Every Child is a River

A River, Why?


Imagine a river. See it flowing through fields. See it meandering through forests, running down to the sea. This ancient cycle is inevitable. The water is pulled as close to the earth as it can go: sea level. It takes the course of least resistance and, over time, river banks and beds are carved through the land. A river is formed through a pattern of behaviour. A child does the exact same thing. The difference is a child has choices and choices have consequences.



The Analogy:


  • The Sea = Happiness
  • The Water = The Child’s Choices
  • Gravity = Desire for Happiness
  • The River’s Path = Behavioural Pattern
  • The River Banks = Boundaries


Your child would find their way to the sea on their own, like the water. They too take the course of least resistance to the sea of happiness. If short term pleasures like staying up late and eating chocolate get them to the sea, they’ll take it. They’ll also hit, scratch and bite (toddlers!) their way there. As a human, we have rules. Water doesn’t. We also have more complicated needs. We are social animals for starters and learning to be social will give us the connections we need. Furthermore, short term happiness does not always equal long term happiness.


Life isn’t a one-off river run. We need to find our way to the sea every single day. This means we have to choose our path carefully and, as parents, help children to flow in the right direction at the right times. Over time, the river will be ’embedded’ into their way of being and they’ll flow down it effortlessly.

Example, Please?


Bedtimes. This is an issue for most parents. Some parents get lucky and have an ‘easy child’ who will happily run to bed and drift off to LaLa Land. For most, however, this is an issue which spans at least a few months. Breastfeeding (which is much more common) also inadvertently means your young one will have even more reason to wake up in the early hours.


There are so many approaches online and they are often extreme. Do you ferberize (leave them to cry it out essentially) or let them do as they please? Both approaches have half the truth behind them. To ferberize is to build river banks. This gives the child a healthy direction to flow in but building banks where there’s too much water flowing through (need for comfort) may cause flooding. Unfortunately, this flooding may not only come through tears but internally as well. This internal flooding may express itself at the wrong time and in the wrong way when they are older, not to mention the latest science warning against too much stress in (particularly young) children.

Letting your child dictate the flow of their sleep can have equally devastating consequences. They are (literally) crying out for direction. They want comfort because they are still unable to self-soothe themselves back to sleep. Your aim shouldn’t just be to get them to sleep but to help them sleep on their own. They can’t find their way to the sea (of sleep, in this case) on their own and you need to carefully place banks which will help them to get there.


Where should I build the banks?



Don’t remove the comfort but don’t do all of the comforting for them. Lie next to them but don’t let them lie on you. Reassure them, but listen too. Let them a cry a little. They are expressing themselves. Don’t talk over them. Let them learn how to get to the sea without being carried down your own river. Put up some river banks such as no sleeping in parents bed or no playing with toys but don’t ignore their cries. Having said that, don’t rush to them too quickly. Wait a minute or two as they may fall asleep and if they think they can call you in instantly that’s exactly what they’ll do. It’s the course of least resistance. Show them that the course of least resistance is not always the best course.

We are complicated animals which have gone from the bottom to the top of the food chain, without time to adjust our river’s instinctive course. Riverbanks can give direction and curbing freedom can bring the feelings of security they are looking for. Too many banks or banks which just don’t lead to the sea will have the opposite effect. Exactly when and how the banks are built however is up to you, but remember this analogy to get a better understanding and perspective over your child’s course. Don’t just see the tears, see the flood and ask yourself how you can best help them get to the sea.


In One Paragraph?


The course to happiness is not always obvious but that does not mean control their every turn. You’ll cause a flood, or worse, stop them exploring. The river banks all ultimately need to be in the child’s mind. Nudge and encourage them to put banks where they are needed. Equally, every child is a natural scientist. They need to find their own way. They need to explore, experiment and have the freedom to take wrong turns. You’re not trying to drag them to the sea, but share the signposts which have helped you. Look from above and make the wrong turns harder and the right turns easier. Give them freedom and control. Give them river banks but respect their need to find their own way. Let them flow and grow into strong, beautiful and unique rivers running into a sea of happiness.


*And yes, this analogy applies to adults too. Our banks are just a little harder to change.

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