I mentioned a while ago that I’d attended an interesting presentation by a couple of child psychologists and discovered that I’d done quite well (completely by accident) at parenting my girls when they were babies. (Read “Talking to Babies“)
Unfortunately, it turns out that I didn’t do quite as stellar a job parenting them as preschoolers.
Tasha was always quite a good communicator. She had a large vocabulary and wasn’t afraid to use it — grandma nearly dropped a pot of mashed potatoes when she noticed Tasha making a mess of the nicely set table. When grandma asked what she was doing, Tasha’s response was, “I’m hindering.”
At the time, I mistakenly equated knowledge of words with … complex thought? I’m not quite sure how to explain it… just because someone correctly uses a word, doesn’t mean they understand all of its implications to you. I do know that Tasha got a few timeouts that she didn’t deserve due to my lack of understanding of normal preschooler development.
Fast forward to the child psychology lecture where I, belatedly, learned the error of my ways.
Apparently, if I tell a three to four year old that “I love broccoli and I hate cookies” then show them a picture of broccoli and a cookie and ask, “which one do I want?”, most will answer correctly that I want the broccoli.
Now if I ask the children, “when you get something you love, are you happy or sad?” they will all answer, “happy”. If I ask them, “when you get something you hate, are you happy or sad?” they will all answer, “sad” (with a couple throwing in “angry”).
Back to the broccoli and cookies…
If instead of asking, “which do I want?” I ask, “how will I feel if I get broccoli?” fewer, but still most, of them will answer, “happy”.
Now if I ask, “how will I feel if I get a cookie?” less than half of them will answer correctly, “sad/angry” – most of them answer, “happy”. What the heck!?
The children know that I said I hated cookies. They have stated that they would be sad/angry if they got something they hated but they are unable to conceive of a world in which someone is sad/angry when they get a cookie. Their own feelings about cookies override the idea that I might feel differently than they do.
Interestingly (to me anyways), the professor is now doing work to try to figure out why the kids got happy right and sad wrong. Is it because they’re less passionate about broccoli than cookies or is it because we, generally, develop our empathy for positive emotions sooner than for negative ones?
Anyways, back to Tasha and grandma… If Tasha is really enjoying rearranging the table settings (blissfully lost in whatever imaginative fantasy she’s in) it might dawn on her that she’s hindering grandma without her fully realizing that grandma will be upset by this.
“I know I’m getting in the way of what you’re doing, but this is so much fun that you must appreciate it too.”
Rather than scold her and give her an immediate time out, I would have been better off asking Tasha how she thought her hindering made grandma feel, correcting her if she was wrong in her assumptions and asking her to apologize to grandma.
Even with this better approach, Tasha still might not “get it” until she was a little older but at least I would have made some steps toward pointing out that what’s great fun for her might make someone else sad (rather than simply punishing her for, in her mind, “doing something that makes her happy”).
Oops, I wish I’d heard that lecture sooner but I’m grateful that I know now!