I knew the moment I saw Sally’s face that there was going to be a problem. Her face was crumpling, and I knew tears wouldn’t be far behind. Sally had just finished her dance class. Her teacher had just given her and her classmates each a certificate of participation, but one girl, who had fulfilled all the requirements and was ready to move up to the next class, got a ribbon. And Sally didn’t. And in Sally’s four-year-old mind, this was a disaster.
The tears flowed freely as we walked out to the car, and I didn’t try to stop them. “I know, honey,” I told her, “I would be sad too.” And I was telling the truth. Soon, though, it was more than just tears—Sally was sobbing, her rumpled certificate of participation in her hand, her tears falling on the ground. “Sally, Sally, it’s okay,” I told her. “The other girl got a ribbon because she was ready to move to the next class. She was really good, I saw her. At some point you’ll be ready to move to the next class too, and then you’ll get a ribbon too, okay?”
But it wasn’t working. Sally’s expression became angry, and she pushed me away. Her tears suddenly became angry tears. I had thought I was being understanding and helpful with my words, but for whatever reason what I had said clearly wasn’t what she needed at the moment. As soon as I saw that what I was doing wasn’t working, I stepped back to reassess. At that moment she lashed out in her anger and pushed her little brother Bobby, who promptly began to cry.
So there I was, standing by the car in the parking lot, both children crying, surveying the situation. These are the moments where I am sometimes tempted to get angry too, and to lash out, punish, confine. This instinct has been on the decline for several years now, and in this particular situation I was more tempted to laugh at the absurdity of it all than to get angry. But then, this was serious stuff. Sally cared about getting a ribbon, and hadn’t gotten one. Her reaction was sobs followed by anger, and now she had pushed her brother. Something had to be done. I took a deep breath.
I knew Bobby was hungry, so I located a pack of crackers, picked him up and hugged him, and then buckled him in his carseat, where he quickly turned to smiles and began happily munching away. Then I turned to Sally.
“Would you like me to hold you while you cry?” I asked.
Sally paused and nodded through her tears, and moments later I was sitting in the driver seat, holding Sally in my arms while she cried, and stroking her hair. We sat there like that for a bit, her crying, me caressing. Then, quietly, pleasantly, I began to talk to her.
“When I was a kid, I did debate club,” I told her. “In each debate, one team would win. Sometimes I won, but sometimes I didn’t. At the end of each tournament, they would give trophies and ribbons to the best debaters. I never got one. Sometimes that made me feel sad.” Sally looked up, and nodded, hard.
She was calm now, tired from her crying. We talked about awards, and how not everyone gets them, and about simply doing the best we can do. We talked about practicing so that we get better at things, and about working hard. We talked about remembering what is important, and that just gaining the skills is a reward in and of itself. In the end, Sally determined that she would practice harder at her dance, so that soon she would get a ribbon because she would be ready to move up to the next level too.
And then we talked about her hitting her brother. We talked about the proper ways to handle anger, and about considering others’ feelings, and about how she would feel if someone did that to her. Sally said she wouldn’t do it again, and as she climbed back to her own carseat, she told her brother she was sorry. Later that evening, when Sean was watching the kids, Bobby repeatedly got in Sally’s way as she was trying to practice her dance, but this time she stuck her tongue out at him rather than hitting him. And that’s progress.
I’m struck by the failure of my first attempt to help Sally in her distress. Telling her that not everyone was supposed to get a ribbon didn’t do any good, and only made her angry. I had thought I was trying to help her understand, but at that moment she didn’t want to understand. She was simply upset. What she wanted was for me to acknowledge that and then hold her and let her cry. I think of my own life, and I realize there are plenty of times when I don’t want someone to explain the thing that’s making me upset, I just want their sympathy. And then I understand.