We spent the first day of our trip doing things my mom and I like to do every year: we spent a couple hours at our favorite bookstore, stopped by our favorite bakery for a treat, and window shopped in a funky neighborhood. Sounds great, right? Actually it was kind of a nightmare. My three year old was done with the bookstore about an hour in. It was crowded and warm, and he wanted out. We thought the window shopping would appeal to him since he could basically run up and down the street, but we walked through a lot of crowded areas, and there was just too much going on. By the end of the day, he was exhausted, overstimulated, and stressed. He couldn’t settle down, and a casual observer might describe his behavior as “naughty” (like for example maybe the one he spit at on the street). I was pretty shocked by his behavior and disappointed that the day didn’t go better.
That night when I reflected on what went wrong, several salient points stood out to me:
- My son was in a particularly difficult developmental phase at that time. He required near constant attention and was struggling with really big emotions.
- He’s really sensitive to stimulation, and I’d subjected him to a day of sensory overload.
- No part of our day was fun for a three year old! We’d spent the previous day in the car, and what that kid needed was to play outside. Also, as it turns out I completely failed to pay attention to our normal rhythm of meals and snacks.
It seems so obvious now, but it took some thoughtful consideration for me to figure out what was going on. I think I had my heart set on having a certain experience, and I didn’t have the perspective to figure out why it wasn’t working. We all do this sometimes. Or maybe we just forget to keep our expectations developmentally appropriate. Either way, it would have been easy for me to assume my kid was just acting up and needed to be punished. I could have gotten angry with him and told him he needed an attitude adjustment. I could have copied the sentiments of one of many time-out chairs on the market and told him he wasn’t being “nice” (more about these chairs soon). But would that really have been helpful? Would that have improved our trip or my kid’s behavior? No, because that’s not what he needed. He needed his dense but loving mother to empathize with him. His actions were his way of telling me, “this is too much for me, please let me regroup.” Punishing him because I failed to read his cues would have been unfair and ineffective. We can choose to assume our children are naughty, or we can choose to believe they're doing the best they can with the skills available to them. What we choose to believe informs our response to their behavior.
When we as parents keep our expectations developmentally appropriate, we are setting our children up for success. When we expect them to manage situations and feelings like an adult would, we are often disappointed with the results.
The following day, we visited a children’s museum, went for a walk, ate lots of snacks, and had plenty of downtime. My son also played outside for hours with the children who live below the VRBO where we were staying. Not surprisingly, the second day went much better. We were even able to sneak in brunch at our favorite upscale restaurant because the rest of the day was relaxed and fun.