When I taught college-level courses in the area of Developmental Psychology (something I enjoyed doing for over fifteen years), I remember my students sometimes being surprised by the course material which exposed them to children and child-rearing practices across the globe. I almost always had at least one student every term who was highly concerned about the “unsanitary conditions” shown in some of the documentaries they were required to watch as a part of the course. These students were likewise shocked to find out that children who are raised in exceedingly sterile, ultra-clean environments (the “ideal”, these students assumed) are at risk of having compromised immune systems. Of course, basic hygiene- like washing hands regularly- is important, but it’s interesting that the body does, in effect, get stronger and more resilient in response to the demands of the environment.
I was having a recent discussion with some parents when it occurred to me that a child’s immune system is not the only thing that gets stronger from exposure. These parents were saying that they weren’t sure if they should continue taking their daughter to dance class. They explained that their daughter’s best friend had been in the dance class with her, but now that friend has moved. “We just thought it might be easier on her to not have to go somewhere that reminds her every week of how much she misses her best friend.” In other words, the parents were attempting to protect their daughter from emotional discomfort.
Certainly, children are not just small adults. As an infant evolves from being a helpless baby to a fully independent adult, there are countless physical, neurological, emotional, and other changes along the way. When interacting with (or making decisions that impact) a child, it’s important to keep in mind the child’s developmental level. For a variety of reasons, for instance, medias that are appropriate for adults may not be appropriate for children. That said, there is a difference between being ever cognizant of a child’s developmental level (and corresponding reasoning ability, intellectual insight, ability to think abstractly, etc.) and striving to protect a child from experiencing any emotional realities of life.
Imagine that your child has a pet fish that he adores. If that pet fish dies, would you a) flush it down the toilet and tell your child that the fish has gone on a great adventure around the world, or b) sit down with your child when he gets home from school so you can discuss (in a way he can understand, on his level) that you have sad news, that his fish has died, but you, for one, are thankful for all of the happiness the fish had brought to the family in its lifetime?
Because children are emotional- rather than cognitive- beings, they feel many different things every day, all day. They may not know how to interpret their own feelings or tell you about them, but the emotions are there. When parents try to prevent their children from feeling anything other than happy or content, there is an implicit message that other emotions are scary and perhaps not even allowed.
Children do not need to be insulated from experiences that might be potentially sad, disappointing, upsetting, confusing, or some other “difficult” emotion. Yes, the interactions surrounding emotional experiences sound different depending on the age and developmental level of a given child, but the essential piece is that emotions are being openly acknowledged, discussed, and worked through. By allowing children to fully experience their worlds in a way that makes sense for them developmentally, these children learn, grow, gain insight, and ultimately become emotionally stronger and more resilient.