“You must be the change you want to see in the world”-Mahatma Gandhi
Our culture has moved far away from nature’s intended way for us to parent and care for our children. Unfortunately, over many centuries, as the world has become increasingly more industrialized, people have lost touch with their natural parenting instincts. Each generation is parented in a way that causes distress, pain, depression and anger. This in turn causes each new generation to pass down harmful ways of parenting that reflect their hurt, distress and resentment.
Alarms in nature
Nature has built alarm signals into every animal to alert parents, companions and predators that the animal is experiencing or sensing a need, a threat or a danger. In nature, animal parents instinctively respond immediately to the alarms of their young. A human infant’s alarm signal is crying, which is intended to alert parents to a need. As children grow older, their alarm signals become more sophisticated when their needs aren’t met and often include behaviors that parents find disturbing.
Some of the alarms of children:
· Directly telling us they have a need
· Asking us to help them meet a need
· Asking nicely
· Asking rudely
· Aggression and violence towards people and animals (verbal, physical, sexual)
· Destructiveness (vandalism, breaking things, stealing, etc.)
· Self destructiveness (self mutilation, substance use, sexual promiscuity, bad relationships, suicidal gestures, etc.)
· Passive compliance
The distress cries and acting-out behaviors of youth, like the cries of an infant and the behavioral cues of animals, are nature-based alarm signals. Their alarm signals warn us that something in the child’s body, immediate circumstance, life or environment is distressing to them physically or emotionally and is threatening harm to their optimal development.
When we fully understand that concerning behaviors are the natural alarm signals of children, we will be less likely to, in good conscience, punish, medicate or force children into compliance with distressing, unnatural circumstances. We will begin to realize more and more as we look around our society, that from the hyperactive toddler to the rageful 17 year old, punishment, force, bribes, manipulation and medication do not make distressed children happy, cooperative or compassionate; nor do those reactions fill the voids and satiate the needs children are trying to alert us to with their alarm signals.
The recipe for a happy child: Secure parent-child attachment through meeting our children’s needs
Children of all ages require a secure parent-child attachment in order to thrive. A secure-parent child attachment is vital to a child’s optimal functioning in all areas of their development. It is the blueprint and foundation of a child’s life long physical, emotional, social, intellectual, sexual, spiritual and moral functioning. It is the blueprint and foundation of a child’s lifelong happiness and ability to cope with life and relationships.
A secure parent-child attachment develops as the result of parents meeting children’s basic physical and emotional needs, and then higher level needs, from infancy until young adulthood. This natural function of parenting is part of the human attachment cycle:
1. The child feels a physical or emotional need;
2. The child expresses the need using a signal such as crying, showing, asking or telling;
3. The parent meets the child’s need as soon as possible;
4. Every time the child’s needs are met, the child feels calm, satiated, homeostasis, joy and trust in the parent.
As a result of this unbroken cycle, secure attachment builds and develops.
If parents usually do not meet their child’s needs or usually delay in doing so, their child will feel distress, rage, grief, anxiety and distrust in the parents. Every unmet need builds and builds and an insecure or disrupted attachment develops. When a child suffers a disrupted attachment, emotional and/or behavioral problems may show up immediately or may slowly begin to surface over a period of years.
Parenting and educating the way nature intended
People in peaceful tribal cultures and non-human mammals are the natural models that can teach us how nature intended us to parent. In tribal cultures where violence is very low and mental illness is reportedly a rarity, people are found to parent in line with the rest of our closest mammal relatives. The most critical features of natural parenting are:
· Constant skin-to-skin contact and non-stop carrying of the infant for the first 12 months of life;
· Breastfeeding for at least two and a half years and optimally, up to four and ½ years;
· Co-sleeping with infants and young children;
· Responding to the physical and emotional needs of children all through childhood;
· High levels of physical affection, emotional connection and cuddling through out childhood;
· Nonviolent, democratic discipline and guidance;
· Strong family and community relationships
· Strong family and community modeling of respectful, compassionate, interdependent (everyone doing their part for the benefit of the whole) behavior;
· Natural education through play, exploration, imitation, self-directed learning, physical activity and being an active part of the community; and
· Allowing children the freedom to develop, learn and mature at their own pace.
