I had picked up my three-and-a-half year-old at preschool and we headed to a nicer café, you know, the kind where adult professionals are having coffee and potentially reviewing business documents. We were there to get a snack and spend some time together before heading home. Of course, the café was busy with people.
I lifted Joshua up and held him so he could peruse the cookie case and choose a treat. It was difficult for him to decide, and by the time he did I was nudging him and had grown a bit impatient. Eventually, we sat down; me with a lemon bar and him with a cranberry white chocolate cookie.
We sat, happily munching our snacks until Joshua’s cookie was about halfway gone. At this point he inexplicably stopped eating, set down his cookie, and said, “I didn’t want this cookie.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. That’s the cookie you chose.”
“I wanted the other one. This one is too sweet.”
“Well, you already ate half of this one.”
“No!!! I didn’t want this one!! I don’t like it!!!” As he flopped in his chair and the volume of his voice rose. I understood immediately that there would be no reasoning with my boy. I talked myself through some embarrassment with some reassuring self-talk—“Children are part of this community too. My three year-old is entitled to take up space and have feelings,” I repeated in my head.
I leaned in close and kindly told him,
“I’m so sorry you didn’t get the cookie you wanted. Next time you can pick a different one and I’ll be more patient while you choose. This is the only cookie for today.”
He started wailing and I calmly picked him up and carried him outside to our car. He kicked and screamed and I had to set him down in between my car and the next one to corral him. I crouched down to block him from running into the parking lot.
“I need to keep you safe,” I said.
Interestingly, I was concerned that people might think I had taken him outside to hurt, punish, or belittle him. I reminded myself that I was doing a good job. I got him safely into the backseat and then climbed in to join him.
He continued to kick and scream and he tried desperately to hit me. He said, “I want to hurt you,” “I hate you!” and, “I didn’t want that cookie,” over and over. I stayed near and blocked the blows while telling him,
“You are safe. I’m right here with you.”
After about fifteen minutes (that felt more like an hour) we mutually decided that he was ready to go back into the café because he wanted to eat the rest of his cookie. He also requested a glass of water to drink. We headed inside for both.
I was floored by his ability to reset and regulate once given the opportunity to offload a portion of big, messy feelings and restore his dignity with new choices and decisions.
Sarah MacLaughlin, LSW, is a certified Parenting by Connection Instructor near Portland, Maine. She is also a social worker, speaker, and author of the award-winning book: What Not to Say: Tools for Talking with Young Children. With a background in early childhood education, Sarah has worked with children and families for over twenty years. She is mom to a spirited five year-old boy who gives her plenty of opportunities to take her own advice. You can learn more about her work at www.sarahmaclaughlin.com.