Emotional vitamins: How structure helps your child

Author Maren Schmidt

Dr. Robert Shaw in his book, The Epidemic, tells us that there are two “emotional vitamins” we can provide for our children: clear structure and clear expectations.  How do we go about giving our children these two important items? 

Let’s look at why children need clear structure.  An environment with transparent organization provides the child with an element of protection–protection from physical and psychological abuse.  It also provides a framework of adequate challenges for individual development. Providing clear structure in our homes and schools involves three basic elements: physical, order and human.

The physical aspect of structure allows a child to know that they have a place of their own to live and work.  The physical elements communicate to the child that they belong.  Child-sized tables, chairs and activities allow children a certain dignity.  Cleanliness, light, fresh air, and temperature also communicate an important sense of place. Movement is allowed and the consequences of movement are considered.  The limits to the child’s space are well defined. 

The importance of the physical aspect is probably best seen in its absence.  A college friend was 6’8”.  A classroom we meet in had 7-foot ceilings and the standard college student desks.  Steve contorted himself into the desks, tried to avoid hitting his head on the door jams and ceiling fans.  Steve stooped to write on the chalkboard.  To pull off a sweater, Steve bent over so his arms wouldn’t hit the ceiling.  Our children deal with similar discomforts for many years in an oversized world.

The aspect of order might be summed up as “a place for everything and everything in its place.”  Order might seem obvious to organized people.  Kitchen items in the kitchen.  Garage items in the garage. Material is grouped by area and sequence and areas are defined for different activities.  We eat at the table.  We do water colors in the kitchen and not the living room.  There is order in each activity.  Wash your hands before you eat.  Put your napkin on your lap.  Carry your plate to the kitchen after you eat.   There is order in the sequence of activities.  At bedtime we brush our teeth, put on our pajamas, read a story, go to the bathroom, say our prayers, turn off the lights and kiss goodnight.  There is order in the life of the group.  We go to school and work on Monday through Friday.  On Saturdays we run errands and play. On Sunday we go to church, read the comics.  The order must be respected and understood by adults in order to provide an unambiguous organization to the child.

Structure for the child also has a human dimension that includes adults and children.  The adult’s role in providing structure is to direct the child’s activities and to prepare those activities.  In these activities, the adult needs to respect the child as a fellow human being.  The adult also observes the child’s interaction with the world, and looks for the aspects of concentration and independence the child exhibits.   As adults, we protect the few rules of basic order for the child, and keep the environment clean and neat.  Activities for the child are accessible and are in good working order.  We model what it means to be an adult by being careful of our appearance, keeping healthy and rested, along with staying interesting to the child by pursuing our own interests.

The child’s role in this structured environment is to self-construct an adult.  An amazing feat.  We assist the child in providing as unambiguous a system as we can, so that the child can become an adult with an “eye that sees, a soul that feels and a hand that obeys.”

Clear structure is a large vitamin to concoct, but worth the time and effort.  Creating a well-defined organization for our children will help us avoid a few “pills.”

Maren Schmidt is a Blue Ribbon News special contributor who writes about child development issues in her weekly Kids Talk TM columns. Maren founded a Montessori school and holds a Masters of Education from Loyola College in Maryland. She has more than 25 years experience working with children and holds teaching credentials from the Association Montessori Internationale. She is author of Building Cathedrals Not Walls: Essays for Parents and Teachers.  Contact her at maren@kidstalknews.com or visit MarenSchmidt.com.  Copyright 2011.

To submit your news, events or a column on your area of expertise, email editor@BlueRibbonNews.com.