Equilibration - a term used by Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist known for his work on child development. Oversimplified, equilibration is the balancing of a child’s current understanding of the world with new information as it arises.
For example, a child may grow to learn that sharing is safe and fun. This was easy as a first child home alone with Mommy. Enter play-group, and the idea of sharing becomes uncertain. As the child scans the room to determine its safety level, he is absorbing clues from all angles about the new environment and what to expect. Any new information needs to be sorted out, placed, and organized. This can be done through either assimilation or accommodation. Simply put, the child has two options. 1. Learn to fit the new information with his current understanding of life, or 2. The new information will derail his view of life, forcing him to adopt an entirely new approach.
While the child decides how to address the novel input, there is a processing stage - a stage where a child is in limbo between the options of how to understand. Piaget proposed that children go through these dilemmas constantly throughout their development.
It would follow that we need to give our children space to go through the processing stages with peace of mind. We must allow them freedom to develop their understanding of what they experience, rather than jump in and manipulate their daily lives to always be on track with our desires for them. But it’s not easy.
Every year, there is a new teacher analyzing our child’s performance, a new DOE specialist informing us what we need to work on at home. They may be correct, and the suggested interventions may be effective, but the environment it fosters can be detrimental to our homes. We may embrace a “fix-now” mentality, which becomes a weight bearing down on our children.
We all need to feel respected. We need to feel trusted. We need someone to believe in us. Children are no different. They struggle when we say we believe in them but our actions show otherwise. We tell them to reach for the stars - that they can be anything they want, even the President of the United States of America! Then they struggle to get up for Shacharis the next morning and we anxiously intervene. We act as if minyan today will decide whether they become functioning members of society. They are left with a contradiction and swiftly solve it with one of two thought processes.
The first is deciding we didn’t really mean it when we expressed our belief in them. “Parents just say stuff like that.” We are relegated to “not-trustworthy” status. They believe we cannot be confided in, cannot be helpful, and our reassurance becomes a company line that they tire of hearing. “The real message,” they decide, “is that you don’t believe in me. Everyone else can do it, this life thing. But there’s something wrong with me and that’s why you get nervous when I’m not on my A-game.”
Their second option is especially negative, because at first glance, many parents would be happy with their children receiving the message of option two. That is, until they hear the fallout that I see every day from the havoc it wreaks.
Option two is to believe there is no contradiction. “They really do believe in me! I really can be anything I want! I could even be the president! So long as I wake up for Shacharis today…and tomorrow…and the next day, say ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ get straight As, impress everyone around me, bring pride to my family, ensure the community knows I’m a good kid, and be on my best behavior when people are watching.”
This is called conditional parenting, or conditional positive regard. Conditional parenting was first discussed by Carl Rogers, an American psychologist who was among the founders of the Humanistic Approach in psychology. Rogers is widely considered to be one of the fathers of psychotherapy, and was found to be the most influential psychotherapist in history, according to a 1982 survey.
Rogers explained, “Conditional positive regard is where positive regard, praise, and approval depend upon the child, for example, behaving in ways that the parents think correct. Hence the child is not loved for the person he or she is, but on condition that he or she behaves only in ways approved by the parent(s).”
So, what is the fallout of a message of conditional love? Rogers continues, “At the extreme, a person who constantly seeks approval from other people is likely only to have experienced conditional positive regard as a child.”
Over the years, I have seen many highly-talented individuals who struggled with depression. These individuals were lauded during childhood for their talents and primarily received love in response to their impressive abilities. They grew up with ever-growing expectations set by themselves and others. They feared mediocrity, and chased an insatiable desire to be more accomplished in each moment than in the last.
So back to our contradiction. What should we do? Our children do need to behave appropriately. They do need to act impressively, don’t they? How do we send the appropriate message while also encouraging them to act according to our expectations?
The answer is to play the long game. Relax. Don’t take every minute of their lives so seriously. Let them be a little. Enforce your expectations through your own example and simple, composed instruction. Avoid anxious lecturing. Avoid showing them every card in your deck of worries. Believe in their ability to grow outside of your instruction. Trust that they are looking around the world - and your home - and developing values you would be proud of. If you show them love and unconditional positive regard, and act according to the values that you teach, chances are your children will follow suit. (If in spite of this your children do not follow your value system, I promise you the missing ingredient was not anxious lecturing.)
If you find yourself struggling to hold off your anxiety, consider the conclusion some have added to quite a famous saying: “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but it burned down in one.”
Though factually inaccurate (as Rome’s destruction lasted over a century), the meaning is clear: We must be wary of the damaging nature of negative moments in our relationships. They are much more powerful than their positive counterparts. We must subdue our expectation of growth from one moment to the next. Pushing our children too hard can have a much more dangerous effect than missing out on one opportunity for growth. We must learn to push our children to be the best that they can be, but do so with the long-game on the forefront of our minds.