As I stood at the counter of our little general store waiting to buy my newspaper, I turned suddenly, along with all the other customers, to find the source of a loud, insistent voice coming from below the counter. "I want candy now!" We looked down to see a little boy who was about three years old. He tugged at his father's arm. His father calmly replied."Lunch first. Then you can have your candy." "NO! CANDY NOW!" said the not so little voice. The other people in the store, including myself, shared knowing smiles. After several exchanges like this, his father, seemingly unperturbed by his fellow town members listening in, said firmly "OK, then you can't have the candy." "Noooo! I want candy!!!" he cried. His mother, who had been quietly standing behind them chimed in. "Now you're really mad," she observed in a respectful tone. With this he began to stomp around the store, wearing an intense scowl on his face. His father, a rather large man, began to stomp around after him. After passing by the grocery aisle a couple of times, the little boy dissolved in a fit of giggles. I paid for my paper and went home, thankful for the inspiration for a blog post.
It was such a small moment. One of millions that make up the day to day challenges of being a parent. Yet such grace under pressure!! His parents were calm and sure of themselves. They were willing to face the consequences of setting a limit with their son, even if it precipitated this public display of three-year-old outrage. His mother conveyed, simply with the tone of her voice, that she accepted his reaction and understood his feelings, but she and his father were not going to change their minds. His father playfully showed him that they both could survive this disruption and move on.
This interaction has all the elements of holding a child in mind, the central theme of my book, which is due to be published in the fall of 2011. These are: 1) understanding a child's behavior from the perspective of his stage of development, 2) empathizing with a child's feelings, 3) containing and regulating both the feeling and behavior, and 4) and perhaps most difficult, staying present with a child without letting one's own distress get in the way. When parents do this repeatedly a child learns to understand his own mind. He develops the ability to regulate intense emotions, think clearly and manage himself in a complex social world.
Those parents in the general store likely thought they were simply saving their son's appetite for a good lunch. They were actually taking one more small but important step in the direction of promoting their son's healthy emotional development.