I’ve heard parents saying this of their very young (less than 2 yo) children. “She knows what she’s doing is wrong. You can see that mischievous look in her eyes. She knows Mummy’s not going to like what she’s about to do.”
I know the look people are talking about. I’ve seen it too, and it can be infuriating. A cheeky grin, looking over at Mum or Dad to see if we’re watching – then a hand snakes out towards the forbidden camera or vase or power outlet. And we parents, seeing it so obvious that the child *knew* what they were doing was wrong, feel justified in punishing the child – with a slap on the hand, or a time out, or by yelling – whatever we think will make them feel bad for their crime. But is it really so obvious that the child was being naughty? You see, I’ve seen that exact same look under completely innocent circumstances.
I remember one day sitting on my back porch and looking over at my daughter, when that light came into her eyes. She hurtled across to throw herself in my lap for a hug. I realised ‘that look’ might possibly mean, “I’ve got a great idea! I’m going to have some fun with Mummy!” And I started to ask myself, how much empathy does she have, anyway? Babies are born with a rudimentary empathic ability – when one cries, others tend to chime in – but it takes years before they reach a point where they really understand that ‘Mummy or Daddy has feelings of her/his own, and things I do can contribute to those feelings’. Let alone the thought that ‘something fun I want to do will make Mummy or Daddy upset.’ At 2, my daughter just knows she can get a somewhat predictable response by doing a given thing.
Recently, I went to visit a doctor. As it turned out, the doc was massively delayed due to an emergency, and everyone in the waiting room ended up spending over an hour more than we’d planned. Fortunately, my kids were at home with their Daddy, but another woman had her small toddler there and he was understandably B-O-R-E-D. He invented a game, ‘get Mummy to follow me out the door into the hallway’. She got tired of it and stopped going after him. I was sitting in line-of-sight to the door and looked up just a he turned around, expecting to see Mummy in the doorway. I got the full force of his loving, happy gaze, and even though I knew it wasn’t meant for me, my heart still melted.
But I know, that same look, to a frazzled mother, would not communicate the same thing to her. It would look like the evil grin of a tormentor. I know, because I am often that mum. I catch myself, especially with my 4yo, who ‘should know better’: seeing his need for attention as annoyance, and his sincere smiles as smirks. I forget to just enjoy and play along when he wants interaction. This time when I am his favourite playmate will be all too fleeting.
Of course, that doesn’t mean we can’t protect the camera or vase or power outlet – by putting them out of reach, using redirection or distraction, and by taking plenty of opportunities to interact positively with our kids.
So next time you see ‘that look’ in your child’s eyse, ask yourself if there’s another way to explain it, and how you can turn that moment into an opportunity for connection, along with correction?