Research has shown this practice can have a deleterious effect on a child's motivation to learn. It causes children to cease wondering and asking questions. It inhibits their exploration and discovery, and stops them from developing the skills of critical thinking. However, adults continue to do it. Adults-parents and teachers-continue to be didactic when they could encourage children and adolescents to be more curious and thoughtful.

What strong need(s) do we have as adults that drive us to squelch curiosity in a child, even if that's not our true intention? If you think you might do this, I suggest you look inside yourself and examine why. Whatever the reason, make the effort to stop yourself from automatically giving answers to children and instead create ways to show them how to find their own answers. When you do this, not only will your children benefit, but-and this may come as a surprise- you will enhance your own curiosity and ability to take risks and learn something new.