No crying over spilt milk

Connecting with a pre-schooler

Two-year-old Sam asked for milk while waiting for breakfast. His mom, Rebekah, was happy to oblige and poured him a small cup. Sam was at a curious, exploratory stage of life. He didn’t want the milk so much for drinking, but for a little science experiment about liquids and gravity. So he poured it all out. Onto himself.

Rebekah recognized that Sam is at an age when he can learn some simple cause and effect thinking, and she wanted to develop that knowledge. The way she navigated this challenge is a great example of the Discipline that Connects messages in action with a little tyke. Here’s more of that story as told by Rebekah:

Right when he spilled his milk he looked up at me. I smiled and said, “Uh oh, what happened? Is the milk all gone?” Sam replied with a grin of satisfaction. Still holding onto my gentle composure and hoping to use this teachable moment I asked, “What do we need to do?”

Because Rebekah stayed calm and pleasant she communicated the message, “You are safe and loved.” Her question “What do we need to do?” communicated the message, “You are capable and responsible.”

“Clean up,” he replied, and I got a towel to clean up him and the chair. Everything was going fine when all of a sudden he started crying. He was upset about more than just spilled milk, but had no words for it, and I couldn’t figure it out at first. This intensified the crying. As I felt my stress level and frustration begin to rise I held him in my arms trying to soothe him and asked a few more times with increasing intensity, “Why are you crying?!” This just led to more crying.

Rebekah had good intentions to help Sam express himself, but when kids are upset, and parents ask them “Why?”, it’s usually too big a question with too many possible answers, leaving the kids feeling more overwhelmed and even ashamed. What young kids need at times like this are concrete words they can identify with in the simplest of terms. Rebekah realized this and wanted to help Sam feel a sense of ownership and responsibility to solve his problem.

I took a deep breath and calmly requested, “Tell me what you need.” He responded very quickly and adamantly with, “PANTS OFF!”

Once I was calm, Sam and I could communicate as I tuned into his unspoken discomfort. “Pants off,” was all I needed to hear to know that he was getting wet inside and was upset by how it felt.

“Tell me what you need” is a brilliant request. It is a concrete and respectful statement that keeps mom in charge while sharing ownership of progress with her child.

Some parenting experts might say that because the best teacher is reality, Sam should be left to sit in his wet pants for a while. But a two-year-old is very unlikely to do any constructive learning while upset. Rebekah knew that by communicating safety and love to Sam, he would soon be open to some coaching.

I took him to his bedroom to clean up and change. I imagined if Sam had the vocabulary, he would say, “Silly Mommy, how could I eat breakfast while I’m so uncomfortable!?” This insight helped me feel empathy for him before addressing the situation. While calmly changing his clothes I said, “We have to get your pajamas off because they are dirty. So Samuel, this is why we don’t dump out our…” I waited for his response… “MILK!” he said with a smile.

“Yes,” I replied with a big hug and a kiss! We both went back upstairs to enjoy our breakfast together, and we were still on time for our appointment. No more spilled milk!

Rebekah was building on the messages of safety and love to help Sam grow in wisdom and a sense of responsibility. She brilliantly created an opportunity for Sam to give a wise answer and to feel good about it. Yes, even two-year-old kids are capable, if given the chance, to take responsibility for wise choices.

Rebekah told us this process took no more than 5 minutes. We know from years of parent coaching that this could have easily turned into a prolonged meltdown if she had responded harshly. Instead, she acted in ways that deepened connection and accelerated Sam’s learning. You can do the same when you think to communicate the messages, You are safe, loved, capable, and responsible – even with a two-year old!

My response:

  • When my young child does a common misbehavior, what’s it like to be him/her? (This helps me calm down and gives insight into the best way to help.)
  • What’s a simple question or statement I could use with my young child to help him/her figure out how to solve the problem created by the misbehavior? For example:
      • Tell me what you need.
      • Show me what you need.
      • How can we fix this?

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