By Shoshana Hayman, director of Life Center, the Center for Attachment Parenting in Israel, www.lifecenter.org.il and an international faculty member of the Neufeld Institute, Canada www.neufeldinstitute.com
“There’s nothing to do! I’m bored!” is the battle-cry of children everywhere during summer vacation. Yet after weeks of counting the days for school to end, children are at a loss for what to do with their newly found freedom.
When I asked a number of children what they were looking forward to during summer vacation, their answers were revealing. They all said freedom from … a schedule, homework, boring lessons, tests, bullying from classmates and getting into trouble with teachers. Although they were looking forward to having some control over their time, their activities and who they chose to be with, they didn’t express any clear ideas about what they would do with the luxuriously long days that were about to stretch before them. When we respond to “I’m bored” by filling our children’s time with activities, we miss an important point. Children need times in their lives that are unstructured, when there is “nothing to do.”
According to developmental psychologist Dr. Gordon Neufeld, during the years that children are developing, there is a process called individuation that is meant to unfold when their interests, likes, ideas, opinions, priorities, abilities, goals and aspirations progressively emerge. Through this process, children eventually discover who they are and what they believe. They slowly move in the direction of becoming their own persons. By the time a child reaches adolescence, her own interests and meaningful activities will have potentially taken shape.
We hope that our education system contributes to children’s realizing the fruits of this process. But by now we all know that we need to re-create our educational system so that it can truly support our children’s developmental needs. It is sad to see that, while our children in kindergarten are filled with curiosity and enthusiasm to learn, this thirst for learning diminishes as they reach higher grade levels, and they become easily bored. The problem is, in today’s world, this boredom is camouflaged well with many sources of outer stimulation—friends, video games, television, Internet, shopping malls and so on. These entertainment factories further extinguish our children’s creativity.
Summer vacation, a time when pressure from school is reduced, is a time for parents to prime and support the individuation or emergent process and reawaken their children’s natural drive to learn and explore. Perhaps this can give summer vacation a more meaningful context: an opportunity for parents to fulfill an important role in their children’s development. This is a worthy goal, but not an easy one to support.
The first key for supporting healthy development is in helping the child’s brain come to rest. When the demands of school pressure a child to perform and behave in certain ways, all of his energy is diverted away from creative endeavor to securing his attachments. He must perform and measure up to the standards of the adults who are in charge of him in order to maintain his sense of connection with them. As Dr. Neufeld explains, preserving this feeling of connection and closeness is a child’s most critical need— he needs to feel warmth and safety, to belong, to matter, to find favor and to find approval in the eyes of those he cares about.
Children are in a constant pursuit of feeling safely attached when they are in a situation of being judged, compared and graded, as they are in school. Children need to be brought to rest from this work so that they can grow, and it is our responsibility to do this, not theirs. If the child’s brain cannot come to rest, the child becomes less and less interested in learning as the years go by, less caring and more easily bored.
Summer vacation is an opportunity to give your child rest by creating and deepening his attachment to you. He needs to continually experience the feeling that you are holding on to him, taking care of him, taking responsibility for your relationship with him. When your child knows how much he matters to you, he can let go—his mind is free to create, explore, discover new interests and express his unique self.
The second key for supporting healthy development is giving the child room to express her own thoughts, ideas, tastes, opinions and feelings. Parents can ensure unstructured time and supply the ingredients that encourage children to explore their inner world. Arts and crafts supplies, materials for assembling costumes for dress-up, musical instruments, and other materials or equipment for free play give children opportunities for self-expression.
One mother told me that her children went to great efforts to drag an empty refrigerator box up four flights to their apartment. She was amazed by her children’s creativity in turning this box into a magical place. The box first became a house, then a bus, then a classroom, and then many other things. While your child is exploring her inner world, you will have the opportunity to get to know her better and further deepen your attachment with her.
Here are some questions parents can ask themselves in order to generate some intuitive answers and insights.
1. How can I fill my child’s primary need for secure attachment to me?
2. How can I provide quiet space and time for my child?
3. How can I learn more about what my child is interested in?
4. What materials and tools can I provide to encourage my child’s self expression?
5. How can I shield my child’s budding individuality from outside pressure?
There are as many answers to these questions as there are parents and children. Being the answer for your child is a way to turn summer vacation into an enriching experience for yourself and well as for your child.