A little story
I was in a beautiful toy store with my 3.5 year old daughter last weekend. After spending some time browsing around the store, looking at different toys and objects, she found two beautiful swans that lit up, sort of like a cozy night-light, One was pink, the other, white, and she was obviously captivated by them. She played with them the whole time we were in the store – so focused and peaceful, it was lovely.
When it was time to go I gave my daughter a little warning “We have to go soon. I see you are playing with these pretty swans. You can play for five more minutes.”
Ironically, I myself was looking to buy a small night-light for her bedroom so I thought I’d surprise her and buy one of the swans. When the five minutes were up I told her: “We have to go now but you know what…? I would love to buy one swan for you. Which one do you want?”
“I want both of them…” was her immediate answer as she held them close to her chest.
“Ahhh I see, you want both of them. They are so pretty and it’s hard to choose… I hear you. But I can only buy one.”
She struggled with the idea and I was quickly running out of time since both my husband and our friends were waiting on us at a nearby coffee shop.. I told her I could see she was having a hard time choosing and if she needed more time she could think about it over lunch. When she knew which one she wanted I would come back for one of them before we went home.
At that point she was already crying, telling me over and over that she didn’t want to leave the store, and that she wanted both swans and not just one. I was able to calmly empathize with her but at the same time confidently told her that it was time to go.
"We need to got now, I'm going to pick you and help you out of the store. Here we go..."
Two years later we travelled back to Hong Kong and here Y is at the entrance of the same store I write about here in this post.
Once outside she calmed down on her own. She happily ate lunch and ran around playing with her friend until it was time to pack up and go home. I then reminded her that I was ready to go back to the store and pick up one of the swans like promised. We didn’t have much time since we were all leaving together (two families) and if she would tell me which one she wanted I would quickly go in and get it before we left.
But she was still not ready to make her choice, telling me that she only.wanted.both.swans.
“I hear you, you really want both, you liked playing with the two of them together in the store, they are so nice! But I’m not going to buy both, you have to choose either one.”
“No, no, no mommy! I want both!”
And just then, the taxi arrived.
“Ah, see Y, the taxi has arrived and we need to leave. I don’t have time to go into the store anymore. The opportunity has passed sweetheart.”
I then had to physically carry my disappointed toddler, who was by that point in complete meltdown mode, into the taxi still empathising and acknowledging the loss of the two swans.
She cried and screamed, asked to go back, told me that she was ready to choose, quickly adding she still wanted both! All was expressed and all was let out. I held her calmly in the taxi and welcomed the feelings.
Letting out big feelings of loss and disappointments through a tantrum is our child’s way to essentially accept the limits we give them, and to process their experience. This is one way children internalise important lessons that present themselves in our daily lives. Accepting and acknowledging these feelings and allowing them to pass in their own time makes the experience very valuable to them.
As parents we need to be willing to allow life to “happen” because through these real life lessons our children get a chance to learn how the world sometimes works.
Relaxing into the moment and allowing our children to experience life in this way, while we stand ready to support them through the often disappointing experiences, is truly a valuable gift we can give to our children. But it is our job to trust they can go through somewhat painful emotions, with our emotional support as we acknowledge their feelings, stay calm and centered ourselves – Like the anchor in the middle of the storm.
So often we will unknowingly rob our children of these learning experiences – usually do this because we’re driven by fear of the emotional outburst, their reaction, or the dreaded tantrum. We then find ourselves running around, trying to meet their every need, whether they’re reasonable or unreasonable.
Parenting with compassion and empathy
With all of this said we have to be careful about where we are coming from. Our own energy, our thoughts, and state of mind when following through with our limits, allowing natural consequences to play out, going through big emotions with our children, makes a huge difference in how our children internalise these lessons, or if they will internalise them at all!
For deep learning we need to keep few things in check:
1. This is not a punishment
When we come from a place of punishment, the need of wanting to “teach the lesson” in a punitive way quickly spills into the scenario and will actually take away from the actual learning experience. Children are so aware, and they always sense where we are coming from. The truth is that if we don’t keep our emotions in check and become frustrated with the behaviour or requests being made, we will quickly be on the fast track to shaming and punishing.
2. No judgement!
- Be mindful of your judgemental thoughts:
- ”She is such a brat, how can she even ask for TWO of the same toys!”.
- “I just bought her toy last week and now this!!”
- “Can she just STOP with the whining!”
- “She’s throwing a fit in the middle of the store, right after I tell her that I’m actually willing to buy one toy for her, how ungrateful of her!”.
It can be hard not to get caught up in judgment. It is up to us need to reframe and then reframe some more, and force ourselves to see the world through our children’s eyes. Empathy is critical if you want to eliminate judgment, so acknowledging feelings and stepping into sincere empathy will help create a healthier dialogue within yourself regarding your child’s behaviour.
3. Don't rub it in
To make the most of a lesson that comes from natural consequences, we have to be extra careful not to “rub it in”. Through big lectures and extra judgment is how shame creeps in and quickly ruins the beauty and fairness of a natural consequence.
When we add shame to the mix our children will often feel resentful towards the lesson – and us. Shame predominantly creates one of two feelings (often it is a mixture of both). First, shame can lead children to believe that they are inherently “bad.” – internalising the shame. Secondly, shame creates feelings of unfairness that will often lead to wanting to push back. So it becomes more likely that they will dig their heels in, close up and not take on the learning.
Try to steer away from comments like:
“Yeah, see??? this is what happens when you can’t make up your mind!”
“I WAS ready to buy you one toy, but because of your actions now you get NO toy”…
Children don’t need us to explain the consequences to them. If we non-judgmentally sportscast/narrate what is happening, and sincerely acknowledge feelings along the way they will get it, they will feel it, they will understand in their own powerful way, they will internalise it and they will learn from it.
Staying neutral is key
It is a challenge for every one of us to allow a sequence of consequences to play out neutrally. Holding an empathetic space with confidence for any experience is anything but easy. Supporting them through whatever emotions might come up when life disappoints without taking over or interfere with the experience is an even greater challenge.
It takes deep trust in the process and lots of practice but it is so worth it. Not only will our children learn so much more from the experience but so will we!