There is a lot of discussion in the media currently about frustrated and disillusioned young people joining destructive movements because they want to belong, to make a difference. Commentators speculate that they are motivated by feelings of powerlessness, wanting to have an impact. Feeling that you have little control over your life can also lead to depression and despair. Some prisoners, asylum seekers in detention and children who are abused live with similar feelings and their repercussions.
Having an impact and making a difference – mattering – is important for all human beings. However, when first signs of assertiveness, limit testing and experimenting with personal power appear around the age of 12-14 months, reactions sometimes are apprehension or wariness – as though we have to be vigilant and ‘nip it in the bud’ to prevent the behaviour from getting out of hand.
When a young toddler says ‘no’ as though she really means it, refuses to co-operate or expresses frustration loudly and clearly when a toy is taken away or when she is strapped in a pusher, some adults are inclined to respond as though making demands and asserting oneself must be quashed.
Is this inclination due at least in part to feeling threatened by these behaviours? Are we afraid that we won’t be able meet the challenge of channelling this need for power in constructive ways? Young children’s efforts do indeed need channelling. Just as they often make messes and mistakes when they explore and investigate what they can do in the physical world, at times they explore their power in their social worlds clumsily and inappropriately.
We accept that babies have power – for example the power to attract and keep others’ attention and to ask for what they need through crying. However, our acceptance wanes when they begin experimenting with their power in more sophisticated and confronting ways.
Making something happen captivates young children. As examples, consider the appeal of a light switch or a touch screen. Similarly, they derive great satisfaction from having an impact in their social worlds. A major challenge for children, beginning in the second year of life, is the lifelong task of learning about their personal power and how to use it constructively, positively – on behalf of their own and others’ wellbeing.
Many years ago I edited a book called Trusting Toddlers. At times our reactions to early displays of toddlers’ power suggest that we don’t quite trust very young children.
The qualities that we later label as leadership, resilience, determination, confidence, persuasiveness and assertiveness have their origins in acts of assertion as children attempt to strengthen their sense of agency in the second year of life. Learning that you have power and how to use it constructively requires great sensitivity and intentional teaching from respectful and respected adults.
How do you respond when toddlers assert themselves? Do you respond in ways that intentionally support learning to use power positively and constructively?