Selected Excerpts from Understanding the Human Being, Chapter 11: "The Developmental Crises of the First Three Years of Life"

By Dr. Silvana Quattrocchi Montanaro

“In our growth processes, there are special moments called developmental crises, in which a major transition between two stages of life occur. The human being must have prepared the equipment necessary to effect this change, which permits him to continue advancing along the path of personal development. The various phases of development require the acquisition of different abilities….

The word "crisis" maybe ambiguous, since in everyday speech it is generally used for problems. "Having a crisis" has the negative connotation of passing through a period that is full of difficulties that one doesn't know how to resolve and that are a severe trial for the person facing them. But this is not the original meaning of this Greek word which means "judgement", so that "being in a crisis" implies being in a situation in which one is submitted to a test. In developmental crises, what is tested is the degree of preparation needed to progress along the path of humanization. It is rather like taking an exam. Although it is a special moment, it does not cause too many problems if you are well prepared and if the surrounding environment is favorable…. In the long process of development, a human being goes through many times of "crisis", many moments of transition between one stage of development and another. These passages are obligatory, and we cannot side-step them. If everything went according to plan during the preceding phase, the person will pass the "test" without difficulty and without trauma and subsequently find himself at a more advanced phase of personal development. Not only does time pass, the chief advance is that the range of possibilities increases and the human being becomes constantly wealthier and able to participate more fully in life.

It is important that all parents and adults know about the developmental crises in order to realize how the infant’s life is constantly changing and how necessary it is to recognize the special moments of development. The transition between phases can be facilitated by an environment capable of offering help appropriate to the changing needs.”

Birth is the first big test of "maturity", during which the work done during pregnancy is assessed… Birth represents an affirmation of independence from a world that had become too small for growth to continue. It also demonstrates the necessity and possibility of facing up to something new in order to acquire an environment conducive to one's own growth. It is a positive urge towards a qualitatively and quantitatively better life. This requires discarding an outgrown past in order to move towards a present full of new things aimed at the enrichment of whoever acts in the effort needed to enter the new environments

It is equally important to understand that the infant is not left alone in this transition and in the adaptation that follows. Nature places special aid at his disposal. Aid that is mainly related to the mother who is charged with continuing to help the newborn, albeit in different ways that are appropriate to the new situation…. The environment thus takes on the role performed by the uterus in prenatal life. It provides a special place to grow until the time comes when another place, offering greater possibilities, becomes necessary.

… in order to provide a quality of help that truly responds to the great potential of a human being passing through the developmental crisis of birth, we need much love combined with a good knowledge of the child. In the symbiotic period which follows, everything depends on the adequate preparation of the mother and adults present during this passage, since they must give all that is really required at the right time.  We have already spoken about symbiotic life and the great acquisitions that can be made in this short period of two months: a feeling of basic trust that the environment will respond to needs, and the psychosomatic unity of the child These allow the infant to pass from biological birth to ontological birth, defining a person that now has the tools to go ahead. This person is ready to face the other developmental crises, the tests set, by life, each of them a precious opportunity for personal growth.

The second important developmental crisis is that of weaning, which underlines a physical change associated with the ability to eat and digest foods other than milk. If also includes a psychological change in the human being consisting of a higher degree of awareness of himself and of the external world. This enables him to look at the world with the understanding of being differentiated from it and having it before his eyes as an "object" to observe and know.

…. The third developmental crisis occurs at 30 to 36 months of age and concludes the first basic period in the construction of the personality. It is called the crisis of opposition, but this term is incorrect because it gives a negative connotation to a period that is actually positive. The crisis demonstrates that the child has taken another big step forward in the path towards independence and humanization.

Around three years of age, children are able to speak very well and to refer to themselves with the pronoun "I". They are able to move about perfectly, and even run, and have reached an accurate awareness of their world. They now have the distinguishing characteristics of human beings and are per-fectly aware of their level of maturity. Now they are waiting and asking to be recognized as adult.

The crisis starts when children begin to say "no" to almost everything we propose to them, demonstrating that they can react a very different way than adults expect. The change generally happens suddenly and can surprise many parents who almost cease to recognize their own child. In reality, what the child is no longer accepting is our style of addressing him by continually stressing that he is small and has to do what he has been ordered to do. At this stage, his ego wants to be taken into account and consulted when there is a decision to be made that concerns him. These decisions are simple. They are always related to daily life to eating, getting dressed and so on - but behind each of these actions lies his relationship with the environment.

If, from the very start, we were able to see the capability of the child, tried to perform the right activities for life together with him and increased our collaboration with him, then the crisis of opposition may very well never arise. The child constantly receives the reassurance required by his ego without having to fight for this recognition….

…In our Infant Community, we make particular efforts to ask for the children's opinions and decisions on everything possible, so that they get used to the democratic exercise of power. This does not imply doing what they want but, starting from the real situation (we only have biscuits or bread and honey so it is impossible to ask for anything else) we offer a choice. If the child wants something that we do not have, but could buy, we can simply say that we don't have it right now, "But when we go to the market together, remind me and I will buy it." This approach, combining respect, consideration and collaboration, is the only valid response to the crisis of opposition which would be better termed the "crisis of the recognition of the ego". It is a moment of passage to a higher level of development, and this should make parents happy, considering that the child is continuing to grow both in age, wisdom and personal maturity.

… Crisis periods are favorable for change, not only in children but in all who participate in them. The results are assessed in terms of the new physical and psychological abilities needed for continuing to grow and are measured as an increase not only in years, but in the quality of life.”

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