Many of our mammal relatives show similar ways of parenting, especially mammals that carry their young or have frequent physical contact with them, such as bonobos, gorillas, elephants and dolphins.
As children grow through life, they face certain developmental tasks at each phase of their life. A secure parent-child attachment and natural education helps them resolve and complete their developmental tasks to an optimal level, without being rushed or forced.
School and day care harms secure parent-child attachment
One of the most life-changing disruptions to the parent-child relationship is when children are placed in day care, preschool and grade school. The conditions of traditional schools are often harmful:
· To the parent-child attachment relationship,
· To democracy,
· To a child’s natural development,
· To intellectual development and creativity,
· To the child’s body and health,
· To social development, and
· To emotional and behavioral stability.
Day care and preschool separates children from mothers at the age when it is critical to brain development that young children are with their families. Older children, through late adolescence are often unhappy, bored, frustrated and mentally exhausted in school. They have little time for the high-energy physical activity, exploration, inventiveness and play that they need for optimal brain development. Homework further takes children’s time away from their own interests and from family and friends. Additionally, many children are negatively influenced by their school peers and pull away from their parents at younger and younger ages.
But isn’t school good for children?
Almost everything about the “one size fits all” environment of traditional school is opposite to what nature intended for a child’s development. Some of the reasons why traditional school is harmful to children’s natural development are:
· Traditional schools are based on controlling large groups of people so they all do the same thing;
· Traditional school’s structure and curriculum are not in line with children’s developmental or learning needs at any age;
· Public schools are cutting the very means by which children learn and find joy: Play, recess, art, music, drama, fun events, field trips and hands-on activities.
· Traditional schools do not take into consideration that children’s primary way of learning is through play and exploration. Schools primarily focus on forcing children to sit and listen.
· Traditional school does not allow children to direct their own learning based on interests, talents, passions and abilities;
· Traditional school labels children who cannot conform as “learning disabled” or “behavioral problems”;
· Traditional school is responsible for thousands of children being prescribed drugs for their exuberance, boredom or a developmentally inappropriate learning environment;
· Traditional school regiments children’s basic physical needs (food, water, elimination, physical activity and rest) and fails to allow children to respond to their own needs;
· Almost half of the states in the USA still permit teachers to legally assault children with paddles in public school;
· Traditional school isolates children from their families and communities;
· Children are forced to do homework after being confined for six or more hours in school;
· Homework further isolates children from family time, play time, social time and time for pursuing one’s own interests;
· Standardized exams are designed to measure how well a child tests and how well a child can recall isolated facts. This does not demonstrate a child’s knowledge, intellect, experience, creativity or moral development;
· Learning is considered to be about “getting the right answer” rather than about the process of how to ask questions and where to find answers;
· Traditional school allows children no power, causing children to isolate themselves into exclusive groups or cliques in order to establish a false sense of power;
· Traditional school’s control-based practices offer little opportunity for children’s wants, wishes, ideas and needs to be expressed, leading some to rage, rebellion and revenge;
· Traditional school fails to function as a democracy to prepare children to participate in a democratic society;
· Traditional school is an outdated institution based on the factory work ethic of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s; and
· Traditional school has refused to evolve to meet the creative and intellectual needs of children.
