Young children often seem to just accept things the way they are. But by four or five, children are starting to think for themselves about whom and what they are, and they are also starting to think about their parents in a different way. This may be partly because starting school brings them into contact with many different people and new ways of seeing things. At this age, children start to be much more aware of their own wishes and needs, and their growing independence also shows in them getting firmer views about what they expect of their parents.
But what do children of this age really want from their parents? What do they want them to be; friends, helpers, role models, providers, comforters, judges, counsellors, cooks, taxi drivers or just to be there for them?
When I started building the ‘Best Dad, Best Mum’ materials and 2005 series survey, I thought that I had better find out what research had been done into what five-year-old children say they want their parents to be. So I did all the right things, I did a literature search, I asked around my colleagues and I Googled. So what did I find? Would you believe me if I said ‘nothing’? Because that is indeed what I found. Although lots of research has been done into what children need from their parents to support their development, and a lot of research has been done into what is harmful for children, there was a resounding silence from children themselves. Somehow, no-one has yet thought of systematically finding out what children themselves want in the way of parenting.
Perhaps our Child of Our Time survey, ‘Best Dad, Best Mum’, is going to launch a new line of research in this area. At the time of writing this essay, the results are already beginning to look interesting. Looking at the results across all age ranges, and there have been over one thousand responses so far, ‘being there for me’ and being ‘trusted’ are the most important features of both mums and dads alike. It is also important for mums to ‘comfort and hug’ whereas it is more important for dads to ‘talk with me’.
But there are also differences emerging between children of different ages as well as differences between boys’ and girls’ expectations. What about the children closest in age to our CooT children?
4-year-olds most want dads to play and talk with them, while they most want mums to be there for them and comfort them.
5-year-olds want dads to be there for them and to praise them, while they want mums still to comfort them, but also to be trusted.
6-year-olds still want dads to be there for them, but also to earn money, and although they also want mums to be there for them and still to be trusted, they also want praise from them.
Although boys in this age range are not as interested as girls are in mums comforting them, they are even keener than girls on mums being there for them, reading to them and being clever.
When it comes to dads, boys seem more interested in dads mucking about, being trusted and reading to them than girls do. Girls, though, put dads comforting them, giving them nice food and treats as more important features than do boys.
So, already by this age, children are beginning to develop different expectations of male and female parents. But perhaps it is important also to stress the similarities. The differences between ages, and between boys and girls are not astronomical. What all the young children share, is a wish for parents to be emotionally close and involved with them. One way of putting this, even if it is in more adult terms, is that children want to feel secure in their relationships with their parents. Particular things seem to express closeness for children: things like being comforted, being read to and, to use a modern phrase, ‘being there for them’.
This all makes sense if we turn to ‘attachment theory’ to find out what that says about the influence of parents on children’s development. Started off by John Bowlby in the 1940s, this theory has led to a great deal of useful research by psychologists which has made it clearer what the ingredients are for building a close, supportive relationship between child and parent. One useful idea that has been developed is that children develop, very early on, ‘Internal Working Models’ of what they expect from others and also how they will be seen by others. These ‘IWMs’ then affect how children approach new relationships in the future. Research has shown that there are aspects of the quality of people’s early relationships with their parents that go on to influence how they will relate to others, for example in romantic relationships, suggesting that these internal models do exist and have effects in later life.
And it has been found that one of the things that helps children to build positive IWMs is parenting that is sensitive to children’s needs and wishes, as well as to their emotions and thoughts. It has been suggested that talking about your child’s thoughts and feelings are an important part of that, as well as responding to them. This contributes to a child developing a secure attachment, which seems to give children a head start in life in many ways.
Consistency is important too, so that the child is more easily able to predict how their parent will respond if they ask for comfort or some other form of attention. Perhaps that’s why the children answering the CooT survey tended to put ‘trust’ quite high on the agenda. Attachment theory suggests that an ‘Internal Working Model’ based on trust will help children to go out into the wider world with a greater capacity to trust and be trusted.
Finally, we mustn’t forget that children definitely want and need to be positively valued by their parents, not necessarily with gifts or treats, although those can play a role. ‘It’s the thought that counts’ with children; praising them and showing you care can be worth more than the glossiest gift. That helps them to build an IWM of themselves as worthy of love and affection, which lies at the heart of good self-esteem.
You can read more about this in the sample extract from a chapter that I have recently completed with Charlie Lewis, of Lancaster University and Michael E. Lamb, of the University of Cambridge, on attachment theory. This will be part of a new textbook for the Open University course ED209 Child Development.