Giving our Children the Gift of Time
“You need to know who you are so you don’t get told who you are.”
– Yung Pueblo
“Let your light shine!” This inspirational quote is everywhere; it’s superficially plastered onto t-shirts, and posters… There is even a song about shining our “little light” into the world, one that you may now be singing in your mind as you read this. Most of us buy into the idea… the idea that if we bring our best to the world, the world is our oyster. In theory, it’s spot on. However there are some major problems that arise when we try to apply this idea in the real world. Mainly, many of us don’t have a strong connection to ourselves… and therefore many of us don’t have a strong sense that we are in control of our lives (an inner locus of control - in technical terms). It all starts within us, yet many of us are constantly looking outward for guidance and validation. We can’t shine our light if it’s long ago burnt out, so we look to get light from other sources… success, “Fitting in”… “Keeping up with the Jones’s”. As a child and family therapist, play therapist, and expert in the culture and language of children… I’m telling you, this starts young!
When Kids Begin Comparing
Starting around the age of 6 or 7, kids really start to be aware of (and care about!) the differences between themselves and others. This is around the age when comparing themselves to others really picks up steam, with their focus shifting away from themselves and more to their peers. Prior to this age, the developmental focuses are on attachment, mastering our own bodies, and mastering our environment. Around 6 or 7, Social and academic demands begin to increase, and children are now working to integrate all they have learned about themselves and their place in the world, within the context of a broader social environment. This 6 to 11 year old age range (which I will refer to also as “elementary age”) is also the developmental period that precedes adolescence, the time when our teen’s primary developmental task is to answer the question of “Who am I?
A Critical Time for Development
The elementary age years are a critical time for kids. A time to set the foundation for the coming question of “Who am I?” by starting to gather more and more information about their own likes, preferences, and needs. This is their chance to collect as much information about themselves as they can, so that they can later integrate what they know into a deeper sense of self… a personal identity. We want our elementary age kids to grow up to be teens who are able to stay true to themselves, and have a strong sense of who they are, as they mature and grow into adulthood. All of this starts with them first being connected to themselves and being able to be aware of what works for them and what doesn’t, what they like and what they don’t… what they need. All of these, questions that can only be answered from within. Vital questions for them to answer so that they can have a tether. A tether that connects them to themselves first, so that when they connect with others their sense of self is strong, stable, and secure. Kids who know themselves are more likely to trust themselves. They are more likely to feel secure in themselves, and thus more secure in their relationships. Kids who are not tethered within have the felt sense of a floating ship with no anchor. It is exactly this lost and floating feeling that sets our kids up to feel insecure and dependent on others for guidance… depending on others to “rescue” them from their own discomfort… to tell them where to go. This sets our kids up for a whole host of problems, including shaky and unstable peer relations, low self-esteem, anger (opposition; defiance), and behavioral challenges. This also sets our kid up to be at higher risk for anxiety, depression… and addiction. Bottom line… when they are not tethered within, it leaves them at the mercy of external factors to tell them who they are, what to do, and what they have to offer this world.
Fostering the Inner Connection
So how do we foster this inner knowing and connection in our elementary age children? How do we keep them connected to themselves, when everything in them is pulling outward? How do we keep their bright lights from starting to dim?
Kids need freedom! They need freedom to be with themselves, to know themselves… to come up with their own ideas, and to have their own thoughts and opinions. They need space and time, in which they are not being directed by external influences, including other kids. SO much of kids’ lives now days are externally directed: sports, school, structured play dates, even unstructured play with other kids…the list goes on and on. They are severely lacking in independent, non-directed, (screen free) free time. I say screen free because screens “rescue” them from the discomfort of being still with themselves and answering the questions about what they need, want, and think. Screens rescue them from the gift of being bored. Before you get heated, I’m not against screens! However, often kids are on screens at the expense of non-directed free time. Kids are seeking things to engage them constantly, versus sometimes – externally seeking always. However, having NO ONE and NOTHING to engage them, and being forced to think about what they want to do with that time and space… this is how kids come to know themselves. This is where that inner connection begins. If they are only ever participating in directive activities, how can we expect them to develop trust and comfort in their own inner guidance as they mature? How can they even have time, as elementary age kids, to build the foundation of knowing… accumulating information about what THEY like, think, and NEED.
It is exactly this individual freedom that leads to the tether within. And it is the tether within that leads to healthy functioning and to authentic and healthy peer relations. When we are securely tethered to ourselves, when we know and trust ourselves, THEN, and only then, can our lights shine out. Out into our relationships and out into our worlds. And when “out there” is not such a safe and friendly place, we have our tether to pull us back inward. We have the ability to sit in our discomfort… to listen to what our body and mind are telling us. We have the experience and awareness to know what we need. We have cultivated this ability, this trust in ourselves… this knowing. Some of you reading this may know exactly what I am referring to, by its absence. You see, when COVID hit, “out there” shattered. For many of us, without strong and secure tethers within, this triggered a whole host of challenges, including many of those listed above: anxiety, depression, addiction… The loss of our external “lights” made it glaringly obvious that our light within was not sufficient… In that sense, this gift of (painful) awareness was / is a chance to re-connect to ourselves… to regain what we long ago lost. To re-connect our tether, connecting it inward instead of out. When we can do this, we are not dependent on external validation to feel worthy or to feel whole. This tether within creates a deep stability and security, the foundation for self-esteem, mental health, and healthy relationships. This type of security also allows us to see and bring out the best in others. When we know our light and shine it, it inspires others to do the same. Isn’t this what we most want for our children as they grow… as they become adults and go out into the world?
The Ideal Time to Start
It starts when they are little, with our elementary age kiddos… by the time they are teens or adults, lost at sea, it becomes so much harder to cultivate that inner connection. The habit of external seeking is already strongly engrained. Not impossible… just harder, and more painful.
Let Us Help
One of the gifts that this pandemic has given me, as the owner of Wholesome Healing, is the inspiration to create an offering that provides elementary age children with what they really need: freedom with themselves and authentic connection to others, in nature. Along with my partner, Ashley Taylor, we are using expressive arts (stories and folktales, narrative work, art, movement, etc.) to help kids get to know themselves… to answer the question of “What do I need?” And then to authentically connect with others in a real, deep, and meaningful way.