Notes on Parenting

Insights for parenting babies, toddlers, teens, and young adults.

Monday, August 12, 2013

What Does Your Child Need? There's More to Parenting Issues than Meets the Eye

On a good day I have the best of all worlds: I have my loved ones close by, I sense a clear purpose to the most important part of my life, and I occupy a first row seat to witness the wonder of creation: my growing kids. 

     But on a bad day it is easy to get bogged down by the less than perfect aspects of parenting - sibling rivalry, temper tantrums, whining, sharing of chores, juggling of agendas ..., and the list goes on. 

     My three kids have already flown the nest, but I remember quite well that whenever I would notice that one of these problems had become a recurring item in one of my kids’ behavior I would feel the urgent need to be ahead of the game. I wanted to be pro-active rather than responsive. So I would find a quiet moment, when the kids were safely and quietly tucked in bed, in order to get to the bottom of the problem. There is more, after all, to child rearing problems than meets the eye. 

There Is More to Child Rearing Than Meets the Eye

What is exactly the need expressed by my child through this behavior? How can I best meet that need, taking into consideration our family situation as well as my own personal limitations – I am not a fairy, after all.

     But before I delve into the details of a specific problem, it is perhaps good to zoom out for a moment and get a broader perspective on parents and children. We are three-dimensional beings: we consist of body, mind and spirit. Our being here is expressed in the physical world, the mental world and the spiritual world. Any needs children have and any child rearing issues manifest on these three planes. Let's have a closer look at these various levels of expression.

Physical Needs

We are all familiar with the sight (and sound!) of a baby at feeding time: the physical sensation of hunger translates into screaming for milk. Once the nipple is in place, the screaming - expressing the need for nourishment - ceases.

And imagine a child that has just got out of the bath tub, shivering with cold. When dad takes a towel and wraps the child in it and rubs him warm, the shivering - expressing the need for warmth - stops. 

Mental Needs

If we go up one level we come to mental needs. To this category belong, among others, the need to develop all kinds of skills, such as organizing skills and social skills, as well as the need for structure and clear guidelines.

Spiritual Needs

On the highest level, the spiritual level, children’s needs become a bit more abstract, although they are not felt any less urgently. Examples are the need to feel loved, the need for harmony and peace in the home, the need for knowing the truth, the need for creative expression, etc. 

Every-Day Problems

Now you may wonder, how does all this pan out when you are faced with a recurring every-day type of problem? Let’s have a closer look at one specific problematic child behavior that all parents are familiar with, whining, in order to determine if there is more to it than meets the eye.


Children that whine feel like mosquitoes in midsummer. They keep on buzzing in your ear and there is no escape! Whining can be broken down into three parts, or levels as follows:

     The physical level

     On the face of it, the physical level, it looks as if the child needs a nap. Responding on this level would be to put her to bed, and that may solve the problem. Or you could feel that she is just being a nuisance and therefore send her to her room. By sending her to her room, you teach her that whining is not a socially acceptable behavior and results in separation. Even though some quiet time may solve the problem sometimes, it is clear that an adequate response to whining cannot always be found solely on the physical level. 

     The mental level

     Looking at whining from the second level, the mental level of organization and planning, it becomes clear that having house rules and applying them helps greatly in reducing whining to a minimum. Setting clear boundaries to behavior that is acceptable and being consistent about them is paramount. Discipline and house rules belong to the mental level. Your local library no doubt carries books that offer help in this area. For instance, Nancy Samalin’s work abounds with examples of problem spots in the parent-child relationship and is brimming with sound parental advice. 

     The spiritual level

     However, whining can be  the symptom of something  else as well. Looking at whining from the third level, the spiritual level, you could interpret whining as a call for love, a call to connect to you. 

     Consider the background to this statement. In the  beginning, when  the  child  is still in the mother’s womb, mother and child are physically totally connected. The unborn baby and her mother are one. After the birth of the baby, the connection, although not continuous  any more, is still very intensive: nursing,  holding, cuddling, etc. The infant’s cry, if not caused by some physical discomfort, is an expression of the need to connect again with the parent. When the child is a little older she will try to engage the parents to play and to enter her world. A parent who answers this call will receive as a reward the love the child returns and the child’s contagious wonder for life. The child longs to feel the love of its parents. If the parents withhold their love, for whatever reason, the child will start prodding and whining. The child does not know how to show her need to connect with the parents in an alternative or socially more acceptable way. It is up to the parents to recognize the child’s “negative” behavior and reinterpret the appearance of a whine as a call for connection. 

     When you face a whining child, as all parents do at times, it helps to distinguish between levels of reality. Decide whether the problem is basically a physical one (e.g., lack of sleep), a mental one (e.g., lack of clear boundaries of behavior) or a spiritual one (call for love). It is up to you, the parent, to choose the response that fits the situation.

Understanding Parenting Issues: Three Levels of Expression

In the area of child rearing, where you meet with new and unexpected issues all the time, it is helpful to gain as complete an understanding of an issue as possible. You do this by recognizing that in the three dimensional world of body, mind and spirit, you experience life on three levels: the physical, the mental and the spiritual level. This means you have to expand your view of the world and of your life as a parent. When considering a problem or an issue in the family, it is not enough to take the problem at face value. Fresh, new solutions can only be found when you are able to include the mental and spiritual perspective in your assessment.

     If you are facing a recurring problem regarding one of your kids, do take some quiet time and think the issue through. Break it down into the three levels as shown above. You will be surprised by what you will come up with. 

     You can find other examples in my book on spiritual parenting as well as on my personal blog (see author’s page). In case you need help getting a handle on the three-pronged perspective on a specific issue, don’t hesitate to leave a comment and explain your situation.

Johanna van Zwet
(Images courtesy of photostock at

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