Question: At grocery stores and other public places, I often see parents being harsh toward their children, who are understandably tired and impatient. What is reasonable to expect from a child in this kind of situation, and what is reasonable to expect from a parent?
Jan Hunt responds: A child's rambunctiousness in public embarrasses parents, because our society expects children to remain silent and to behave as though they are mature adults -- a most unrealistic and uncaring expectation. Expecting the impossible can of course only lead to disappointment and frustration for both parents and children.
Consider this true story:
It was 10 p.m. Little Aaron, about age 5, was ahead of me in a long line of people waiting to look through the telescope at our local nature center. His mother, I was happy to see, was holding him and laughing with him about something humorous he had just said. But soon Aaron became restless, as children will when they have spent a late hour waiting in a long line, and was being warned to keep quiet.
At the first signs of impatience, his mother spoke kindly: "The telescope won't go away. You'll get a chance to look through it." However, she neglected to validate his feelings. She didn't say, "It's so hard to wait for something you've looked forward to for so long." Aaron began to play with his mother's nose, twisting it this way and that while making a sort of whooshing, humming noise like a UFO hovering over us.
As the nose attacks and sound effects continued, his mother struggled to free herself and to quiet her son. She tried reasoning with him: "For a child who loves space as much as you do, you'd think you could be more patient to get to the telescope!" Reasoning didn't work, and as is often the case with children, it just made matters worse. Aaron screamed, "I hate the stars! I want to go!" His mother became annoyed with him and began to react with anger: "Stop that, Aaron!" And soon: "Stop that, right now!" And finally: "Do you want to have any fun tomorrow?!"
That took Aaron over the edge. He started crying hard, and they left for home. A child who loved space lost a chance to have a good look at it.
Just like adults, children feel most cooperative when treated with kindness, understanding and faith in their inherent good intentions. No adult feels cooperative when treated in a threatening, angry way by a spouse, employer or friend. In fact, we feel hurt and resentful when treated that way, and far from cooperating, we often resist or retaliate. Why then do we expect children to respond with good behavior when treated with anger, threats or punishment?
The deepest mystery of parenting is that we often miss the truth about children's behavior -- and yet it is so simple. Children are human beings, just as we are, and behave in accordance to how they are treated, just as we do. We seldom stop to consider that a child is simply an inexperienced human being with real feelings, who is doing the best he can do, given all the circumstances of his life up to that moment. For how could he do any more? And why would he do any less?
Everything a child does makes sense if we look at things from his point of view; there is a valid reason for everything a child does. Aaron was understandably excited about this adventure. If his excitement had been more fully accepted and validated, he would surely have found the long wait less stressful.
As a child advocate, what could I have said to Aaron's mother? I might have validated Aaron's feelings and offered a solution to his mother. To Aaron, I might have said, "It's so hard to wait when you're looking forward to something!" To his mother, I could have said, "You know, airlines have the right idea; they always board children first. Why don't I ask if you could go to the head of the line?" I could have offered help: "It's so hard for children to wait in long lines. If you'd like to take him for a walk, I'll be glad to hold your place." Or I might simply have encouraged her: "It's so hard for a child to be quiet and patient at the end of a long day, waiting to do something exciting. I think he's doing really well!" I could have said any of these things, if only I had thought of them at the time. There is such a taboo against intervening in one another's parenting that we often overlook ways in which we can be helpful.
Children deserve our best efforts to give them love and understanding at all times, even when -- especially when -- they are not behaving as we would wish. If we can show them compassion and understanding at those times, we can teach them by example some of the most essential ingredients of a happy life: the capacity to love others unconditionally and the willingness to offer help and express empathy at all times, not just at those times when others are making life easy for us.
If we can teach this to our children, we have given our child a priceless gift, one that will continue through the generations. As Rick Lahrson, director of the Portland, Oregon, Kids Project, once wrote, "Misbehavior in children is an attempt to communicate, when all else has failed. Children have a drive to love other people and to be a contribution to the people around them. It is time for all children to be recognized as the magnificent people they are and accorded the dignity and respect that is due every human being. We must establish a new way of seeing children."
© Jan Hunt
Jan Hunt, M.Sc., is a parenting counselor, director of the Natural Child Project and editorial assistant for the Canadian journal Empathic Parenting. She is an advisor to Attachment Parenting International, Child-Friendly Initiative and Northwest Attachment Parenting. A parenting columnist and writer for many years, she is the author of The Natural Child: Parenting from the Heart. Jan and her 22-year-old son (who homeschooled from the beginning with a learner-directed approach) live in central Oregon. You can see Jan’s work at The Natural Child Project.