Written by The Mom
It’s a simple word: short, one syllable. Easy to read, easy to spell, easy to say. Easier said than done. Especially when raising kids.
Before I had kids, I never thought of trust as a need in the same way that eating and sleeping are needs.
Kids have a funny way of handling their needs. They confuse wants with needs a lot. They’ll do practically anything to get something they really want, including acting as if they will die if they don’t get it. But as parents, we know they won’t die from an unfulfilled want. Disappointment about not always getting what we want is part of life and learning to deal with that disappointment in a healthy way is important.
When it comes to actual needs: sleep, food… Kids are downright ornery sometimes. At 5 months old, Baby B is starting to learn how to keep himself awake. From 2 to 3 every morning he coos, oohs, and chatters to himself in baby-language from his crib next to our bed. He probably has no idea that he’s keeping me awake, or even that I’m listening. He just knows he doesn’t want to sleep. He’s quite cheerful to be awake, even in the dark. During the day, he’ll play with toys, wiggle, whine, fuss, or do pretty much anything else until he is so tired that his brain powers down and he falls asleep in the middle of whatever he’s doing.
Miss C (age 4) and Little F (almost 3), also fight sleep. Miss C mostly fights nap time even though she still needs naps almost daily to avoid evening meltdowns. Little F will fight sleep for hours at night sometimes.
Such an important need; rest. Yet they fight it.
Food is another example. Almost all toddlers go through some stage where they are suspicious of new foods and different colors, textures, and tastes.
Trust. It’s a need hard-wired into children. They must trust their caretaker to meet their needs so that they can survive. Kids are completely dependent, and dependence goes hand in hand with trust. Without trust, how can they be assured of their survival?
Yet for toddlers, trust comes less easily than I would’ve expected. Baby B is just reaching the age where he is starting to worry when I leave the room. Will I come back? What if I don’t?
The fourth book on my 100 Books to Read in a Lifetime was A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah. It’s a fantastic read; heart-rendering and detailed. The main theme in the book for me was… You guessed it: trust. Here was a boy enjoying his boyhood when suddenly his life was torn apart by war. He learned that no adult could be trusted, no place was safe for him. Lack of trust turned him and his friends and fellow boy-soldiers into animals. They became creatures of instinct and their one instinct was to survive. They did this by trusting no one and nothing. They killed their enemy (and sometimes those who were actually trying to help them) without thought or hesitation. They were wary, cornered, instinctual creatures by the time they were rehabilitated. Those that eventually found someone they could trust were able to be helped. Those that didn’t ended up back in the war and probably dead.
Not having someone or something to trust can really screw you up.
My toddlers test trust as well. Little F is going through a stage where everything is an opportunity to contradict and argue. We ask him to put his shoes on and he shouts, “NO” and runs the other way. We offer him choices and he’ll refuse both options. He always comes around but he has to have his opinion inputted into the situation first.
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned about trust so far was taught to me by my daughter. She went through a stage when she was 2 and 3 years old when she was scared of everything (including, literally, her own shadow). She would see children her own age and shake from fear. She loves the park but if another child would climb on the same bars or slide as her, she would dart over to me and hide behind my legs. She would never participate in games at birthday parties. I’m ashamed to admit that I felt quite embarrassed by her for awhile. She was the insecure kid, and I was the mom of the kid who wouldn’t or couldn’t participate in activities that other children her age seemed to have no problem with.
At the time I had a lot of well-meaning advice. Most of that advice included me pushing her away. Push her towards the kids, don’t let her hide behind me at the playground, make her participate in the birthday “fun”. Put her in a class. Put her in preschool. Get her away from her mommy so she has to learn to rely on (“trust??”) other people.
I didn’t know what to do. What I did know was that it completely went against my instincts to push her away or to push her into participating when she didn’t feel comfortable. Instead, it felt right to do the opposite. I let her cling to me as much as she needed. I held her hand, held her on my lap, narrated the fun other children were having quietly in her ear while she clung to me. It was frustrating. I felt heart-broken for her, this young child with so much anxiety already. I doubted myself over and over. I wondered if I had somehow made her this way or if I was enabling it. Still, I continued to follow her lead and to not push or force her into any situation she wasn’t comfortable with.
In the past 6 months we’ve seen a drastic and dramatic change in our daughter. She’s come out of her shell. She has blossomed. She still has fears and questions but she now uses us as a base more than a shelter. She comes to us, asks her questions, shares her fears, and bounces away again. She holds entire conversations with strangers at the table next to us in a restaurant. She ventures up to volunteers at the museum and asks them about fossils for half an hour.
We’ve realized that our daughter learns first by watching and then carefully and decidedly participates with complete intention and awareness. She notices things that astound me for her age: thoughts and feelings of others. She can put herself in another’s shoes better than most adults I know.
I know now that my instincts were right. Rarely do I know what I’m doing as a parent but in this one thing I have marveled at the sweetness of seeing my daughter bloom because of a choice I made to trust her. By allowing her to cling, hide behind me, seek safety near me, she learned that the world is not always scary, that she can venture out and away and safely return again. She learned to trust herself because I trusted her first. I trusted her to know when she was ready to venture from the sidelines onto the playground. I trusted that she knew which people she wanted to make friends with and which people she didn’t feel comfortable talking to. I trusted that she would learn the balance of when to hold my hand and when to let go.
It’s hard for me to trust my children. It’s hard for me to give my son space for his tantrums and just allow him to be who he is at this stage in life. It’s hard for me to be patient with my daughter’s insecurities and questions. It’s hard for me to carry my baby from room to room because he needs to see me at every moment right now.
But I trust my children. I trust that they are learning and developing at the right pace for them.
What are we, without trust? Empty. Lonely. Unsafe. Insecure. How do I teach my children such an important thing, meet such an important need for them? How do I establish that bond now so that at any stage they will trust me with their secrets and problems?
I only hope that by offering trust to my children- by trusting them to be the capable little people that they are and by providing a safe environment for them to test and push their limits and capabilities, they will learn that I will always be there for them. More importantly, though I hope that they will learn that they can trust themselves; their instincts, their capability to learn, to love, and to trust their place in this world.