mayim

Why I don't force my kids to say 'please'... or walk on schedule

Feb. 16, 2011 at 7:00 AM ET

Former "Blossom" actress Mayim Bialik believes in allowing children to develop at their own pace, whether it comes to motor skills or manners. Here, she explains why. 

By Mayim Bialik, Ph.D., TODAY Moms contributor

Mayim Bialik starred in the TV show "Blossom," and went on to earn her Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA.

I’m not going to beat around the bush here. By current conventional standards both of my sons qualified for speech, occupational and physical therapy and I gave them none. Both walked at a ripe 17 months, my older son did not speak sentences until well after 3, my younger son, age 2, communicates exceedingly well with signs and gestures but has not uttered a two-word phrase or even an “appropriately” formed word. My boys were physically very cautious, shunning jumping, running, and even climbing long after their peers mastered them; and my younger son did not roll over unassisted until, wait for it: the day he turned one. He apparently has a weak set of core muscles that he now compensates for beautifully, without anyone noticing but me and my husband.

So why didn’t I send my children for assessment and therapy? For the same reason that I don’t tell them to say “please” or “thank you.” Confused yet? Don’t be. Barring outstanding medical concerns, I believe in letting children progress in their own way and pace, modeling behavior while respecting the innate development of a child as an autonomous and purposeful creature. I believe that children, like adults (and perhaps better than most adults?), generally know what works for them.

Although the “delays” my sons displayed can be markers for autism, autism-spectrum disorders or developmental delays, I trust my intuition and I trust our pediatrician. My husband and I knew there was nothing wrong with our older son, and I know there is nothing wrong with his little doppelganger. By the standards of whoever decided kids should do what when, my sons are truly “behind,” and I have been accused of being neglectful and selfish for not getting them therapy.

We have no daycare, pre-school or kindergarten standards to meet (we homeschool), no one to impress (we choose friends who support independent thinking or share it themselves) and we have nothing to be ashamed of (our parents have learned to back off and watch the results; thankfully, our boys have not disappointed them yet). My kids are fine. You may not think so, but you get to raise your kids and I get to raise mine.

Here are some other things I hate to force kids to do.

Share. I go nuts when I am at the park with my kids and parents hover over children, alternatively scolding them for not sharing toys with my kids and scolding my kids for not sharing with theirs. Here’s my deal: when my kid is done with that toy, they’ll give your kid a turn, and if your kid is not done with a toy, my kid can go ahead and wait, even if they throw the tantrum to end all tantrums about it. It’s my job as a parent to help them deal with disappointment and to distract them or offer alternatives in that situation. My husband and I learned this philosophy from an amazing educator who taught the “Parent & Me” classes we attended with our boys. She promised us that if we modeled sharing by focusing on the feelings a child exhibits when they want something desperately, our child would learn to share from the heart: instinctively, compassionately, generously. We thought she was crazy at first, but after hearing her repeatedly say to the children in our class, “I can see that Johnny really would like a turn on that rocking horse” and the like, all of the children eventually caught on and started to tune into the feelings of other people, rather than the nagging of an authority figure. Sometimes my sons won’t give up a prized possession, and that’s OK too. Not forcing sharing lets children know that they get to decide what they want, and adults don’t get to just step in and decide who gets what when.

Be Polite. In much the same way as we learned to model sharing, we model manners. Before our sons were old enough to do so spontaneously, my husband and I would say “water please” when our sons needed water, and we would say “thank you” when they got it. This taught them how society functions without us forcing it down their throats. As our sons got older, there were a handful of times when family members clearly expected a “thank you” for a gift, and I was very tempted to whisper, “Say thank you!” But we have stayed the course and our older son now remembers with just a gentle nod from us if he forgets. He is spontaneously authentic and he also knows the value of politeness, and that sounds about right for a 5 year old.

Excel. Just because a child can do something, it doesn’t mean they should. Yes, you can teach your 2 or 3 year old to recite alphabets, learn colors and shapes and songs and dances and poems by heart, but is this really what a child needs? I’m not saying it’s not fun to teach your children things, but if not for the standards of our dominant educational system, is there any inherent value in a child knowing colors as soon as possible? Or the alphabet song, for that matter? Childhood is so brief and so delicate. Letting children achieve on their own time frame and in their own way works for us. We feel that we are letting the true desires of our children develop. People are often shocked when they see what our children don’t know, but our sons are healthy, inquisitive, curious, fun, gentle, and thriving. That they don’t know Dora from SpongeBob seems inconsequential.

I have heard people say that those who force their kids to share, be polite, and excel on adult terms are really just creating children who are monkeys, imitating behavior without independently experiencing it or really understanding it. I don’t know if I agree, but I do know that families that don’t force these things have children who grow and develop at their own pace and they all turn out pretty much fine. It is my hope that my children will feel truly understood and safe in their skin, no matter how “delayed” their skin might be.

Yes, I am a bit cerebral about parenting. Maybe I should just chill out and go with the flow. Well, for a lot of reasons, from my childhood to my doctorate, I believe strongly in conscious, child-centered parenting. It doesn’t make me better than you, but it does make you need to wait for me on walks with our kids -- because I can guarantee you my kid’s not as fast a walker as yours. And that’s OK.

Mayim Bialik starred in the early-1990s television show “Blossom” and currently appears on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.” She earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from UCLA in 2007, and wrote her thesis on Prader-Willi syndrome. The spokesperson for the Holistic Moms Network and a certified lactation educator, Bialik is writing a book about attachment parenting, and she has two sons, Miles, 5, and Frederick, 2. She will be blogging regularly at TODAYMoms.com.

Want more Mayim? Read her blog at Kveller.com. 

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