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Wednesday January 20
Emma, my thirteen-year-old daughter, told me about a father and daughter she observed
at the park the other day. The girl, around five years old, was curled up in a
corner, crying and fussing. The dad came over and asked her what was wrong. She
told him to go away and leave her alone. So he left, but the girl immediately whined
for him to come back. Frustrated, he came back, and asked her again what was the
matter, more forcefully this time. She pushed him away again, he left, and once
more she wailed for him to come back. This went on for some time. Emma told me
she wasn't sure what the dad should have done instead, but she said she wished
she had a copy of Playful Parenting in her backpack to give him!
That story reminds me that we always need to reconnect when there is a disconnection--like
when that little girl was so upset at the park. But we can't force children to
restore that connection exactly the way we'd like. This dad wanted to talk to his
daughter and help her with her upset feelings. So far so good. Why then did she
push him away? Because he came over with an agenda, a specific idea for how to
interact with her. He insisted that she tell him, in words, exactly what was the
matter. She had a different idea.
It would have been lovely if she had said, "I don't want to talk about it in words quite yet, could you just hold me or sit nearby while I cry about it, then I'll tell you what happened when I am ready to?" But
alas, this was a real kid, not a wild fantasy. So instead, his questioning agitated
her, and her agitation frustrated him.
Why did she wail for him to come back? Because she still wanted a connection,
but her way, not his way. That might not be fair, but after all, she was the one
upset, and she is the young child, so I think it's important for us adults to bend
a bit and let children decide how these reconnections ought to go.
What did she want? Probably just for him to sit quietly nearby and stop asking
all those nosy questions, while she let out all her upset feelings. Quite often,
children express these feelings first through tears, and only later, after the
tears are done, can they tell the story of what happened. They may hear our "helpful"
questions as an interruption, and just want us nearby, listening. They might also
worry that if their story isn't "good enough," then they will be told to quit crying
and get over it. (Adults often do say silly things like that).
I laughed when Emma suggested that what this dad needed was a copy of Playful
Parenting, because I can remember countless times when I made the same mistake--with
her and with other kids. I would rush over to comfort a distressed child, but my
idea of comfort would not be what they had in mind. Instead of pausing to see what
they needed from me, I would get all huffy, like this dad, about being rejected.
I'd feel, like he seemed to, that nothing I did was right, since I got pushed away
for coming close and screamed at for leaving.
Eventually, I learned a few rules that have helped me in situations like this.
First, I try to keep my mouth shut as much as I can, to listen more than I talk
when a child is upset.
Second, if they tell me to go away, I take a few steps back and ask, "Is this far enough?" It
sounds like a joke but I say this in all seriousness--I really want to know how
close they want me to be in order for them to feel comforted but not intruded on.
Third, I try to remember that tears and tantrums follow their own timetable, not
mine. Kids are relieved and rejuvenated when they get to release a big pile of
feelings, even if they are crying about "nothing."
Finally, I try to take a broad view of what counts as a connection--it isn't always
a deep conversation. It might be a handshake, a hug, a long look in each other's
eyes, a high-five.
It might be, as with a young boy named Pete, having his action figure shake hands
with my action figure. After Pete did this, I pointed out to his mom, who had described
him as "unable to connect," how creative he actually was in making contact. He
couldn't handle too much emotional intensity, but he found a way to shake hands
with me his way--a playful way.
She said wistfully, "You mean he isn't going to sit and tell me every detail of his day and every nuance of his feelings, like my girlfriends and I do?" Sorry.
Happily, she was able to start recognizing that Pete's ways of interacting--like
pillow fights and bumping his head into her side--are just as meaningful and full
of connection as a deep conversation.