There are many joyful alternatives to traditional school which often inspire children to reach learning potentials and excellence far in excess of most traditionally schooled peers. Alternatives include:
· Unschooling (child-led curriculum),
· Democratic schools (which are run as democracies),
· Montessori schools,
· Waldorf schools,
· Private schools that respect play, outdoor time, children’s natural development and joy in learning,
· Public charter schools (that focus on the arts and play)
· Virtual (online) public or private schools,
· Independent study or apprenticeships,
· Early college
Our everyday life causes emotional and behavioral problems
Constantly, parents are conditioned to accept and live with so many beliefs, trends, habits, routines and practices that seem harmless but are actually harmful to children’s natural development. These include:
· The way children are seen as property and as less-than-human by our culture compared to how adults are seen;
· The way parents and schools teach and model violence, domination and inequality to children by punishing them, speaking to them disrespectfully, using control tactics with them and dictating what they will do, where they will be, how they must act and what they must think for their entire childhoods;
· The self-centered, materialistic, academic-obsessed, work-obsessed, sex-obsessed, money-obsessed, media-obsessed and violence-accepting values parents and the culture model for children about how to live; and
· The way parents substitute themselves with all types of distractions that don’t fill children’s needs, such as day care, school, school sports teams, TV, video games, cell phones, the Internet, designer clothing and putting peers and material objects ahead of family.
These beliefs, trends and practices also include forcing youth to grow up in ways that are not appropriate to their development and failing to allow youth to develop and grow naturally.
Child trauma and PTSD
Many children in our culture suffer symptoms of trauma and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder from distressing and frightening treatment such as physical punishment, and severe abuse and neglect. Trauma affects all areas of a child’s development and actually rewires the child’s brain, causing emotional problems that may be misdiagnosed. Trauma is believed to be stored in parts of the brain that prevent therapy, maturity, learning and insight from healing it, causing symptoms to last for decades. A special kind of therapy, called EMDR, can help heal trauma.
Examples of trauma:
· Difficult birth
· Infant left to scream in incubator after birth
· Parents failing to respond to their infant’s cries immediately
· Crib sleeping
· Child left alone at night
· Having basic needs ignored or denied
· Physical abuse, including “spanking”, “smacking”, “paddling” or rough handling of a child
· Sexual abuse
· Emotional abuse
· Neglect of physical and emotional needs
· Being left in day care
· Being forced to go to school
· Lack of support in upsetting situation, injury, illness or other trauma
· Out-of-home placement (foster care, group home, juvenile boot camp or detention center)
· Loss of parent or loved one
· Death of parent or loved one
· Witnessing domestic violence
· Witnessing any type of violence or attack on a person or animal
· Peer harassment
· Being the victim of racist or derogatory remarks about one’s nationality, sex, gender, sexual orientation or appearance
· Pain or illness
· Born substance addicted
· Seeing frightening, violent or sexualized TV shows, movies, games or websites
Extreme breaks in attachment: Foster care, institutional facilities and adoption
Children who have been adopted or who live in orphanages, foster homes, institutions and programs have suffered extreme attachment disruption and often have severe emotional and behavioral problems as a result. These are the children who our culture has failed the most, as they are some of the most damaged and hurting people in our societies.
Our children do not have brain disorders- Our culture is disordered!
Most children in our culture who act out their distress are misdiagnosed with mental illnesses and brain disorders such as ADHD, learning disabilities, bipolar disorder and oppositional defiant disorder. They are often forced to take powerful, mind-altering drugs once they are diagnosed. However, most of the symptoms that these children are expressing are actually symptoms of a disrupted attachment, a developmentally inappropriate educational environment and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although our culture views these children as “brain disordered”, it is actually our culture that is disordered. Diagnosing and medicating children does not heal the causes of their distress. The symptoms that children show are actually natural responses to an unnatural and intolerable life circumstances!
Repairing attachment and healing trauma
It is possible for parents to repair attachment and heal trauma with children of all ages! Basic principles of healing, such as physical affection, empathizing and showing compassion to our children, plus getting help for ourselves, are necessary parts of repairing attachment and trauma. Other necessities include:
· Attachment parenting;
· Instilling family principles, self discipline and responsibility through respectful guidance and strong modeling;
· Learning nonviolent forms of emotional expression and communication with children such as Marshall Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication (NVC) model or Naomi Aldort’s S.A.L.V.E. formula;
· Finding alternatives to traditional schooling such as unschooling, homeschooling, democratic schools, Montessori schools, Waldorf schools, early college or private schools that respect play, children’s development and joy in learning;
· EMDR treatment to heal trauma;
· Neurofeedback to retrain the brain;
· Natural attachment therapy to help repair insecure attachment;
· Holistic and body-centered treatments to heal imbalances (EFT, homeopathy, etc.); and
· Learning about the dangers of diagnosing and medicating children’s behavior.
