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  February 17, 2003

The Happy Child

My granddaughter Tayler is now ten months old. She had a good womb life and a midwife-assisted natural childbirth. She was born within a contented marriage to a mother and father who love and adore her. She was breastfed and held according to her needs, and she was never left to cry. She has been loved and held and carried within a large supportive family structure.

At ten months old, Tayler is walking, exploring, dancing, enjoying the wonders of food, and generally having a great time. She is very at ease with herself and appears not to have internal conflicts. When a need or feeling arises in her, she gives an immediate response with no hesitation. If she is hungry, cold, tired, or uncomfortable, her body reacts with an expression that lets everyone know. If she is feeling curious, playful, friendly, or simply happy, she acts on that. There seems to be no fearful pause, no sense of "Should I feel this? Should I do this? Is this right? Will they be angry? Am I wrong? Should I do something different?" She seems to simply accept what is happening as a given (which it is) and expects that others will accept that too.

Tayler is confident. She has high self-esteem. She is at ease with herself and others. She has been accepted and loved for who and what she is, so she accepts and loves herself for who and what she is. She has not been "taught" this, she simply doesn't know any other way to be. It's her nature - and the inner nature of all of us.

I am delighted to see in her the same emotional/physical balance that is witnessed in free aboriginal children. Here in front of my eyes is the prototypical, natural human. It's like finding a long-lost species - not in fossil form, not in pottery fragments, not in a cave painting - but in the flesh, giggling and dancing across the room. This is what human life is meant to be.

It's not because her parents are "perfect" (whatever that means). They are good people with their own challenges and problems. It's not that they are experts in child development and psychology either. Her mom and dad are laid-back, horse-riding country folk with innate common sense. And it's not that Tayler has been raised to some obsessive ideal. She's just part of a regular working family.

The key is that Tayler has always had her needs met.

This may seem like an impossible ideal, but it's not. Children are not pieces of high technology that take an advanced degree and very precise procedures to operate. Computers require only one password out of a billion to open them up. Children, on the other hand, are very flexible creatures and can have their needs met by a wide range of responses. A child's need for affectionate physical contact, for instance, can be met with an infinite number of cuddles, hugs, and touches.

To meet a child's needs you don't have to be an expert. The Yequana natives that Jean Liedloff chronicled in The Continuum Concept actually thought it was a joke that western mothers needed advice from "experts" in order to raise their children. The idea seemed as ridiculous as having an expert teach our hearts how to beat.

Children who are not shut down by fear and neglect will express their needs automatically by making gestures, sounds, movements - and by crying if the discomfort gets too great. A child's cry always means something, and all we have to do is respond and fill the need. The cynical attitude that babies attempt to manipulate us is a sad projection of our own neurotic state of distrust. Only when adults do not respond do infants find surreptitious ways of getting their needs met. Like a plant in the shade that stretches its branches toward the light, they do whatever they can.

Sometimes parents cannot find what it is their child needs. Perhaps the little one is overtired, or she may want something that is too dangerous to have. At times like this, it is crucial that children be allowed to express their unhappiness and frustration safely without shame or ridicule. If they can release the emotional charge by crying, yelling, and moving, their bodies will be less likely to sustain trauma. If a child can be respected and loved even when she is upset or angry, she will never lose her self-respect and self-esteem.

According to various developmental theories, to become functional adults, children need:

• sufficient food, clothing, shelter, protection, and security
• unconditional love, appreciation, and respect, with regular, safe affection
• freedom from physical, sexual, and emotional abuse
• unconditional family support and acceptance
• freedom to express perceptions, feelings, creativity, and desires

It is also important to take note of the following:

1) The needs that children express are genuine.
2) Caretakers must do whatever they can to meet the needs of infants.
3) Caretakers must attempt to meet the needs of toddlers and older children unless a child's request runs contrary to the needs or rights of other family members - and the meeting of this request is not essential to the child's health and well-being.
4) If a child's needs or wants cannot be met, it is essential to allow them to actively and loudly express their discomfort safely, with support and without shame.

Every child deserves to know this security, confidence, and happiness. Unfortunately, many of us did not experience this, and our lives - on a global scale - are suffering because of it. It's time to bring in the era of The Happy Child.

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