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Parents Know What Their Children Want – or Do They?

on Thu, 09/20/2012 - 13:01

Too many adults have no idea what they want because the adults in their young lives never got quiet enough to let them speak.  As parents of young children, when we are asked what our children want, we assume we know (sometimes correctly and sometimes not) and usually speak for them–especially when they are babies and toddlers. It’s perfectly natural. After all, who knows them best?

Can parents really intuit their children's needs?

When I was a stepmom, I found this notion of parents assuming that they knew what their children wanted interesting. I never felt as sure of my kids’ preferences as did the other mothers. Then when I became a biological mother, I got it–or I thought I did. I told myself I knew my child from the inside out, so it was easier to intuit her needs. Like all new mothers, when my daughter was a baby, I spoke for her and expressed her preferences automatically: “No, she doesn’t like red, give her the purple one; she wants the purple one.” We have to do this for our newborns. But like most mothers, I kept doing it when she was a toddler and into her preschool years. Like most mothers, my ideas about her wants were often based in my own preferences and taste.

I had to learn to let my daughter experess her preferences

When my daughter learned to talk, she was outspoken (wonder where that came from?) Being an experienced early childhood teacher, I was fascinated. Sometimes I even stopped my busy life to ask for her input. I was surprised when my intuition was way off because she was a lot like me-wasn't she? I had to learn (force myself) to ask and also allow for the preferences she expressed.

It is easier with other people’s children. I don’t automatically expect to “know” what they like or dislike, nor is it my job to figure out what they needed as unsettled newborns. In contrast to teachers, parents spend a lot more time with their children, share deep love and have been the voice of the voiceless for most of their children’s lives. Although our job as the parents of little ones is to speak for them, it is also our job to learn to give it up, little by little, as they begin to talk. 

Children need to learn their words work!

When children enter our little preschool, it becomes each child’s job to let me know what she likes, dislikes, loves, hates-what he does or doesn’t want to do. Mom and Dad aren’t around to do the talking. It can be very frustrating if--up until that point-every murmur and hand gesture has been interpreted ( or worse, intuited) by Mom or Dad. It is a surprise, even a shock when pointing and expressing a toddler’s “eh” -- doesn’t get results. Amazingly enough, not “knowing” what my new little ones are saying is a plus. It pushes every child in our group to know and express his or her personal desires in words. They learn very quickly: My words work!

Learning to communicate wants is a life skill

Learning to communicate clearly and successfully is a life skill that is worth nurturing in our children. Asking for and respecting our children's preferences (and not pushing your own) is a critical part of this process. Over time, a healthy sense of self is built, a trait which will be needed by that successful, self-confident adult we are working so hard to raise.

Lynn A. Manfredi/Petitt is a mom, stepmom, and veteran early childhood teacher of more than 40 years.  She runs a family childcare program in Decatur Georgia with Bob Watkins, her husband and business partner. One of the books she co-authored with Amy C. Baker, Relationships, the Heart of Quality Care: Creating Community among Adults in Early Care Settings, was published by NAEYC in 2004.