Everyone in our family is in a growing up phase! We’ve recently become 5-year-old parents and our two daughters are continuing their journey into and out of toddlerhood. Having two little girls with great articulation abilities, ever-curious minds and immense physical energy, I endorse the saying “Having one child makes you a parent; having two makes you a referee and having more than two makes you a bouncer!” A large part of my time with the girls is spent in negotiating and settling scores between them. I have to carefully think through and express the rationale for my solutions, since their demand for transparency is constant. It certainly was not like that when I was growing up. My girls, they want to know the reason for something before they agree to it. In such moments, I do not always concede to their demands, and mostly work with the assumption that my role and my words remain unquestioned (since I believe I am a referee, after all).
Mornings are always challenging. So it was this one morning a couple of weeks ago. Juggling between several household tasks and assisting them with their preparations, I landed up snapping at our younger one. Her response was instant! She plonked herself on the floor and started to howl at the top of her voice. Miss A (her elder sister, who is usually the reason behind a protest, but not this time) responded in a flash. She pressed her crying sister close with a reassuring hug and glared at me with a deeply offended expression. “What happened”? She asked. Instantly, I was on the defensive, I stopped everything to explain myself to her, feeling quite like a convict in a witness box. Despite my assumed authority (I am the parent, right?), I felt I was answerable to this newly emerging authority on the scene. After hearing me out patiently, Miss A presented her words of wisdom – “Mumma she is little, IMAGINE if I talk to you like this; how would you feel?” Whew!
At the busiest hour of the day she made me suspend everything and attend to her inquisition and judgement. “Never do that to her! Ok, mummy?” Miss A continued and I nodded in compliance. Through the corner of my eye, I could see the little one sidling up to her sister, slowly slipping her palm into her hand, followed by a hug. With some more arsenal in her mind for further instructions for me, she responded to the little one, hugging her back. To me she added reproachfully: “See, you have made her sad now.”
With the clock ticking faster than my thoughts, the dramatic recovery of our little one, and my lingering uncertainty, I asked Miss A to lead her little sister to get ready for school. Both of them happily trotted off, one giving instructions and the other following with sincere dedication!
This episode was an eye-opener for me. We read about children’s social skills in text-books, but actually watching children in action adds a whole new dimension to our understanding. The dual tasks of challenging the mother and supporting her younger sister marked a spontaneous and simultaneous social positioning by Miss A. Something that children seem particularly gifted at. The emergence of agency and compassion was indeed heartwarming to experience (although challenging at the moment it was happening). As parents, we frequently underestimate these capacities in children, and do not want to suspend our authority even for a moment. Perhaps we feel a bit insecure about this shift, even when it is temporary.
This episode is not meant as a recommendation for a role-reversal between adults and children regarding authority and decision-making. The consequences of handing over complete charge to children is neither possible, nor recommended. What we are discussing here is the importance of keen observation, along with an acknowledgement of children’s agency, and the occasional transfer of responsibility to children in order that they learn to become more effective in their relationships with others. Balance is key. Children are acutely aware of interpersonal dynamics and watch us very keenly. They are also highly perceptive about ongoing events and can often prove to be effective advisors to adults about family life in their own way. As parents, most of us tend to err on the side of caution, thereby becoming unable to acknowledge, utilize and develop children’s skill with handling responsibility and relationships.
Children observe and model after the adults in their circle of imagination. In the above encounter, I realized that this was a dramatic moment for us, and I was being watched very closely, and in hindsight, I also realized that my conduct would provide potential substance for their future conduct in the handling of conflict. I was also acutely aware of my own desire to encourage a close bond between the sisters.
Routine everyday exchanges such as this one provide us with many challenges about how to position ourselves as responsible adults and there are no simple answers to this. They also provide us with insights into children’s minds, as well as opportunities for learning for both adults and children.