A Sibling Tussle: Empathy and Problem Solving

A Sibling Tussle: Empathy and Problem Solving September 19, 2013

So. I’ve given you all an intense couple of days. Today we take a break for something more fun. I want to share a humorous exchange that recently took place between my children Sally (age 4) and Bobby (age 1). It involved a tussle over a package of princess gummies and two children who really do care about each other—but aren’t about to give up their property without a fuss.

First, a moment of background. Every time we go to the grocery I let Sally pick out something for herself. The princess gummies had been Sally’s latest choice. I purchased some of the cheap generic gummies for Bobby at the same time. Bobby is not aware of any distinction between the two types of gummies, but Sally is keenly aware of the difference.

This story starts with Bobby spotting Sally’s box of princess gummies out on the table. Bobby  reached into the box and took out a package of princess gummies. He then started chattering gibberish, looking around for someone to open it for him. That’s when Sally spotted him, rushed in, and grabbed the gummie package out of Bobby’s chubby little hands. Not surprisingly, Bobby instantly burst into tears. Sally responded by immediately handing the gummies back.

Sally knows that when we have to take something from Bobby we try to trade him for something else, and while she wasn’t about to let him have a package of her special princess gummies she does value his feelings. She began looking around for Bobby’s box of generic gummies, which she found just out of reach. She pulled up a chair, climbed on it, and got a package for him.

At the same time that Sally was doing this, Bobby reached back inside of Sally’s box of princess gummies to get a second package out to give to her. In other words, both children were aware that the other wanted a gummie package, and both thoughtfully and empathetically sought to locate a package to give to the other.

As Sally climbed off of the chair, Bobby handed her the second package of princess gummies he had gotten out. She took it, and then took the original princess gummies package from his other hand while simultaneously handing him a package of generic gummies. Unfortunately, Bobby didn’t notice that Sally was trying to hand him the package of generic gummies and only registered that Sally had not only taken the package of princess gummies he had gotten out for her, but also the package of princess gummies he had originally gotten for himself.

Bobby burst into tears once again. But this time, having already tried and failed to broker a deal by giving Sally her own package of princess gummies, he defended himself and what he saw as his rightful property the only way he knew how to—he leaned forward to bite whatever he could get his four little teeth on, and ended up with a mouthful of Sally’s dress. At this, Sally started laughing good-naturedly. She picked up the generic gummie package from where it had fallen on the floor and again handed it to Bobby, this time making sure that he could see it.

At this, Bobby immediately stopped crying, calmed down, and took the package of generic gummies. He then started chattering gibberish, again looking around for someone to open it for him. Peace and order were restored and all was right with the world.

I sat watching through the entire exchange and didn’t lift a hand to intervene. I try to let Sally and Bobby work things out on their own when possible, and because I’ve provided guidance and modeling as needed they’re generally pretty good at it (but not always, in case you’re wondering!). I also think this exchange is a testament to children’s natural sense of empathy and to the boundaries I’ve sought to teach my kids; after all, both knew immediately to think of the other’s feelings and look for a way to meet the other’s needs without relinquishing their own claims. Another thing these sorts of moments makes me think about is how hard it must be to be unable to communicate with words. When I take something that is Bobby’s, he generally responds by shrieking. I try to respect that, because I understand that at this point that is his only defense, his only way of protecting his property (save biting, I suppose, and I do try to discourage that).

To be perfectly honest, I think the number one piece of parenting advice I would give is try to see things through the child’s perspective. And with that, I’ll finish by leaving you with this rather pertinent image:


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