Overlooking the Bad – Empathizing with Toddlers

One of the dominant principles of positive psychology, which I speak about often, is the concept of acknowledging the good and beautiful things around you, no matter how small, and learning to appreciate them as integral parts of a bigger picture. Another key principle, which I don’t address as frequently, is the idea that we must also learn to overlook the negative, not so lovely parts of our daily lives and refuse to let them bog us down or preoccupy our thoughts. These two go hand in hand. It is very hard to successfully accomplish one without the other. I am more prone to seek out the good – acknowledge it, fight for it, hold onto it. Overlooking the bad does not come quite as easily. I am a natural worrier and am far too easily bogged down in everyday struggles. I know this about myself, yet I find it difficult to overcome. And sometimes it’s murkiness clouds my barrage of affirmations.

Recently, I realized that I have this same struggle with my son. I do not think I am negligent in any sense of the word in praising or affirming him. I constantly point out when he does something well or try to get him to notice all of the unusual and beautiful things that surround him every day. Together we discover all sorts of new ways to appreciate life. But when it comes to ignoring the bad, that is where my positive parenting philosophy too often breaks down. Toddlers whine. It is what they do. There are two ways to feed the whining and give it attention – by giving in to whatever is being insisted upon, or by constantly scolding and correcting the whining. Even negative attention is attention. So either way we teach our toddlers to crave the attention they get by whining at us. When really, as many behavioral psychologist will readily tell you, the best way to curb excessive whining is just to ignore it. Overlook it. Don’t let it preoccupy you. Go about your business. This, however, is VERY hard. Studies have shown that whining is one of the most annoying and distracting sounds in existence. Go figure. Most of us who are parents didn’t need scientists to tell us this. But sometimes even separating myself from the whining, giving both of us time to recoup, collect, and move on, I find it hard to walk away and ignore the screaming tantrum that ensues because I’ve asked my son to play by himself in his room for a little while. Every fiber of my being wants to tear into the room, put him in his bed and put him in his place. I mean, HOW DARE he scream like that at me! (As if it was ever even about me.) But this course of action accomplishes nothing. It makes him combative and yell back. And then how can I, in good conscience, tell him not to yell, when I’ve just finished doing the very same to him. Any child witnessing this reaction, with their vast stores of untapped intelligence, will know immediately that you are a hypocrite. So what should I do? Walk away. Not let it overwhelm me. Go back to him immediately when he has regained composure and praise him for doing so. Remember that very few, if any, of his behaviors have anything to do with  me or my parenting. Just as it is true in my own life, I know that all of the positive things I consistently share with him would mean so much more and sink so much deeper if I could simply overlook the bad and refuse to give it the credence it doesn’t deserve.

Instead of featuring my son in some of his less than flattering moments, I decided to feature myself! It somehow seems more fair.

I have to continually remind myself that toddlers lead frustrating little existences. They are still in the process of discovering their entire world. Every day they encounter new things with no box created yet to put them in. Every action is a science experiment designed, in their minds, to figure out ALL the rules. What will a nice big spoon of spaghetti look like if I drop it on the floor? How will the cat react if I try to ride him? What sound will my fork make if I drag it across the glass table? How high can I balance this stack of Mom’s books before it falls? If it’s fun to jump off a stool, wouldn’t it be even more fun to jump off a table? Very little, if any of the stunts they pull have any malicious intent. Toddlers aim to please and jump at every opportunity to help. And yet they have these giants following them around and constantly correcting them for no real reason that they can understand. No, sweetheart, don’t drop your spaghetti on the floor! STOP, you can’t jump off the table! Don’t sit on the cat, you’ll hurt him! No, no, NO! I always said that I wanted to say yes whenever possible because there are SO many reasons to say no. I had no idea! And these poor little people are forever thwarted in their experiments to better understand their world – and then told not to show any signs of disappointment, frustration, or anger. What gives?!? This is what I try to remember while dealing with whining and tantrums. I try to put myself in their shoes. Empathize. Show them a better way to express those emotions instead of mirroring their own tantrums back at them. I try. I do not always succeed. (For more thoughts on this concept of empathy with toddlers, check out this wonderful article by Melissa Sher. It was my inspiration for many of these thoughts.)

“Say what?”

Balance. Life, parenting, work, psychology, they’re all about balance. Often the pendulum swings too far in one direction or another before it finds a peaceful middle ground. I’m hoping that by the time my boys leave the house, I might have this parenting thing figured out. Or at least the pendulum swing won’t be quite so dramatic. It’s a long road getting there . . . but I think I’m ready for the ride.

“What is that thing he’s pointing at us and what is he doing?”

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