Dear fellow mother,
Today my two and a half year old son pushed your son, snatched a toy from his hands and shouted at him. Your son justifiably felt aggrieved and cried; you came and comforted your child. I wanted to connect with you, to talk to you about it, but it wasn’t the right place or time it seemed, and you didn’t make eye contact with me. I wanted to tell you so much. I wanted to say sorry.
Please know that just because I didn’t shout at my son, or take him by the arm and drag him away, or force him to give up the toy by taking it out of his hands or tell him that he must say sorry, just because I didn’t roll my eyes and say how awful he is at sharing– none of these things means that I’m not taking it seriously. I am. I feel sorry for your child. Moreover, I have a vested interest: I don’t want my son to hurt other people because I know such behaviour not only makes other people unhappy; it will make him unhappy too. Like you, I just want my son to be happy.
Please understand that my child is doing these things because it’s normal behaviour for his age. He doesn’t come from an unhappy home, I’m not too authoritarian or permissive, he’s not insecure and it’s nothing personal. There are no pyscho-babble reasons behind his behaviour. He’s two and I accept him for where he is now… I hope you will try to understand.
When I kneel quietly beside my son, gesture toward your crying child and say, “Look at his face: he’s sad” I am taking the long view. In the short term there is no instant gratification in this approach in that your son doesn’t have the toy back and my son hasn’t said ‘sorry’ for what he did. But I am teaching my child to tap into his innate sense of compassion for other human beings. When I invite him to witness your child’s feelings, I am drawing him into your child’s experience of hurt. In effect, I am asking my son to step into your child’s shoes. Yes, I know it’s hard for him. At two and a half you might even say it’s impossible. But as I said, it is a long-term strategy.
You probably wonder why I don’t just take the toy out of my son’s hands and return it to yours. I believe that this would teach him that snatching is okay (because mummy did it too!) and that ending the problem now is more important than working out a solution. It also means that your son learns that dealing with problems is as easy as screaming and getting what you want. The world isn’t like that and I want both of our children, even at their young age, to understand that it takes time, communication and effort to resolve disputes.
Some might think I should pull him away from the situation. But I do not want my child to think that the solution is to walk away, unless of course the distance helps him to calm down… before he can reapproach your child to work out a solution. I do not want him to feel ashamed of what he did: his behaviour was normal for his age and stage. What I do want to do is to gently guide him towards behaviour that will contribute to his and others’ happiness.
Other people might think I should shout or tell him he’s a naughty boy. But I do not want him to feel ashamed of himself. I want him to trust me, to remain connected to me. I believe in his innate goodness, and I want to remind him of it, not convince him that’s he’s bad. I am his advocate and defender, and even though he has done wrong, it will take him time to learn to be less impulsive. And I believe that he is more likely to treat others with love and consideration if he feels loved himself.
I want my child to learn to be compassionate toward yours. When I point to your child and say, “Look, he doesn’t like to be pushed: it hurts” I’m not being woolly or weak. I am pointing out for my son a universal human truth. Nobody likes to be hurt. When I say, “Please don’t hit” I am being respectful and polite, and even if some might think my son doesn’t deserve respect because he was the aggressor, the only way he will give respect is if he is respected.
Please don’t feel you need to coerce your child into giving up the toy. Let’s work together to invite our sons to share it. A ball is more fun if we roll it back and forth to one another, a car takes on a new meaning when we can wheel it to each other and see what the other person does. Collaborative play is fun, but at two and a half it’s not the first kind of play that springs to mind– my son wants the toy because it looks exciting. He doesn’t realise that it could be even more interesting to play together with your child. Instead of giving up the toy and walking away, help me to show our sons how to work together. And if they don’t want to play together, let’s invite them to take turns. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if they could do this?
I would love it if you would talk to me and meet my eye because I want to connect with you and I want you to see that I am uncomfortable and sorry and embarrassed. I want you to know that my son is a lovely, kind boy who is able to share beautifully when he wants to, but like all children his age finds it difficult to live up to adults’ expectations all the time. I know that like me, you are probably tired and exhausted by the business of parenting a toddler and possibly other children. I know that your child’s screaming is setting you on edge and that he was happy before my son turned up on the scene. I want to reach out to you and show you that I care. I want you to see that I am a mother too and that even if you disagree with our don’t understand my methods, our journeys are so similar that it’s worth sharing. I want you to see my love for my son as much as you see your love for your son. And I want you to appreciate that although your son was on the receiving end today, one day soon he too will do the same things my son has done today. I suppose I want you to do what I am trying to teach my son to do: to step into my shoes and consider me with compassion. After all, I am just another mother having a tough day as I guide my children through the complicated waterways that lead toward adulthood.
Give me the comforting balm of understanding and connection, and know that I will return it to you when you too have instructed your toddler in the ways of sharing for what seems like the hundredth time that day.
With love and peace,
Photo credit: Jdodge3 via Wikimedia Commons