Myth Busting 6: “I could see it in her eyes”

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?

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About Claire

I'm part-time stay-at-home mum to 3 children under 10. We're trying to raise them with the gentleness and creativity God uses with us. I'm also a part-time nurse and a volunteer breastfeeding advocate. We live not far from the beach or the bush in NW Tasmania.
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6 Responses to Myth Busting 6: “I could see it in her eyes”

  1. Cook says:

    ❤ Great words of wisdom! In the moment it can be so hard to realize… But many young kids care only about the event of an interaction, and very little about the actual terms it occurs on. They are likely to use the most effective means necessary to engage. And often we busy and stressed parents don't realize that the negative behaviors begin to be things we jump about most. This is a great reminder to be looking for "that look" in happier moments and to take times to engage and positively encourage our kids when ever possible 🙂

    • Claire says:

      Thanks, Cook 🙂 Of course, actually remembering these things *in the moment* is always easier said than done – but, you’re right, seeing ‘the look’ in positive moments does help to give perspective at other times.

  2. Hi there Claire,
    I really like this post, very interesting to explore this “knowing look” concept. Funny to read it today as I just had a discussion with a mother on my page yesterday who asked about why her little toddler looks at her, which she percieved as “he knows well he shouldn’t do it”, then does it anyway. I’ll share my response here, it’s similar to your thoughts.
    My response was: “your perception that your boy will “deliberately do things that I have told him not to” is based on imagining that because you’ve explained something is unsafe previously, he now should understand and remember that and shouldn’t go there again, but he’s simply not at that developmental stage of being able to mentally understand, remember and apply rules. His body remembers your response from the last time, he feels something and looks at you, but his brain can’t work it all out. When we really understand this, it helps us release our child from the pressure to take responsibility for something they’re simply not able to and moves us towards seeking other strategies to keep our child safe and can save you and him a LOT of unnecessary frustration and conflict.”
    Thanks again for this really great post, I like your thinking on the subject.
    Genevieve

  3. Pingback: Gentle Discipline | Why Not Train A Child?

  4. C.L. Dyck says:

    Yes. I think my husband and I were both blessed with parents who understood this about children, and who consistently used a huge spectrum of gentle parenting techniques. It never seemed to be a big issue for us as parents–we just knew that the little ones would be doing these things.

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