Growing Flexibility in Your Child

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Recently, a mother asked me how she could help her son become less rigid in his play so that he would be more successful in his play with peers. As I sat down to respond to her question in email, I began to think about what an important question this was, and I felt inspired to write a blog posting about it.

I think of “rigidity” in terms of being the opposite of flexibility. In that sense, being rigid about something is something we all do when we are stressed, when we can’t manage flexibility. Kids develop more and more competency in dealing with the unpredictability and variability life brings them – more competency in being flexible – as they grow, and the more competent in this regard they become, the less scaffolding they need from their caregivers. Some kids need more support than others, but all need help from their caregivers in learning to be flexible. By caregivers, I mean parents, babysitters, and teachers.

One of the ways caregivers help children in this developmental process is to imagine what is going on inside the child’s mind and body. (I use the word “imagine” for two reasons. One is that you can’t really ever “know” what is going on inside another person. The other reason I will describe in a moment.) 

What is the child’s intention? Where is the child in relation to accomplishing his goal? In other words, what is his state? Is he relaxed and focused? Is he comfortable but a little scattered? Is he fatigued and unfocused? Getting better and better at imagining about your child’s “state” and intention will help you attune to his needs and be able to support him. It also keeps you focused on his agency. I think of agency as perhaps the single most important factor (after basic needs, of course) in helping children (or adults) grow – protecting it, supporting its development.

As caregivers get better and better at imagining what is going on with their child, they can then help the child take a small step in the direction the child was already heading (according to the child’s intention). This idea derives from the work of Lev Vygotsky, a Russian learning theorist at the turn of the last century, who among other things described the “zone of proximal development” – the best way to help a child learn (Vygotsky, 1967, 1978). 

For example, suppose the child says in a dreamy way, as if he is musing about some plan, “On the way to school let’s stop at I-Party and get a pirate costume so that I can wear it when we play pirate ship on the playground.” The mother realizes that (1) I-Party isn’t open at 8:30 in the morning, even if she were willing to darken the doorway of that store that kids love so much; (2) They barely get to school on time anyway, given the demands of their everyday life; (3) the child hasn’t even gotten out of his pajamas yet, let alone eaten his breakfast, so doing this strange and strenuous errand is not at the top of her mind! 

According to what I am recommending, first, the mother would check out his state. He has just gotten up and is in a physiological as well as psychological transition state. That means he isn’t going to manage flexibility very well. But as the mother observes him, she notices that he seems rather comfortable. He isn’t whining. He is speaking thoughtfully, and his little body is relaxed, his face smooth. She would then imagine his intention. Clearly, that is to be a pirate, probably the captain of a pirate ship. In other words, he is going to be commanding, swash buckling, and an essential member of a tight group, his pirate mates.  “Hmm,” she thinks. “This fantasy has potential!” 

According to Vygotsky (I am imagining this, here) the mother would say something like, “Wow. A pirate costume. That would be so great to wear when you play pirate ship! Let’s start getting dressed and think about what kind of pirate costume you would like!  Would you have a hat?” What she is doing in this imaginary scenario is (1) recognizing the child’s physiological and psychological state; (2) recognizing the child’s intention; and (3) on that basis negotiating a shared agenda with him, in this case the shared agenda being getting dressed and off to school while planning a wonderful playtime during playground time. This is building competency for flexibility. 

The other reason for stressing “imagining” is that the capacity for imagining, sometimes called “reflective function” is a core competency in development. Being able to imagine means being able to control your impulses (your body) and consider alternatives. If you can’t “imagine” those alternatives, you don’t have much flexibility and you tend to insist on one demand (“I need it!”). That is because you perceive the world in black and white terms and can’t see the whole world of gray in between. Parents and teachers help the child learn about that world of gray. That grows flexibility. 

Currently, many child developmental researchers think that the development of flexibility and “reflective function”, so necessary in adult life, begins with the capacity of the caregiver to respond in a contingent way to the infant’s initiatives, and is developed further in the play of caregiver and child, that becomes imaginative play (pirate ships) of the child (Fonagy et al, 2005). Then, if the child can manage adequate flexibility, he can engage in imaginative play with peers at a level of greater complexity and continue to grow.

One of the problems I have noted in this otherwise excellent theory is that it is rather one-sided and focuses on what the caregiver does better or worse while neglecting the contribution of the child. As we know, some children are constitutionally better prepared to be flexible than others. Some children have early life experiences, such as medical illnesses or disruptions in their caregiving relationships that challenge them in this process. Child development is always a two-way street. 

If when the mother takes these three steps with her child and in step one notices that he is slouched, his face is puckered in a frown, and his voice is whiny, she is not going to be able to negotiate the same shared agenda with him. She will have to spend more time helping him regulate his state as first priority. On this morning, she might bring him a piece of toast to eat while he is getting dressed (if that is not too out of the family rules and rituals); she might take the process of helping him through the transitions from sleep to wake, from home to school, at a slower pace from the outset; and she will ratchet down her expectations and her demands for compliance, realizing that he is struggling to just feel OK. If he says something about wanting to get a pirate costume in this state, the mother might start the same way, acknowledging the great idea of a pirate costume, but she would leave more time for getting dressed (not easy, I know!), talk him through it more (“Let’s put that foot in a sock and then think about the pirate hat!”), and make fewer demands. 

As always, I appreciate the inspiration I get from the parents and children I get to know. They help me continue to grow in my ideas, and also in my flexibility!

 

Fonagy, P., Gyorgy, G., Jurist, E., & Target, M. (2004). Affect Regulation, Mentalization, and the Development of the Self, London: Karnac Books.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1967). Play and its role in the mental development of the child, Soviet Psychology, 5, 6-18.

Vygotsky, L.S. (1978). Mind in Society, edited by M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, and E. Souberman, Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press.

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