“Mummy, look a rainbow!” We’d hired a campervan for a weekend away at the end of August. As we drove through the rolling green hills of West Wales, my two year old son, right at the back of the campervan, called out that he’d seen a rainbow. I looked out the window at the bright blue, cloudless sky. There was no rainbow. “I don’t see one,” I said. “YES! There it is!” he shouted, adamant that he could see one. Instead of arguing, I said in a knowing and indulgent voice, “OK, a rainbow. Great.”
Two days later, I was sitting in the back seat as my eldest child was having a turn sitting in the front. Aidan said it again, “Look, Mummy, a rainbow!” Again, it was a sunny cloudless day. But yes, there were several rainbows, refracted onto the back of the front seat, made by prisms created by the side window. I hadn’t been able to see them because I hadn’t looked properly; they were behind me, and they weren’t the sort of rainbow I was expecting. Upon seeing these rainbows, I felt regret and chagrin. My son was right, there was a rainbow, but yet again I had taken the position of the ‘wise and knowing adult’ who knows more….
This experience has been sitting in my mind for several weeks. It’s been the basis of my reflections about how we as a society try to ‘train’ children. In our culture, received wisdom is that we need to teach our children everything. When a baby is born, we must teach her how to latch on and breastfeed. Later, we worry that our babies might not learn how to chew, so some health professionals recommend introducing solids to a baby who may not actually be ready for them. We worry about our children being in diapers/nappies for too long, so we potty train them. Normal toddler behaviour is seen as pathological, so we have to train them out of their squabbles with others and tantrums, indeed some might say we need to ‘tame’ them. Babies and young children who wake frequently in the night need to be sleep-trained. There are myriad ways in which our society reinforces the notion that we as adults must take our children in hand and teach them absolutely everything.
Yet if we stand back and watch, simply watch our children, it becomes clear that they already know so much. In an intervention-free normal birth, a full-term baby can crawl his way up his mother’s abdomen and latch on to her breast of his own accord. If we watch our babies and learn their cues, they can tell us when they’re hungry, need to be held or winded. Once he loses his tongue-thrust reflect, can sit up (for a clear wind-pipe) and grasp food himself, guess what? He’s ready for solids! No one taught a nine month old baby how to use finger and thumb to pick up the raisin (or the cat’s food) and put it in his mouth, but he is developmentally ready and instinctively wants to copy us (or the cat), so he does it.
The idea that we must train our children to take normal developmental steps is not only stressful for parents, but is insulting to children. Rather than look at what I need to teach them to do, it has been more fruitful for me to consider what they are teaching me. I have written before here about leading a child-led life, how our interactions with our children can be our greatest teachers… how a deep connection with our children is a route inward toward profound self-discovery.
My little boy, sitting in that back seat, could see rainbows. I missed them because I didn’t really listen and I didn’t take the time to look. When I put myself in his position, I was able to experience the joy of seeing those dancing colours on the seat. I shared the pleasure of that vision with him, and I recalled that just because I see things differently doesn’t mean I see them better.