Today I am going to explain how one can use maturity needs and tasks to be a better parent. I did not learn about the importance of psychological and emotional maturity until my youngest child was 17. Even so, I have found understanding maturity—especially the needs and tasks of children and infants, is incredibly helpful. It helps me see where they are heading, what is missing, and what is reasonable to expect. It is so easy to expect too much!
I have been a prayer ministry for more than 33 years. As I have worked with thousands (guessing here!) of people, I have become aware that most of the wounds that derail our lives originate in childhood when someone we love—and want to please—expects too much from us, more than we can muster at that stage of life.
Jim Wilder, Ph.D. of Life Model Works, explains that to fully mature there are both tasks that we must master and needs that must be met. It does not happen overnight! Nor does maturity grow in isolation. Our parents and other adults must guide us. It happens as the adults (parents, grandparents, caregivers) give us what we need as well as train us to master certain skills. They cannot give us what they do not have, but if one adult, say Mom, cannot regulate her anger, while Dad has mastered that skill but gets stuck in fear, we can get the best from both.
Wilder has written an entire book on human development called, humorously,The Complete Guide to Living with Men. If you want to know more, he is your man. His wife, Kitty, has recently created a series of short videos on maturity that you can find here.
I often think that if I had the power to change the high school curriculums nationwide, I would make a semester of child development mandatory for everyone. How many of us have used the calculus or trig we learned in high school? But everyone encounters children! Think of the impact this could have—teens might recognize their deficits and grow in maturity. Or they might recognize the deficits of their handsome but immature boyfriend. And stop making excuses for him. When those teens marry they might recognize what their children need! Ahh, to dream!
But I digress.
In today’s blog,we will look at childhood needs and tasks—a little backwards, I know—but I am starting here rather than in infancy because I think the childhood needs and task are a little easier to understand. By childhood, I am using Wilder’s definition, from age four to thirteen.
Childhood Needs and Tasks
1. While an infant learns to receive, a child learns to take care of herself. This doesn’t mean that a four-year-old can take care of herself, it means that gradually, with the support of loving parents, a four-year-old can progress towards learning to take care of herself, with the end goal in mind—mastering these skills by the age of 13.
2. A child needs weaning. This may seem like a strange task for a four-year-old if you think of it as weaning from the breast or bottle, but there are many kinds of weaning. I like what Dr. Sears says here:
Weaning is not a negative term, nor is it something you do to a child. Weaning is a journey from one relationship to another. The Hebrew word for wean is gamal, meaning “to ripen.” In ancient times, when children were breastfed until two or three years of age, it was a joyous occasion when a child weaned. It meant the child was filled with the basic tools of the earlier stage of development and secure and ready to enter the next stage of development.
3. A child needs to learn to do hard things. This means that beginning at age four, and not before, a child begins to learn to do hard things—with a lot of support from Mom and Dad. This can be anything they don’t want to do! Parents need to start with something small, and work their way up. It does not work to say, “Put on your PJs,” and walk away, one must demonstrate what is to be done, and do it with the child—“You pull on that side and I will pull on this side.” Then gradually work towards encouraging your child do it himself, all with the end goal that he will be able to do all this and more by age 13. One word of caution, if you are just learning about age-appropriate skills and your child is ten and does not have them, you will have to start at the beginning and go slowly. You can’t expect them to master rapidly what they did not get earlier.
4. A child needs help distinguishing between feelings, imagination, and reality. By the time your child is 13 (usually they can do this well before) you will want to insure that he knows the differences between reality and pretend, something he will start to do around age three. Studies report that most children can distinguish between real and make-believe stories by age four. Even so, these skills improved with age.
5. A child needs feedback on guesses, attempts, and failures. Just as we had to let our little one fall when he was learning to walk, we now have to let him make guesses, try new things and fail. We cannot hover over him, protecting him from every bump in the road of life. If he doesn’t want to study his spelling words, let him do poorly on the test. If she wants to learn to ride a bike but doesn’t want you to jog alongside keeping her steady, let her have a go (this happened to me, it was not easy!) If he wants to hold the water bottle himself, and it pours down his shirt, it is not the end of the world. Personally, I have learned more from my attempts and failures than I ever learned from my successes.
6. A child needs to be taught the history of her family. Our identity is shaped by our stories. A child needs to know who she is, who her parents are, where her family came from, and what values the family holds dear.
7. A child needs to be taught the history of God’s family.Children need to hear the stories of the Bible, of Jesus, of their family’s faith tradition. They need to hear about their denomination, as well as the history of missionaries, saints, evangelists—all who have gone before us.
During childhood the child needs to master these tasks:
Learn to take care of himself. Learn to toilet himself, wash himself, dress himself, put his clothes in the hamper, be aware when he is tired, hungry, or thirsty.
