The parent of a toddler arrives at the childcare center where I work, ready to pick up their child and take them home. The toddler sees the parent through the window and shrieks with delight, then playfully runs to “hide” in the spot where they “hide” each day, gleefully awaiting the moment when their parent will scoop them up and hug them. Unfortunately, today the parent is not in the mood to participate in this routine game. They’re running behind schedule and must rush out the door to pick up another child. Perhaps they have had a long, difficult day and their mind is preoccupied with stress.
“Time to go!” they call to the child from the door. The child giggles and burrows deeper into her “hiding” spot, anticipating the playful sense of connection that she believes is coming.
“Let’s go,” the parent repeats in irritation. “We don’t have time to play.” The child peers out of her hiding spot, then dives back down, hiding her face.
“Okay, I’m going,” the parent says. “Buh-bye! I’m leaving!” She opens the door and pauses, waiting for the child’s reaction.
This is the pivotal moment. Every day, a similar scene plays out at schools, parks, and play dates. Time stands still for a brief moment during this face-off between parent and child — who will win control of how events unfold?
In reality, we all know, no one wins because no one feels good in this situation.
As adults, we have our adult agenda in mind at almost all times. We are often heard to lament the fact that there are a limited number of hours in the day. There are jobs to be done, errands to be completed, appointments to make and meet, meals to be made, laundry to do, and through it all the clock ticks on and on. There are times when we observe a young child issuing an invitation to join them in their world and we consciously choose to keep pace with our adult agenda instead. There are times when we feel we simply must.
Our children internalize so many unspoken lessons in these moments. If we are not conscious and careful, they sometimes internalize the message that their own agenda does not matter. They can interpret this message to read, “YOU don’t matter.”
In the past few years, psychology researchers have found a good deal of literal truth embedded in the metaphorical phrases comparing love to pain. Neuroimaging studies have shown that brain regions involved in processing physical pain overlap considerably with those tied to social anguish. The connection is so strong that traditional bodily painkillers seem capable of relieving our emotional wounds. Love may actually hurt, like hurt hurt, after all. [Source: “Why Love Literally Hurts”]
It can be difficult (sometimes, seemingly impossible) to reconcile what we know about children’s behavior and how to respond to said behavior in textbook fashion with what we’re feeling about children’s behavior within the context of our complex and layered lives. Because, come on, when we feel like it’s time to go, it’s time to go, full stop. On the inside we’re screaming that we don’t have time for this!
Parents and caregivers frequently list as a goal for children that they “listen.” By “listen”, they often mean, “comply.” We want children to follow our directions (and to keep pace with our agenda) for a multitude of reasons. Janet Lansbury shares five of the most common reasons that young children won’t do as we ask. She writes, “Children are ready to listen, primed from birth to begin decoding our words and intuiting our unspoken messages. They are also unique individuals who quickly develop ideas, opinions and wills of their own. Babies and toddlers often understand exactly what we want but choose to do the opposite.”
Establishing a relationship of mutual respect is, in my opinion, the best way to foster the sense of connection (and love) that will lead to smoother transitions for yourself and your child. Understand that your child is an individual with plans, needs, and a schedule of their own. Your child is a whole person. Whatever they may be engaged in at any given time matters to them. (Think about how you feel when interrupted or cut off or dismissed.)
In the scenario that I describe above, the toddler is seeking connection with their parent. They’re anticipating a joyful mutual physical expression of love in a reunion routine they have previously engaged in. On another day when the parent was hurried, they visibly shook off their own preoccupations to respond to the glint in the child’s eye and, rather than opening the door and calling out the empty threat of departure, they crouched down by the door and opened their arms to the child. The child immediately ran from their hiding spot, the parent scooped them up, and off they went to the car, both smiling.
If you find yourself teetering on the edge of engaging in a battle of wills with your young child over departures, some advice:
- Communicate in advance. With young children, this conversation will need to be frequent and consistent. “When it’s almost time to go, I will give you a warning. You can finish what you’re doing and then we’ll go to the car together.” Give your child the advance warning, “In three minutes, we will go to the car.” When you consistently employ this strategy, your child knows you’re not bluffing. They may still show resistance, but they know what is going to happen. It may seem that your child is too young to comprehend this kind of communication, but in my experience children respond very quickly when it is used with consistency as they’re experts at internalizing these cues and routines.
- Provide choices within the limits of the necessary departure. “We are going to go to the car now. Should we hop or skip to the car? Do you want to walk or be carried? Do you want to carry your bear or your bag?”
- Stay connected. Remember that you’re in this together — it’s not, “I’m leaving now!” it’s, “We’re going to leave now.” Look your child in the eye. Connect physically with your child. Extend your heart to your child — when you consciously release your struggle and strain, you’ll find that you’re joyfully met.
- Use empathy: “I see how much you love to slide! It’s so hard to stop having fun here. We can come back again tomorrow and slide some more.” Do not dismiss or ignore what your child is doing or feeling.
- Communicate about what is going to happen. Explain where you’re going, how you’re getting there, and what will happen next. You will find that when they know what’s ahead, many children will quickly shift from resistance to engagement.
- Be consistent and predictable.
You may be interested in further reading on related topics:
Easing a Toddler’s Daily Transitions
Little Kids and the Power of the Five Minute Warning