I took my son to a kids gym called Future Flipz yesterday for a play group. Although he is only ten months and not yet walking, he enjoys watching the other kids and army crawling around on the foam blocks and sitting on the inflatables while other kids jump. While I was there, I had to be out on the floor with him and the other children, whereas the other mothers sit in the chairs and watch from a distance. This gave me a unique opportunity to observe the things that would be missed from a distance. Here’s my story.
A three year old boy was running around the perimeter of the gym carrying two foam blocks from the foam pit that kids can jump into from the trampoline. He wanted one of his friends to follow him and the other boy did not, so he was yelling for his friend. I told him the boy was all the way on the other side, and he told me he wanted him. I showed him where he was, and as he ran off, he dropped his foam blocks on the floor close to my son.
My son, never one to pass up something to chase, crawled over and began playing with the blocks. Several minutes later, the boy either remembered he left the blocks or merely saw my son playing with them. He walked over very purposefully, ripped both blocks out of my son’s hands, and started to walk away.
A choice… how to respond?
I immediately found two things interesting. One, I was sitting right next to my son when this happened, and he knew I saw what he did. Second, instead of walking away with his back towards me, he SLOWLY backed away while still facing me. It was very clear he was waiting for me to be upset, correct him and force him to give the blocks back to my son. So, in true play therapist fashion, I responded with, “You came and took the blocks back again“.
He just stared back at me, trying to understand why I wasn’t responding the way he expected me to (and likely the way most adults would normally respond in that situation). After pondering my response for several seconds, he walked back towards us and then threw the blocks back on the floor in front of my son. I then said, “Oh, you decided to give them back and share. That was very thoughtful.” My son actually only wanted to hold one at a time, so I offered to give one back to the little boy and he once again returned it to my son.
Another interesting point was that from that point forward he and my son were fast friends. The boy would come over and pat him on the back, help him crawl up on the ramps and steps, pulled his shirt down over his tummy, etc. It was a very sweet and helpful relationship that developed, albeit one-sided. 🙂
Why did that work?
So, what happened from a psychological standpoint? Why did I say what I did? Why did it work in allowing the child to correct his own behavior? Let me share my thoughts.
Anytime a child takes from another child, it is usually in an attempt to gain control over their circumstances. In this case, my son was an easy target because he was a baby. Children will often use any opportunity to use their size, age or intelligence to their advantage over those with less. (Have you ever paid attention to a child who fights for control in interaction with a pet? Command, control, demand, reprimand, repeat).
After the attempt to show his power over my son, he then anticipated me taking the power back from him again, which is what he is used to. When I didn’t, he was caught off guard and was able to focus on his understanding that what he did was wrong. I didn’t need to tell him it wasn’t nice to do that, he already knew it. He then chose to correct his behavior on his own, which was much more impactful than if I would have forced him to make amends for his actions.
Notice that my language was not condemning nor filled with expectation. It solely tracked his behavior and acknowledged his actions. This skill forces a child to decide what they think about a situation, rather than hearing what you think about it. (“That wasn’t nice”. “You should not take toys away from babies”. “You need to give that back”.) All valid parental opinions, but he came to those conclusions on his own, which is what we want anyway.
Choose your words carefully
Finally, I would like to point out that I never used any words with a value judgment attached. I didn’t say good, bad, nice, or mean. I only used “thoughtful” purposefully. Saying that giving the blocks back was “nice” or that he was a “good” boy for doing it would only teach him to do the right things to get acknowledged for it. That is the danger of praise. I chose to encourage his efforts by telling him that his actions had value, and that is something that he internalizes and wants to do again for himself. Read more examples and information about Praise vs. Encouragement here, or a real life example of it here.
So, when you see your child today, tomorrow or next week trying to exercise control over something in a negative way, acknowledge their behavior without correcting it. Not only will it take them by surprise, it will allow them to choose their response, and it may turn into a very important lesson on self-control for them.