One of the most pressing issues for the child of the traditional preschool age (ages 3 and onward) is learning to deal with boundaries. I find many attached parents, especially first-time attachment parents, are rather slow about using boundaries. It seems as if they equate boundaries with not being a good attached parent. Attachment parenting does not mean letting the child do whatever they want at the expense of the needs of everyone else in the family. That is not what attachment parenting is, and it sets your child and you up for difficulties that are much harder to un-do as your child grows older and the things you are dealing with become much bigger.
Children naturally are experimenting with boundaries during the years of three to six and beyond! A child of three or three and a half really has their own will starting to emerge and is looking to see what the rules of the family are. It is also an important time for the child to see what the social rules are beyond the immediate family. A small child needs you to model manners and to help them. We are certainly kind and respectful at home, but there are also certain ways we act outside of our home depending upon what we are doing and where we are. What are the rules of conduct at the park versus the rules of being at a place of worship? These are the things that small children are learning.
A sense of right and wrong can not be especially elicited before the six/seven year old change, but that certainly does not mean you just let things go and slide away. You take your four year old by the hand and say “thank you” to the neighbor who has brought him a gift, even if he is too shy to say it for himself. You take your child who is being disruptive in a quiet place and step outside. You physically help your three and a half or four year old draw a picture for the smaller sibling whom they were not gentle with.
If you can start by putting these boundaries in place when children are small, then when your child moves into the ages of seven and nine, they will come to see you as the loving authority that you are. They will see that what you say means something and your voice will be a guide of wisdom. I am sure as teenagers you all will remember certain things your parents would say, and even if you didn’t follow your parent’s advice about something, you probably could hear their voice in your head! The parent’s loving authority is often like a conscience for the child as they work to develop their own morality and their own right action.
But the groundwork for this is laid in the Early Years. I cringe when I see three and a half, four, five and six year olds just doing whatever it is what they want to do with no regard for the feelings of others because the parent is not guiding the behavior at all. Yes, children have temper tantrums, children melt down, children have difficulty playing together, things happen. That is life with small children! However, it is the job of the parent to help guide that child toward the boundaries that exist, to structure opportunities for success, and yes, to step in a gentle physical way to help guide the child. There is no “voice only” parenting from the sidelines with the small child. They need your physical presence.
What you are doing today with your small child is very important for the future of your child and for the future of society. What you do today matters! The Early Years count!