Recently, my son encountered his first playground politics. It came in the form of two five-year-old girls. They were making cakes out of sand and then sitting down to “eat” them. He happily ran over with his own sand toys and sat down next to them, even offering them one of his cups. He was met with two stern No’s! It quickly became clear to him that this was a private party. Running back toward me, his eyes filled with tears. I felt my heart break a little. Sweet boy.
The mama bear instinct is fierce. The girls’ parents weren’t around and it was all I could do to not give them a piece of my mind. But, I also want to teach my son how to deal with situations like these when I’m not around. We talked a little bit about how it doesn’t feel good when other kids don’t want to play together or share. I explained that is part of why we always try to be kind to others. Then, he saw his friend on the other side of the playground and ran off to play. He was singing and laughing in no time. But I was still thinking.
This is surely the first of many times when he may be hurt, disappointed, or left out. We all remember these times from our childhood. My maternal instinct is to want to envelope him in love. To rescue him from the world’s cruelty. To help him maintain that innocent joy as long as he can. But I can’t, really. Perhaps it is better for me instead to help him navigate. To help him figure out his own response to life’s disappointments.
Being a pediatrician definitely does not make me a parenting expert. Perhaps no one truly is, as every child is different. But, I do get asked about parenting challenges like this a lot in clinic. There are a few well-trained, thoughtful people who I think have great ideas about how to respect and encourage children as they grow up. I turn to their advice when my patients’ parents (or I!) have questions about parenting. I decided to see what one of them had to say about this.
Jane Nelsen Ed.D’s child-centered program Positive Discipline is “designed to teach young people to become responsible, respectful and resourceful members of their communities.” Her thoughts often make a lot of sense to me. In her book, “Positive Discipline: A to Z” she says this of the desire to rescue,
“Take your lead from your child. Before you jump in, watch to see what your child does first. Keep a safe distance, but keep your lips zipped and your eyes wide open. You may be surprised at how often your child solves a problem without your help. With older children wait a while and ask, “Would you like my help?” Even then, don’t rescue, but brainstorm ideas they can implement.”
“Allow for feelings and learn to identify them, name then, and allow them. . .[ ] If your child feels hurt after being rejected by a friend, give her a reassuring hug and have faith that she will survive.”
We also need to identify our own feelings. In this particular case this meant recognizing that I was probably more bothered than my son. And, that he had, in a sense, solved the problem himself. He looked for help from me to soothe his sense of disappointment, but then found an alternative activity.
Of course, it’s my opinion that all of this goes out the window if another child does something truly harmful or has a pattern of cruel behavior. Then it’s time to talk to their parents and/or choose different playmates. This is when the mama bear protective instincts are right on and important to listen to.
What do you think? How do you help your child deal with disappointment? How do you respond to a situation like this when the other child’s parent is not around?