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In last week’s post, I advocated for refusing to use the word “childish” as a label for irritating and troublesome behaviors, because it defames children as a class. Adults are not paragons of rationality and are just as likely as kids to be overwhelmed by their emotions. It takes humility, courage and awareness to support rather than control someone who is upset.

Most adults have experienced times when a child’s emotions trigger their own pain or anger. Children in the throes of powerful and painful emotions feel out of control and scared. Feeling out of control is excruciating, and often adults try to re-establish equilibrium by trying to control the child. Ironically, this only compounds everyone’s feelings of helplessness and fear.

This week, I tell the first of three stories to provide some insight into this dynamic.

When my son was around three years old, he was passionate about dinosaurs. He had a small collection of those heavy, nicely painted toy dinosaurs. He and I liked to make occasional outings to the toy section of a big downtown department store, where he loved looking at and playing with the store’s large inventory of plastic prehistoric beasts.

Toy dinosaurs

On one such trip, I told him that he could choose one dinosaur and I would buy it for him. After considering all the options, there were two he really wanted. I was unwilling to buy both and told him he had to choose between them. He found the choice impossible and became more and more miserable. In spite of his agony over having to choose, I stuck to my guns and refused to buy both. The situation turned into a slow-motion train wreck. Perhaps he was tired; I’m sure I was. Perhaps he needed food; his equanimity declined precipitously whenever his blood sugar was low. In any case, our fun outing turned into an agonizing power struggle.

Initially, I tried sympathizing. I talked rationally (in what was probably a patronizing tone) about how hard it can be to decide. I tried reasoning with him and suggested ways to help him figure out which dinosaur he might want more. The minutes crawled by and the standoff continued, both of us in our private purgatories with toy dinosaurs as the scenic backdrop.

My son was in tears and intransigent, a picture of abject misery. Equally intransigent and miserable, I was a mess inside and got progressively messier outside. Reacting with  frustration and anger at Ian’s inability to decide–and desperate to wrest control of the situation–I finally said, with cold iron in my voice, that I would not buy either one if he didn’t decide in five minutes. Or was it ten? Some ridiculous number that only lengthened an already unbearably long predicament. He couldn’t decide; I wouldn’t buy two. I roughly picked him up and left the store, feeling embarrassed and impotent.

How did my generous impulse to give something to my little boy that he loved become such a horrible quagmire? I thought I needed to set a boundary: choose one or we leave. The problem was that my boundary arose out of an unclear place of pain and frustration and was really just a hammer. I took away something I had offered. Who doesn’t hate that?

I was completely out of my depth. The uncertainty was so painful and frightening that I completely forgot to love. What I really needed to do was re-establish my connection with my son. Instead, I tried to control him, which only left me feeling angry, ill-used, helpless, guilty. For years my thoughts would return to that day, but a solution, or simply a better way, continued to elude me.

What else could I have done? Looking back, I wonder what would have happened if I had gently picked him up and said that we both needed a break, that we would come back in a little while. We could have gotten something to eat or gone to play in a nearby park. I bet that would have calmed both of us, creating time and space for us to re-establish our connection. Perhaps then we could have talked about what was so hard. I didn’t have a clue what meaning he made from the experience of having to choose. I wish I had. Perhaps we would have discovered a happy dinosaur solution. Perhaps he would have chosen home instead of dinosaurs.

I tortured myself with feelings of failure and guilt, but there was no profit in the punishment. It is necessary for adults to apologize to children when we make mistakes–and also to forgive ourselves. If we resolve to respond from a place of connection and empathy, rather than control, children will feel cherished and empowered–especially when we mess up.