July 4, 2009

Kicking the Blocks

It's easy to find examples of bad parenting. Much as each of us might love our own parents, we all can remember incidents (maybe isolated, maybe not) from our own childhoods in which their instincts weren't, well, optimal. So when I'm a witness to particularly good parenting, it makes an impression on me, and I usually learn something.

The 3-year-old was building rockets out of the wooden blocks I have in the room. Some of them were 10 blocks tall. He was so proud of these that he went out into the hall to tell me about them. He liked that I went to see them and was appropriately amazed by how tall they were.

His brother, almost 5, was in the room assembling a puzzle, but he kept looking over at the younger one, especially when I came in to look at his rockets. Their perceptive mother was there, too. She didn't hesitate to address her older son, who seemed occupied with his puzzle. She said, "Kevin, if you knock over your brother's blocks, you won't get a lollipop." At that moment, this seemed like a comment that came out of the blue. I wondered why she didn't warn him about setting fire to the building, too, as a reason to miss a treat.

I haven't tried to disguise where this is going, so don't be disappointed that there is no surprise twist to this story. As soon as the little brother and I started talking about his rockets, his brother calmly stood up, walked over and kicked the blocks down. He had a giant smile when he did this. Afterwards, he stood and admired his work. The younger brother gave a quick cry, but I told him I'd help put them back together and sat on the floor and started to make rockets with him.

His mother said, "You won't get a lollipop today."

This brought on a vigorous near-tantrum, in which he repeatedly asked, "Why don't I get a lollipop? It's not fair." This continued for a full minute or two before he sulked off into a corner. The rule in my office is that all the toys need to be picked up before anybody gets lollipops. So he said, "What if I pick up the toys? Will I get a lollipop?" His mother thought for a moment before saying that he would if he picked up the toys and apologized to his brother. When the visit came to a close, he was still sulking as his little brother and I picked up the blocks and toys. Kevin moved the blocks around with his feet.

As they left, his brother chose a lollipop from the basket. His mother was unflinching. Kevin got none and was unhappy about it.

At the same time, this mother was rock-solid, yet forgiving. She didn't negotiate or go back on her word. The child's behavior, was age-appropriate. He is just beginning to have an inkling of consequences from actions he can control. But exercising that control is just out of his reach.

So often, from a child's perspective, the rules adults create for them seem arbitrary and unpredictable. New rules appear invented for novel events that they can't expect. At Kevin's age, with his completely immediate concrete thinking, he doesn't have the ability to generalize a basic but vague rule, like 'Don't hit your brother,' and apply the rule to new situations. So an empathic approach allows us to understand that he might reason that the rule doesn't apply to hitting his brother in the car, or while watching TV, and so on. In the incident in my office, his mother made this easier for him by being very specific about the rule. She foresaw what he wanted to do to those tempting towers of blocks. While he clearly heard her, he couldn't make sense of how his action could result in a consequence he didn't like. Now he and his mother will have an example to point to when the issue of actions and consequences comes up again. And it will.

The sweet photograph at the top is not in my collection but is used with permission by the photographer, Courtney Coolidge, who takes great photographs of kids and families.

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Please let me know what you think. Do you know a child or situation like this?