Re-parenting children with severe attachment disruption
Even children who have been adopted or children who suffer from severe attachment disruption or Reactive Attachment Disorder can heal and grow to attach strongly to their parents! Parents must make a permanent commitment to their children, secure a support system for themselves and find an attachment specialist, to start this very challenging process.
Parents must be willing to provide their children with re-parenting experiences that meet their children’s unmet early developmental needs, including intense physical affection. Parents must have a strong set of family principles in place, and an understanding of how to use consequences and restitution so that they are not punishing their children. In order to help their children develop emotional stability, tools for nonviolent emotional expression can be learned and practiced by every family member. Adoptive parents and parents of children with severe attachment disruption should expect severe testing behaviors and relapse cycles as children grow to deeper and deeper levels of attachment.
Healing our culture now
Our culture is the collective entity of the beliefs and actions of generations of human beings, including ourselves, who have diverged from natural ways of living and parenting. Our culture is truly mentally ill and “brain” disordered! However, a giant bottle of Adderoll, Celexa or Risperdol isn’t what our culture needs…
Our culture is saturated by violence and anger, leading to disrespect for other human beings, disrespect for other living creatures and disrespect for our own natural environment. Our culture is consumed with shame about sexuality and the human body, leading to rigid, uptight bans on sexuality on one hand and a relentless obsession and adolescent-like mockery of it on the other hand. Each generation passes this sickness of violence, shame and rage onto the next generation, creating materialism, self-obsession, money obsession, work obsession, academic obsession, substance obsession, media obsession and war obsession. More programs, prisons, schools, rules, medications, laws and punishments will not stop it. We must start by raising human beings to think and feel differently.
In order for our culture to heal itself, parents, professionals and law makers must prioritize healing our children and our young adults rather than labeling, punishing, medicating, confining and incarcerating them. As citizens, we all have a responsibility to take part in demanding that mental health professionals, social workers, doctors, scientists, our state’s human service agencies and our state legislators prioritize:
1. Meeting all children’s needs now;
2. Healing the damage already done to children; and
3. Helping and mentoring young adults with trauma histories in order to prevent damage to the next generation.
“You may never know what results come of your action, but if you do nothing there will be no result” -Mahatma Gandhi
To explore attachment parenting, natural education and the natural ways to heal our children’s emotional, behavior and learning challenges in more detail, please visit http://www.LaurieACouture.org to learn more about my book, Instead of Medicating and Punishing.
Laurie A. Couture is the author of Instead of Medicating and Punishing: Healing the Causes of Our Children’s Acting-Out Behavior by Parenting and Educating the Way Nature Intended. Her book was chosen as a finalist in the ForeWord Magazine Book-of- the-Year Awards in 2009. Laurie works as a licensed mental health counselor for children and families, as well as a consultant, parenting educator, writer, public speaker and children’s rights activist. She is the founder of http://www.LaurieACouture.org (formerly http://www.ChildAdvocate.org) and is a Board member of Parents and Teachers Against Violence in Education (PTAVE). She appears in the documentary film, The War On Kids (2009), and she is a contributor to Life Learning Magazine, Kindred Magazine, Mothering.com and several other publications and websites. She mentors a disadvantaged teen and has previously worked in the fields of social work and early childhood education. Ms. Couture is also a human rights and environmental activist as well as an artist and photographer. She is the author of the comic series, The Hypocrisy Chronicles. Ms. Couture’s writing and advocacy on behalf of children have reached an international audience. She unschools her 15 year old son, Brycen R. R. Couture, who is a professional choral singer and the creator of Feendz homemade stuffed toys. Brycen is also in the process of writing book one of a fantasy trilogy. Laurie and her son live in beautiful New England, USA.