Children ages 2 through 6 are developing their individuality and sense of self, according to famed child psychoanalyst Erik Erikson. Reconsidering the intention behind seemingly naughty behavior before dealing with a child can make all the difference in the world, says contemporary child rearing authority T. Berry Brazelton.
Autonomy and Independence
Erikson described the struggle for autonomy that a child encounters in the second and third years of life. As the muscles of the child's legs mature, so does her curiosity and wish to explore. No longer does she need to call out for an adult to provide the object of desire; she can get it on her own. Erikson points out that this is a time for exploring one's sense of independence and individuality.
Volition and Initiative
Children ages 3 to 6 also are dealing with a developing will or initiative. Both Erikson and teaching expert Maria Montessori describe the child's struggle in mastering his own will and submitting to the will of others. Often, parents must exercise their will over that of the child's to teach the child how to control himself. However, Erikson points out that some parents and teachers make a point to "break the will" of the child. This can result in verbal and physical acting out, such as screaming.
Discipline or Self-Regulation
Striving for autonomy and volition are natural and essential for child development, but adults must set boundaries for the child who might otherwise jeopardize her own health. Caregivers whose objective is teaching discipline will create a child who is wildly disobedient or passively biddable, Montessori says. The important thing is to teach internal self-regulation rather than a dependence on external discipline. In this way, the child's ability to pause and decide the best action satisfies the need for autonomy.
Learning by Example
Some children are more inclined towards verbal expression regardless of the parenting style, and, for the 3-year-old, this can mean screaming. However, parents, siblings and playmates also play a role in teaching the child how to behave. Psychologists including Dr. Robert Cialdini and Judith Rich Harris, say that a child's peers can be more influential in teaching behavior than his parents. Parents should become aware of who their children are modeling their defiant behavior after. Sometimes, parents themselves are unknowingly modeling verbal aggression for the child.
Authoritative Versus Authoritarian Parenting
Most child psychologists today recommend "authoritative" over "authoritarian" parenting. Whereas the authoritarian parenting style focuses on dominating the child and breaking her will, the authoritative parent focuses on setting healthful boundaries for the child while teaching her self-regulation. The authoritarian parent often is described as one who expects the child to submit because the parent "said so." The authoritative parent tends to reduce the opportunity for her child to act out by teaching rather than enforcing.
- "Games People Play"; Erich Berne; 1981
- "Child Development: Fifth Edition"; Robert S. Feldman; 2009
- "Abnormal Child Psychology"; Eric Mash, et al.; 2008
- "Childhood and Society"; Erik Erikson; 1963
- "Touchpoints: The Essential Reference -- Your Child's Emotional and Behavioral Development"; T. Berry Brazelton; 1992
- "Autonomy and Rigid Character"; David Shapiro; 1984