Last week Sean and I decided to take the children to run a quick errand and then for ice cream after school. When it was time to leave the store and head for the ice cream shop, two-year-old Bobby resisted. He became upset, even when we told him the plan was to get ice cream next. Finally, Sean picked him up and buckled him in his carseat out front, kicking and screaming. I was about to broach the subject of skipping the ice cream stop when I realized what Bobby was saying.
“My cars! MY CARS! My cars!” Bobby was wailing through his tears.
“Sean, did Bobby bring any of his matchbox cars into the store?” I asked.
Sean put his hands in his coat pockets and pulled out several cars and a dinosaur.
“They’re right here, he put them down in the store and I picked them up.”
Sean opened the car door and handed Bobby his cars (and dinosaur). Bobby immediately stopped crying and clasped his cars to his chest gratefully, clearly relieved. The poor thing had been crying because he’d left his cars in the store and didn’t want us to leave without them! He was trying to communicate, and we weren’t listening—we were writing his fussing off as just what two-year-olds do, forgetting that fussing is often simply one way small children try to communicate, or to make the adults around them listen.
I appreciate moments like these, because in some sense they remind me that my children operate on the same basic principles I do. I think sometimes it’s easy to imagine that they must be crying, or fussing, or throwing a fit, or whatever it is, to spite us somehow. I mean it can sure seem that way when you find yourself picking up a screaming child and carrying him out of a store! But in reality, they’re generally tired, or hungry, or overwhelmed—or they left something in the store and can’t figure out how to communicate that to you!
This is one reason I try to make a point of listening to my children—whether to their words, or to their nonverbal cues. It’s easy, in the moment, to just push through whatever it is, to figure the child will calm down sooner or later, and when we get to that point things can get missed.
Can you imagine what it must be like to be Bobby, with so much going on inside and yet such a limited ability to communicate it? Now imagine that on top of this, the adults around you aren’t always all that interested in even trying to understand what you’re saying. Can you see how frustrating that must feel? I get frustrated too, sometimes, when I’m trying to understand and can’t. The other day it took two full minutes to figure out that Bobby was saying “broken” rather than “popcorn”—and even then, I only figured it out when I realized he was holding a broken matchbox car in his hands.
But for all that it is frustrating to me when I can’t understand Bobby’s attempts to communicate, it must be only more frustrating for him! I’m glad Sean and I were able to figure out why Bobby was so upset when we left the store the other day. Otherwise we probably never would have known that Bobby had left his matchbox cars (and dinosaur) in a store, and lost them—but he would have known.