The truth is, this wasn’t the first post I thought I would share for the parenting section of Casual to Close. I was originally planning on writing about how easy it is to get caught up in wanting to be the “perfect” parent, and just how impossible and ultimately destructive this can end up being (stay tuned for that post!).
However, I was on the bus headed to work the other day and witnessed one of the most impressive feats of parenting that was too good not to share. It also inspired a new series for the blog called Slice of Life. The idea behind this post and the others that will follow is to draw inspiration from the little moments in life. To share stories about our relationships that are inspiring, confusing, infuriating, and deeply moving.
In any case, let’s get back to our current story…
I had been on the bus for a few stops when a father, he must have been in his early to mid thirties, and his four young children, all under the age of 6, got on. They immediately made a beeline for the back of the bus where I had been sitting alone. They sat down, each claiming an area, and began to chat excitedly with each other. Side note – I could probably end the story here because managing to get four kids to sit down properly (and stay seated) on public transportation is a feat in and of itself.
After a few minutes of chatting and joking around, one of the older children, a girl of about five, noticed a cookie on the seat next to her. It was in a folded paper bag from a local coffee shop. Unsurprisingly, the girl’s first reaction was: “Daddy, a cookie! Can I eat it?”
Here is where the story gets interesting. For more people, parents or otherwise, the natural reaction would likely be to say: “no” or some stronger variation thereof. Instead, what followed was a prime example of how, sometimes, the simplest moment can be an opportunity for educating and connecting with our children.
Instead of immediately saying no, the first thing this father did was to acknowledge and validate his daughter’s emotions and desire to eat the cookie. “I know it’s tempting, I’d love a cookie too, but we can’t eat it”. Why was this such an important initial response? Instead of feeling like they were approaching the situation from two totally different perspectives or like she was being judged for wanting to eat the cookie, it likely helped her to feel as though they were facing the same issue as a team. Instead of being on the defensive or caught up in an attempt to convince him to let her eat the cookie, she was free to entertain the possibility that it might not be in her best interest. Ultimately, this validation likely helped his daughter to be more open and attentive to what he was about to say.
The next important thing the father did was to explain why they would not be able to eat the cookie. It’s often easy to ignore or become frustrated by children’s incessant question – “Why? Why? Why?”. However, explaining things (especially the reasoning for our decisions and consequences or perceived punishments) is so important. Not only does this help children to remain curious, it communicates that we appreciate and value them.
In the current situation, it would have been easy for the father to say something along the lines of: “We don’t know where it’s been” or “It’s not safe”, alluding to the possible health concerns. However, he took his time exploring the various reasons why they could not or should not eat the cookie. For example, he explained that even though it looked like the cookie had been bought recently, they weren’t sure how long it had been there and that it might not be safe to eat it. He did not approach the health or safety concerns using scare tactics (the reality is these don’t usually work, or at least not in the way we want them to), nor was he overly pessimistic. Instead, he turned the interaction into a game of sorts, encouraging his other kids to chime in – “Can anyone else think of another reason why we shouldn’t eat the cookie?” The other children became increasingly interested and started offering up suggestions. Each idea was met with a response and validation (“Oh, that’s interesting”, “I hear you”, “I’m so glad you are adding your own ideas”. He also gently led them toward the lessons he was hoping to impart on them “How about…?”).
He also took the interaction a step further. Instead of stopping at the health or safety concerns, he encouraged his children to think of the moral considerations. “It isn’t right to take something that isn’t ours.” “What if the person comes back for his or her cookie?” “How would you feel if someone else ate your cookie?” Of course, the chances of someone actually coming back for that cookie were slim to none, but for the father, this wasn’t the point. He saw this moment as an opportunity to help his children learn certain values and principles that were important to him. What’s more, he then gave his daughter the opportunity to do good, encouraging her to bring the cookie to the bus driver so that he would be able to return the cookie if its owner returned, and demonstrating that it’s important to act in a way that is congruent with our values. Finally, he seized the chance to turn the interaction into another moment for connection. Saying to his daughter: “I’ll tell you what. How about we share a cookie when I come pick you up from school later”.
Just like that, the man and his kids scurried off the bus to go to school. In this brief moment, however, this father was able to encourage his children to be active learners. To be curious about and engage with the world around them. To feel that it is safe to contribute their ideas because, at the end of the day, they know their parent will be there to validate their desires and perspectives, lead them in the right direction, and ultimately share that cookie.
Have you had an experience where you turned a simple situation or question into a moment for teaching or connecting with your child? What have you noticed when instead of turning away from the “Why” questions, you lean in and engage. Sound off in the comments!