Learn to ask for what she needs. Able to ask without shame for food, water, rest, quiet, or help.
Learn to express himself. Say what he needs, say what he prefers (strawberry please, not chocolate), describe his day to a parent who just returned home, let the teacher know he broke his pencil and needs a new one.
Learn to develop her own personal resources and talents. Dance, sing, play, create, write, draw, build, ride a tricycle or bike. Smack a ball into left field, run fast. Create a fort with the sofa cushions, or a personality for a stuffed toy.
Learn to make himself understandable to others.Able to articulate their desires, needs, and dreams through facial expressions, words, and gestures. As well as the perseverance to keep at it until those around him understand. No, I am not a sissy. I am sad.
Learn to do hard things. Learn to pick up toys, make the bed, get in the car, and go to bed when the grownups are having fun. Remember, we work with them until they master the skill. No one likes to do hard things, but we can learn through experience that doing hard things is satisfying. Which brings us to . . .
Learn what is truly satisfying. A child might think it will be fun to sneak a bag of candy from the pantry and eat it all, but when she feels guilty and senses the separation from her mom because she knows she stole and lied, we want her to realize that the relationship is more important than the temporary delight of stolen candy. Jim Wilder says that satisfaction lasts about a day, and can be learned by asking each night, What did you do today that was satisfying? I held open the door for an old man. I watched a mother bird feed her babies. I comforted my friend who skinned his knee. I read a book.
See herself as God does. Beloved. His child. His treasure. One for whom he died. Created by God and placed in her mother’s womb. Chosen. Forgiven. And so much more!
In an ideal world a child’s parents are fully mature and instinctively know how to parent well. Sadly, in our world that is rarely true. I would encourage you to look through the list of needs and tasks. Consider each one. Did I get this? Do I have it now? Can I do this task? Identify any areas where you need to mature. Quiet and ask God to show you his perspective. Take time to listen. Ask him to help you work on your own maturity. Identify one need or task that you want to tackle first. Ask for help from mature adults you know. Fully maturing yourself can be the best gift you can give your children.
Then consider looking at the above needs and tasks with a loving person who also knows your child well—your spouse, a friend, or the child’s grandparents or teacher. As you parent remember what they can and can’t do. For example:
I can’t ask my ten-year-old to watch his baby sister. He does not have the maturity yet.
I can ask him to help load the dishwasher and expect him to get good at it over time with my guidance.
I can ask my 11-year-old daughter to go with me to talk to her teacher about a misunderstanding. With my supportive presence, I can ask her to speak up because we practiced at home and she knows what she wants to say.
Remember, almost no one has mastered all of these tasks, nor have all of their needs been met. They are ideals to work towards. Mastery is not possible before age 13. Just as a tree grows, so a child matures. It takes time and many incremental lessons along the way. Remember you child is not a project to fix but a person to love, enjoy, and guide. You want them to fully mature not because it will make them more successful in life but because it will help them live in joy and become who God made them to be.
Make sure you talk to your child about maturity. Explain that you want to help them grow to be who God made them to be and that you are going to help them learn, for example, how to do hard things and how to recognize what is truly satisfying.
Here is an example from my life. My neighbor’s daughter was at my house for dinner. Bekka was about eight years old. She was hungry and spied some gummy bears in my pantry. She asked for them. I said no. She began to fuss. I said, “I know that you want the gummy bears now, but we are getting ready to have dinner in 15 minutes. One of the areas where you are growing is in learning to tame your cravings. This is hard, even for grown-ups. I want chocolate nearly all the time. Would you like to sit on my lap for a moment and let me comfort you? I can give you an apple. Bekka did not want the apple but she did sit on my lap for a minute or two, then she helped set the table.
Here is another example. Four-year-old Makia did not want to help make her bed. I said, “I know you don’t want to make your bed. Now that you are four, you are learning to do hard things. You get on that side and help me pull up the sheets. That’s right! Tuck it in here. Now the coverlet. Let’s smooth it out. Good job! Doesn’t that look nice! You are learning how to make your bed like a big girl! Big smiles all around!
Please post comments or questions. I am eager to hear your thoughts. Let me know if this blogpost was helpful. Remember parenting is not easy! Jesus is always available to help us see our children and ourselves from his loving, gracious perspective.
 Words in bold are from Jim Wilder’s book, the Complete Guide to Living with Men.
 Ask Dr. Sears, “Weaning,” https://www.askdrsears.com/topics/feeding-eating/breastfeeding/faqs/weaning
 To learn more, read Deena Skolnick Weisburg, Distinguishing Imagination from Reality, https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~deenas/papers/weisberg-oxfordhandbook-2013.pdf