By Dr. Frank Carter
I have been coaching parents for 14 years. And with the help of experience and advances in modern neuroscience, I understand much more now than I did when I first started out. Parenting goes beyond providing for a child’s basic needs of food, water and shelter. The role of the parent is really to
the brain of a child. Children are born with a very simple brain that has only the basic, primal abilities. And if the child receives all that it needs from the parent (food, water, shelter, security, orderliness, cleanliness, and mental and physical stimulation) then the genetics of the child naturally unfold, just like a flower from the seed. While this all speaks to the biological definition of parenting, there is also a cultural definition that changes from society to society. When this cultural definition influences the biological process, the needs of the child may or may not be fulfilled, depending on who you talk to. But let us remain with the biology of a child’s brain, however, and how a parent can maximize their role in order to achieve the ultimate goal for every child: a happy, well-adjusted, optimistic and capable individual.
Let us begin by thinking of the mind of a child as a new computer. It arrives with the most basic of functions: crying, fussing, smiling and suckling. Crying is the child’s verbal form of communication while fussing is it’s physical form: both are used to tell the parent that it needs something. Similarly, suckling or nuzzling towards the breast, is the child’s way of telling the mother that he or she wants to nurse. Smiling, however, is not a display of happiness. Smiling is a program designed to bring the mother closer to the child and thus the child feels more safe. This is the first example of power exercised by the child. But all of these basic programs are the way in which the child expresses his or her needs and desires. The child is displaying a sense of self: I am here. I exist. Now, in order for this simple computer to grow and become a healthy fully functioning computer, it needs additional programming. And over the course of the first six years of life, the responsibility of this additional programming falls upon the mother. This happens in three important ways:
First, she programs the child’s sense of safety. The more contact the child receives, physical and emotional, the greater sense of safety in the world this child will develop. Just as critical, this sense of safety also controls the emotional response of fear. And the presence of fear in the child’s mind is counter-productive to normal development. In other words, if you scare a child through neglect or punishment, then the child stops growing and maturing emotionally. The child will expend its energy towards finding that safety instead of towards the natural next step in emotional development.
Second, the mother’s interaction with the world is constantly being observed by the child. How the mother reacts is responsible for programming the intensity of the child’s emotional spectrum. So as the mother reacts to something, the child is also learning how to react. He or she is learning how fearful to feel, how angry to feel, how sad to feel, how happy to feel. For example, if there is a loud boom, the child does not search the room for the cause of the sound, the child looks to the mother’s face. He or she is learning what the appropriate response is to this situation. You must consider then that every mood, action and reaction that you have is not only for you, but it is a program you are developing in your child.
Third, in addition to programming the child’s emotional intensity, the mother and child are experiencing an exchange of energy. Human beings, due to their cultural influences, have varying opinions on how much energy is enough energy. But the fact remains that the more contact, physical and emotional, you give to a child, the more energy is transferred from the mother to the child. The more energy that a child receives from its mother, the safer the child feels in the world. This is important because then the child can direct it’s own energy away from concern for its safety and can put it towards learning and exploring the world around him or her. The child can afford to focus on discovering the external world because its internal needs are met. On the other hand, a child whose needs go unmet, will then spend all of its energy trying to communicate its needs and desires to the mother, and this can lead to a chronically fearful type of personality which carries over into adulthood. After all, the way our parents treat us is the way we believe we should treat ourselves.
All of this experience of developmental childhood is called “becoming normal.” In other words, we are programming the child as to what he or she should consider normal or acceptable. We are modeling and programming this for the first 12 years of their life. It is not enough to simply think that children will just “grow up.” It’s not enough to say, “I was spanked and look how good I turned out.” If a child does not receive sufficient guidance in the form of attention to his or her needs and sufficient energy exchange, then the child does not move forward and develop into a healthy capable adult, but rather continues to look backward into his of her childhood for the sense of safety and well-being they need to feel comfortable in the outside world. This then lends itself to behavior that is immature and inappropriate for an adult human being.
Every child is born with a unique genetic composition. The complete expression of that genetic composition should be the goal of parenting. And yes, I am saying that a mother’s responsibility in the raising of a child is
: it’s simply the biology.
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