Solving childhood mysteries with the work of imagination

Little children often do things that mystify grownups. They change their behavior, change their minds about what they like, or sometimes seem unable to do things they could do just the day before.

Adults have a different view of the world than toddlers, because we have so much reality knowledge and experience to use to fact-check our conclusions. Toddlers don’t actually think in a different way from us, but they often come to different conclusions because they don’t have as much to check their ideas against. It’s our job to respect their efforts to figure things out and also to teach them what we know of the world. Sometimes, however, it’s hard to know what explanations they need.

That’s where imagination comes in. it’s a big effort to put ourselves in a little child’s shoes and imagine how she is seeing the situation. For instance, 2-year-old Abby, who had just recently mastered using the toilet, was very upset when the toilet at her house became blocked and overflowed. At first her parents thought they could unblock it themselves; then they called the plumber who said it was a problem in the sewer connection to the street.

Big diggers came to unearth and replace the pipes and Abby’s parents were very stressed about all the time, money and disruption from the job. Abby immediately insisted on going back to diapers and demanded that no one should use the toilet. Once the pipes were fixed and everything was back to normal, her parents expected that she would calm down and again feel good about using the toilet. But Abby wouldn’t.

Her parents explained that no one had put anything too big in the toilet after all and told all about the pipes under the ground and how they now worked, but Abby insisted that she had been the cause of the trouble. Her parents had to make a big leap of imagination to realize that Abby had been distressed not only by the actual problem, but also frightened by seeing her parents helpless, anxious and annoyed. Making herself the center of the problem gave Abby a sense of agency and control. When her parents talked to her about how upset they had all been, but that they could feel better now, because they had been able to figure out the problem and fix it, Abby calmed down and regained her toilet mastery.

The crucial insight and effort for Abby’s parents, and for all parents struggling to make sense of little children’s variable behavior, was to include more than the objective facts of the situation. They had to make the leap with empathic imagination to the idea that parents’ feelings and reactions are part of reality in children’s lives and have as big an impact on them as outside events and circumstances.

Parents also need to use their emotional muscles of honesty and bravery when they make the effort to imagine themselves into their child’s shoes – it’s not always easy to admit we were angry, upset, or helpless. But children learn to accept themselves and others when we are sincere in sharing our feelings and demonstrate the ways we find to deal with them. And we are setting a good example of empathic imagination when we credit the role of feelings in behavior.

This entry was posted in children's needs, emotional muscle, feelings, honesty, mastery, parent-child relationship, parenthood, preschoolers, toddlers and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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