An event occurred a few days ago that has led me to much introspection on behavior, and how I respond to it.
I was at the pool with Cat and our good friend. We swam until we could both tell that Cat was completely exhausted and careening toward a meltdown. So we declared it was time to head home. We began gathering our pool toys and belongings. Our waterproof shoes were extremely hot from the sun, so I splashed them in the water so they wouldn’t hurt our feet. I asked Cat to put hers on. She started crying and said no. I told her barefoot was fine and started towards my keys. When I turned around, I saw that she was headed towards the pool with one of her shoes in hand. I saw what she was about to do and asked her to stop, but it was too late. She tossed the shoe into the pool and turned around with a look of satisfaction. I sighed, retrieved the shoe.
As we continued to prepare to leave, my friend asked me whether I thought we should tell Cat that throwing the shoe in the water was not good. I try to avoid loaded words like ‘good’ and ‘bad’ when addressing Cat’s behavior, but I agreed that something needed to be said, so I did tell Cat that throwing the shoe had certainly not been helpful.
However, upon some contemplation on the event, I have come to conclude that tossing the shoe into the water was both ‘good’, according to my best judgment, and actually quite helpful. So here’s some additional info that might make that make sense. Or not, depending on your philosophy.
When she threw that shoe, Cat was angry. And with fairly good reason. You see, the last time we swam, she had made it clear to me that, even though they’re Crocs, she does not like to wear her shoes when they’re wet. And what did I do? I completely forgot her preference, dunked them in the water and asked her to put them on.
When I saw her face, I immediately recognized my mistake. I apologized for forgetting, and told her she didn’t have to wear them. But that didn’t help. She was angry at me, angry at the shoes. I could see it on her face as she headed toward the pool. And then, shoe thrown, her face resolved into a look of satisfaction and contentment.
Now, when compared to cooperatively and obediently preparing to leave, throwing the shoe in the water was decidedly not helpful. However, compared with the wide array of disruptive and destructive things I’ve seen a three year old do in response to feeling wronged and angry, simply tossing a shoe in the water seems very helpful indeed.
She didn’t throw a massive fit. She didn’t hurt anybody. She didn’t try to run away. But she didn’t swallow or deny her emotions either. She independently chose a non destructive action that effectively resolved her anger and allowed her to immediately return to a place of peace and cooperation.
Literally the only consequence of her action was that her waterproof shoe was in the water and required retrieving. In ideal circumstances Cat would have been the one to fetch the shoe. But I pick my battles carefully when dealing with a tired and hungry three year old. I got the shoe, we loaded up and went home without further incident.
So, my conclusion in retrospect is that while Cat handled this situation as well as I could possibly have expected her to, I could have done better. I am an adult, with fairly well developed theory of mind and therefore capable of perspective taking. I am able to step out of myself and see things from Cat’s point of view. Cat is three. Which means that she can’t do that yet. And what that means is that when I told her that her behavior was not helpful, she didn’t hear me say that it was not a helpful way of moving us towards our goal of going home. She almost certainly translated it to mean that it was an unhelpful way for her to deal with her anger, frustration and sense of injustice.
Which means that by chiding her behavior, I almost certainly guaranteed that she will try a less helpful solution the next time.
Oh well. One nice thing about parenting is we generally get a lot of chances to learn from our mistakes.