Food for Thought: Do we pay enough attention?

We had an experience at a kids’ play place recently where Lilah (2-1/2 years old) was playing with some play food and I was sitting a few feet away casually watching her.  Another little girl (seemingly a little older than Lilah) came over and started snatching the food from Li.  Li told her no and pulled her basket of food out of the little girl’s reach after the first few attempts.  At that, the little girl ran off and came back with her mom and another woman.  The little girl pointed at Lilah and said, “She took my food.”  The mom said, “Oh honey,” and proceeded to get a basket for her little girl and load it up with all the food she could find lying around.  Then the little girl commented that she wanted a few specific pieces of food that Lilah had in her basket, so the mom proceeded to “trade” food into Lilah’s basket for the pieces her daughter wanted, without asking Lilah if that was okay.  After the mom and her friend had “corrected” the situation, they both walked off again…out of sight.  The little girl then walked away from the basket of food her mom had so craftily gathered for her, and went over to Luke (4 years old).  She pointed at a toy he had been playing with for at least 10 minutes, and said, “That’s mine!”  He handed it to her, she snatched it out of his hand, and ran off.  

What happened with this little girl and her mom has bothered me for over a week.  I know as a parent we can’t see everything that goes on and we will make mistakes ourselves, but the behavior of that little girl didn’t develop in that one situation.  And sadly, her mom’s reaction to her behavior was to completely validate it.  She might as well have just said, “Oh, you want THOSE toys that little girl has and snatching didn’t work?  Here, I’ll take them from her for you.”

Having worked in a daycare throughout college, having taught elementary school for 7 years, and having been a parent myself for 4 years, my first question when I hear kids tattle on someone else is always, “What did YOU do?”  Nine times out of 10, the tattler isn’t completely innocent themselves. 

It made me sad to see such a missed teaching opportunity with the little girl.  It made me sad to see Lilah wondering why this mom was taking away all the cool play food she had gathered and why she was giving it to the little girl who had been snatching it away from her.  It made me sad that even though the little girl was so rude, Luke handed over the toy he was playing with without question.  

I sat and observed.  I didn’t say a word.  There was no sense in escalating the situation.  Luke and Lilah need to learn there is unfairness in the world, and I want them to learn to handle the situations they’re faced with independently as much as possible.  I am happy that they handled the situation calmly and without fuss.  I’m sure they understood at least on some level, that what happened was wrong.  I think it’s good to know when to stand up for yourself, but it’s also good to know when to remain quiet.  I’m pretty sure nothing L&L or I could have said would have changed that parent’s opinion of the situation anyway.

As a parent, I try to spend time observing my kids when they’re playing alone, playing with others, and I listen to their conversations.  You can learn so much about your child just by watching and really listening to them.  

I am not saying I always do the right thing.  (Hardly!)  I am not saying my kids never do anything wrong.  (Hahahahahahahaha!)  What I am saying is that I try to learn about them as much as I can and help them work through any issues or negative behaviors I notice as they arise.  And I *do not* just take their word for how a situation went down that I didn’t witness myself, especially when it involves another child (and most especially when the other child is a complete stranger).

Perhaps this mom had a bad day.  Perhaps it was really a nanny or a relative and not the mom at all.  Perhaps the little girl had a situation at home that was causing her to act out.  I’m not pointing fingers here.  I’m not.

What I’m really saying, I think, is that I pray that it not be me to make that mistake.  That I pay attention enough.  That I intervene when I need to and in the right way.  There are eyes and ears everywhere, and especially when those eyes and ears belong to little ones, I want what they see and hear from me to be examples of what is right and not confusing examples of wrong.  I want to help my children to model positive behaviors while eliminating negative ones.  I don’t want to be the parent that waltzes in to fix problems without ever really seeing what the true issue is.

So, in the end, I guess what I’m saying is please, pay attention to your child and be present in their lives.  I don’t mean stand by their side every minute of every day.  But observe them.  Watch them around others.  Listen to them.  Get to know them.  No one is perfect.  Not me.  Not you.  Not my child.  Not yours.  But if we really learn about who our children are and how they handle themselves around others, we can better help them become the responsible people we all want them to be.  

And maybe, just maybe, if we all pay attention along the way, two little girls will sit down at a picnic table and working together, will prepare a feast of play food fit for a queen…as friends.

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Genny Upton

A former teacher turned stay at home mom to two preschool aged children. Creator (and writer) at In Lieu of Preschool and Parent Teach Play. Currently publishing my first children's picture book!

  • Cassie says:

    This was so well put together. Thanks for writing it up!

  • Hwannie says:

    I encounter this situation frequently, but it’s mostly my own daughter that is causing problems and being a bully. She has a very strong personality. She likes to lead, tells others where to go and what to do, and demands attention no matter where she is. She has been known to push 10 year olds out of the way at a children’s museum, telling them “it’s not your turn yet! I’m not done yet! Move back!!” She is not yet 2.5 years old! My son (4) on the other hand, is often the one who follows others, plays calmly, waits patiently for his turn (and sometimes never gets a turn at all), and rarely acts out of line. They are so different that my husband and I have a hard time deciding how to parent each one. We tell our son that it’s okay to stick up for himself and be a little more aggressive. We tell our daughter that she needs to be more patient and understanding of everyone else around her. We don’t want to give them mixed messages, but it’s hard to tell little kids about the fine line between sticking up for oneself and being a complete bully. Any tips?!

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