The Seasons of Parenting
- Dr. John Rosemond Author, Parenting By the Book
- 2008 8 May
There is a time for everything, and a season to every activity under heaven. —Ecclesiastes 3:1
Like farming, raising livestock, gathering maple syrup, and the migrations of fish and birds, the raising of children is marked by seasons. These seasons were established by God; therefore, they cannot be altered at the whim of man.
Each of them is defined chronologically, and just as each of Earth’s seasons requires of a farmer a unique set of tasks, so each of parenting’s seasons requires a specific parental role and distinct parental responsibilities. A farmer who conforms his behavior to the unique characteristics of each of agriculture’s seasons is all but assured a high yield.
Likewise, parents who conform their behavior to the unique requirements of each of the seasons of child rearing will be all but assured a “high yield” of reward and satisfaction out of seeing their children advance toward and eventually claim responsible maturity.
The Season of Service
The first of these, the Season of Service, begins at birth and lasts approximately two years. During this initial season parents function as servants to a child who cannot serve himself and cannot anticipate the consequences of his actions. His dependency and ignorance (not to be confused with lack of intelligence!) require that his parents place him at the center of their attention and orbit around him in a near-constant ministry of surveillance and “doing”—checking, feeding, carrying, changing, comforting, fixing, fetching, and so on.
The purposes of season one are threefold:
• To “root” the child securely in the world—to assure him that he is where he belongs, with people who love him and who will take good and proper care of him under any and all circumstances.
• To provide for the child’s fundamental biological needs—put bluntly, to keep him alive and thriving.
• To prevent, as much as is humanly possible, the child from hurting himself.
In all cultures and in all times, the mother has been and is the primary servant during season one. (There have been and are exceptions, but they are individual exceptions that have not significantly tilted the historical norm.) The father, even one who wants to be highly involved, stands slightly outside the periphery of his wife’s busy orbiting. He is her “parenting aide.” Like a teacher’s aide’s, the husband’s job is to assist his wife and fill in for her when she needs a break. Consequent to this child centeredness, the marriage is “catch-as-catch-can” during season one. (To those of you who have noticed what may appear to be an inconsistency between what I say here and what I have earlier said about mothers orbiting around their children and fathers playing the role of “parenting aide,” I will simply say [paraphrasing Ecclesiastes 3:1], “There is a time for everything . . . but it is not the entire time.”)
Now, an infant or young toddler may not yet have well-developed language skills, but he is highly intelligent nonetheless. He is drawing inarticulate conclusions concerning the workings of things in his microcosm (which is the one-and-only world as far as he is concerned), one of which is that his mother is there to do his bidding and that he has power and authority over her. He verifies this by crying, at which his mother appears and does everything in her power to fix whatever it is that is causing his distress.
Grandma understood that whereas her ministry was a necessary one, she was slowly creating a monster. If she did not bring this first season to a close, she was in danger of raising a spoiled brat—a child who would believe that as his mother was continuing to do, so the world revolved around him. She realized that out of absolute necessity she had caused her child to believe that he had power over her, that she was his gofer; therefore, she had to step up to the plate and correct that impression. And so, around her child’s second birthday, as he became more capable of doing basic things for himself, Grandma began to make the critical transition from the first of parenting’s seasons to its second. Under normal circumstances, this transition takes about a year. It is, without question, the most significant and precedent-setting of all times in the parent-child relationship, the future of which hangs in the balance.
To bring about this transformation, a mother must begin:
• Teaching and expecting her child to do for himself what she has previously done for him—use the toilet instead of diapers, get his own cup of water and basic snacks, dress himself, pick up his toys, and so on.
• Building a boundary between herself and her child, thus limiting his access to her—making him wait before she does something for him, refusing to pick him up (pointing out that she is involved with some¬thing else), instructing him to go elsewhere while she finishes a task.
• Backing slowly out of a state of high involvement with her child and re-establishing a state of high involvement with her husband, thus bringing his tenure as parenting aide to a close.
The Season of Leadership and Authority
As is so often the case when seasons change, this transitional year is marked by storms of protest from a child who wants season one to go on forever. Who can blame him? Who would not want a servant for life? But if the mother stays the course, then by the time her child has reached his third birthday, he will see her with new eyes: once a servant, now a formidable authority figure who is not to be trifled with. Where once he was at the center of her attention, she is now at the center of his. She insists that he do more and more things for himself, that he give her “space’ to do what she needs and wants to do (including putting her feet up and doing nothing), and makes it perfectly clear that her relationship with his father trumps her relationship with him. And so begins the Season of Leadership and Authority, during which time the parents’ job is to govern the child in such a way that he (1) consents to their government (becomes their willing disciple), and (2) internalizes their discipline and gradually develops the self-restraint necessary to govern himself responsibly.
This is not to say that parents should never serve a child who is in season two. There will, in fact, be times when service is absolutely necessary, but whereas service is the rule in season one, it should be the exception from that time on.
The Season of Mentoring
Season two lasts for ten years, from three to thirteen, at which point a second transition takes place (or should) that moves parent and child into season three, the Season of Mentoring. It is no coincidence that in traditional cultures, early adolescent rites of passage—Jewish bar and bat mitzvahs being extant ex-amples—occur when a child is thirteen. These rituals mark and celebrate a major transition in the parent-child relationship. They acknowledge that the child in question has completed the disciplinary “curriculum” of season two and is now regarded as self-governing. He no longer needs adults to tell him what and what not to do; rather, he needs adult mentors to help him acquire the practical skills he will need to emancipate successfully—how to apply for a job, balance a budget, plan for the future, and the like.
The Season of Friendship
The successful emancipation of the child marks the end of season three, the last season of active parenting, and the beginning of season four, the Season of Friendship. During this last and most rewarding of parenting’s seasons, the child’s parents are parents in the biological sense only; in reality, parents and child now regard one another as peers. The younger peer may seek guidance from one or both of the older peers, but that is no different from one friend seeking the counsel of another. In season three, guidance was provided largely at the parents’ initiative; now, guidance is provided largely at the initiative of the biological child.
Within the framework of this seasonal approach to parenting, children emancipate relatively early. In Shakespeare’s time, males were fully emancipated by age eighteen. As recently as 1970, the average age of successful emancipation was twenty.
From PARENTING BY THE BOOK by John Rosemond. Copyright (c) 2007 John K. Rosemond. Reprinted by permission of Howard Books, a Division of Simon & Shuster, Inc.
John Rosemond is a family psychologist who has both directed mental health programs and been in full-time private practice working with families and children. Since 1990. he has devoted his time to speaking and writing. John's weekly syndicated parenting column now appears in some 250 newspapers. Along the way, he's also managed to write eleven bestselling books on parenting and the family. As if that wasn't enough, he is one of the busiest and most popular speakers in his field, giving over 200 talks a year to parent and professional groups nationwide. He and his wife of 39 years, Willie, have two grown children and six well-behaved grandchildren. For more information visit www.rosemond.com and www.parentingbythebook.com.