When parents respond to the meaning of a child’s behavior

It was a peaceful Saturday morning at Fuel, a local coffee shop in Great Barrington. People sat quietly murmuring with friends over coffee and muffins, or intently working at their laptops. I was doing the final edits for my forthcoming book Keeping Your Child in Mind, when I looked up to see a small boy of about two years tottering down the narrow aisle holding a plate with an enormous cinnamon bun almost the size of his head. His father followed close behind and they sat down at a table right next to me. The boy was proudly surveying his prize when his father innocently reached over and asked “May I share?” Instantaneously the peace was shattered.”NO!!! MINE!!! NO SHARE!!!” His father made a hasty retreat but it was too late. The boy quickly descended into an all out tantrum despite his father’s attempts to soothe him.

His mother, who had been at the cash register, rushed back to try to help. While she joined the efforts to quiet his screams, now transformed into sobs of “no share!”, she and the boy’s father looked to be deciding whether to abandon their outing or try to repair the situation. Fuel is a friendly place, and the other customers, including myself, smiled at them knowingly. This, together with a gradual decline in the intensity of their son’s crying, seemed to lead to a decision to stay. His mother sat with him while his father went to finish the transaction at the register. He returned with breakfast for the grown-ups and after a bit more time, the boy’s crying slowed to a quiet whimper. Calm once again descended, and the three of them were quietly eating their breakfast when the boy took a piece of his cinnamon roll, reached across the table to his father and said, “Share?”

Mine is a favorite word of most toddlers. This word doesn’t represent greed, but rather the toddler’s great joy in his newly emerging sense of self. Certainly limits must be set, and a toddler must learn over time that everything is not in fact, “mine.” Just how to impart this sense of limits while at the same time facilitating a healthy sense of self is one of the great challenges of being a parent of a toddler. Sometimes a child might feel particularly vulnerable, such as when he is hungry or tired, and can collapse in the face of a parent who shatters the illusion of his omnipotence. I imagine this was the case with this little boy and his cinnamon bun.

His parents, clearly attuned to the emotional state of their child despite the pressure of a public scene, sensed that this was not a moment to set a limit. He had his two-year-old reason for feeling that sole possession of this prize was essential. They were all rewarded by a happy repair of the disrupted morning. And with their respect for his autonomy, he was able to take in the idea of sharing, though for the time being, he needed to share at his own initiative.

This was a tiny moment, yet full of such richness and complexity. Strung together, such moments, when parents respond to the meaning of a child’s behavior rather than simply the behavior itself, serve to set a child on a path of healthy emotional development.

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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