Few concepts in the last 40-odd years have confused our perception of children more than the myth of the insecure child. I don't mean that there's no such thing as an insecure child. If the phrase is used to refer to a child who lives without sufficient protection, limits, and love, then there certainly are insecure children. Plenty of 'em.
The problem is not that the phrase has no meaning; the problem is that we, by and large, fail to use the phrase meaningfully.
"Insecure" has evolved into a catchall we tend to group children under if they are too calm to be hyperactive and do too well in school to be learning disabled, but drive their parents crazy, nonetheless. The symptoms vary, but are generally of a passive, overly dependent nature. "Insecure" children may cry and whine a lot or have difficulty making friends or want to sleep with their parents or suck their thumbs or be fearful of everyday things, like upstairs bathrooms and newspapers, or something equally puzzling and unsettling to their parents.
The popular assumption is that insecurity is caused by a lack of proper attention and can therefore be cured by giving more of that which is lacking. Give an "insecure" child massive transfusions of attention, and he will no longer feel insecure. He will have good self-esteem, whatever that means.
I, on the other hand, have found exactly the opposite to be the case. More often than not, the child whose behavior seems the most "insecure" is the very child who needs drastically less attention than he has been receiving.
The problem, as I see it, is that we use the term "insecure" to imply a condition of neglect. But while it is true that all neglected children are truly insecure and therefore need more loving attention, it is not necessarily true that all "insecure" children are neglected.
Case in point: Marcia, 7, who, her parents told me, was "insecure."
"Why do you think she's insecure?" I asked.
"Because she seems to need constant attention. It's like she can't get enough. They described her as an incessant talker, who could not seem to tolerate the slightest frustration (she either collapsed in tears or said, "I can't do anything right," or both) and suffered frequent nightmares.
"We cannot figure out what we've done to make her this way. She's our first child and we've always paid lots of attention to her. But it seems the more attention we give her, the worse her behavior becomes."
Marcia's parents wanted to know how they could make her more "secure." I said I would first help them get Marcia to stop talking so much.
They were to first tell Marcia that they wanted her to talk less and, second, send her to her room to "calm down" when she began her chatter. A timer was set for five minutes, and she could emerge when the bell went off.
"After you get her talking under control," I told her parents, "we'll see what can be done about her frustration and the nightmares."
But nothing more had to be done. Marcia's chatter ceased almost immediately. So did the nightmares. She also stopped crying about minor frustrations and saying she was incompetent.
I've seen the same picture over and over again. The supposedly "insecure" child's symptoms of "insecurity" disappear after her parents set effective limits on some prevalent, annoying aspect of her behavior.
What does it mean? It means that many so-called "insecure" children are lacking, not in love and attention, but in discipline. It also affirms that effective discipline is at least as important as love to a child's sense of security.
It also means that once we set our priorities straight, rearing children is really quite easy.
And therefore enjoyable.
Copyright 2020, John K. Rosemond