I was recently at the Palm Harbor YMCA for the Healthy Kids Day and learned some interesting lessons from observing hundreds of children and their parents. Isn’t it amazing how we can learn so much from children, yet we are supposed to be teaching them about life!
I had a sand tray set up with miniatures for the children to play in during the event. Children are naturally drawn to sand and especially love to play in a sand tray indoors! The parents would ask if the child wanted to play, and then stand patiently and wait.
Most children were excited enough about the waterslides, the moonwalk, and the fire engine to only play for several minutes. Often, the parent could tell them there were other things to see and off they went to explore other activities. There were several, however, who became so consumed with building a world that they refused to leave.
Many parents were clever enough to bribe the child away with promise of food or another valued distraction. However, this was not the case with one boy. I will call him David.
This little boy was strong-willed and manipulative upon first observation. His parents would literally drag him away from the tray crying and fighting, and within several minutes, he would miraculously reappear to continue building his world (sometimes re-building it, if other children had changed it in his absence).
This process of the parents showing up, forcing him to leave and him coming back without them went on for more than an hour. They had another son, so they must have gone to the other tables with him and left David under my protective care at the sand tray.
He was pulled away four times against his will, and then returned independently. His parents would periodically walk by and try to entice him to go with them and he would refuse. They were clearly at a loss for how to handle him, and he had learned how to be in control of the family.
The more I observed him, and interacted with him during his play (much like I do in the playroom), I began to recognize more than strong-will and manipulation. He was crying out for attention from his parents.
After about an hour of playing, and I assume his parents cooling off from their frustration and embarrassment, his mother came back again asking him to leave. Interestingly, this time she knelt down and talked to him about what he had made in the sand. As he explained what he had chosen and what was happening in the scene, something very significant happened. They connected!
He felt heard and understood and she learned something about her son’s imagination and feelings. He then stood up and left with her, and did not stop to play again in the sand tray for the rest of the time they were there.
What a lesson for us as adults. A two minute period where we give undivided attention to a child can be the difference between bonding and tantrums. David reminded me of a valuable lesson- Give attention to your child or they will do whatever they can to get it!