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Generosity Misunderstood Through a Toddler’s Eyes

on Thu, 11/10/2016 - 12:56

By: Susan Friedman

Dear Maxwell,

Happy Birthday. Why did you take the fire truck?  You shouldn’t have done that.

Love Jacob!

Like many families ours has memorable stories from early childhood we repeat every now and then.  This one is about the birthday message my son Jacob asked me to write on his cousin Maxwell’s card.

Maxwell, a year older than Jacob had let my son take home a toy fire truck Jacob had been playing with during one visit. “He loves playing with it so much.  Could he take it home and play with it longer?” My sister had suggested to her son.  

Jacob took the fire truck home with him and played with it on and off until one day Maxwell visited our house and we returned it. I had probably suggested, “It’s time to give Maxwell back the fire truck.”

A lesson in generosity yes – but as orchestrated by the adults and through the adults’ eyes.

Many months later this is what happened.

Me: “It’s Maxwell’s birthday.  What do you want to say to your cousin on his birthday card?”

Jacob: “Dear Maxwell, Happy Birthday. Why did you take the fire truck?  You shouldn’t have done that. Love Jacob!”

Me: “We can’t really write that on a birthday card.  Usually you just say happy birthday.”

Jacob:  “But he took the fire truck.”

Me:  “Lets just say, Happy birthday!”

Jacob: “I want the fire truck.”

I thought of this story as I read Julia Luckenbill’s excellent tips on raising compassionate infants and toddlers. Early childhood is a time of strong feelings.  In the moment it can be difficult to dissect the complexity of the feelings, to say the words, and act in the ways that will guide our children toward understanding and compassion.   Often we put an adult spin on things.  “It was his toy!  He was generous to lend it.” 

I have no recollection of how we explained the fire truck exchange or if we helped my son navigate his feelings from his toddler perspective but I thought about all the layers of feelings, expectations, and social conventions involved as I read Julia’s tips: that he missed the toy; that he felt bad when he had to give it back; that it was generous of Maxwell to lend it to him but it still felt bad when it was time to give it back; that it wasn’t the right thing to do to keep a toy that wasn’t yours; that wishing happy birthday on a card is a time to say nice things.

I imagine my sister and I had seen the fire truck exchange as a lesson in generosity – and probably to some degree it was.  But many thanks to Julia Luckenbill for a reminder of how complex toddlers’ feelings are and how we can guide them toward compassion and generosity daily and in small ways -like petting an animal gently, talking about and naming another child’s feelings, reading books about feelings - in a ways that makes sense to them.



Reading your piece, I am reminded of our day to day classroom exchanges. Today a toddler (Z.) who has been receiving gifts from another girl in her care-group tried gifting for the first time using a magnifying glass. It was rebuffed, but the caregiver talked about it, "It looks like she doesn't want to use it right now, but it was kind of you to offer." Later in the day, now playing with fans, the other toddler(E.) said she wanted the green one and coached the Z. in a swap for a red one. The caregiver talked about how kind it was for the Z. to be willing to trade. This delighted both little girls so much that they traded several times. There is so much to be learned through interacting, sometimes successfully, sometimes not.. It's so hard for us as adults not to interject our own social perceptions (it's rude not to take the magnifying glass, at least pretend to like it...) but toddlers learn a lot about what others like and don't like through trial and error and honest interactions. And there is conversation in every interaction. Also today, E. was missing her mother. She was clinging to her stuffed elephant. Another toddler, my daughter, (S.) observed the distress and began singing to E., "Willowby wallowby woo, an elephant sat on you..." E. lit up and began tapping others on her head with her lovey elephant. I commented to S. that the song was a good idea, it made E. happy. Later in the day, Z. skinned her knee and was sobbing in her caregiver's arms. S. came over and offered Z. some berries from the garden. This did not seem to be comforting. S. turned to me, "I gave her some berries but she didn't like it," she said in a low tone. "Z. was still hurting," I said back, "so the teacher will give her a Band aid to make it feel better. Z. might want your berry later." Though S.'s second comforting attempt wasn't as effective as the first one, S. is refining her schema about how to help different people when they have experienced different upsetting things. I've noticed at the beginning of the quarter that many of my caregivers are quick to "fix" perceived injustice in the classroom by saying, "He had that first, give it back," or similar, rather than realizing that earlier the other toddler was using it and set it down and walked away, planning to come back -- so both toddlers were, in effect, using it first. Over time the caregivers become better at stating the problem at hand instead, "You both want to use the same toy, I wonder what we can do about that?" It's hard to step back and adapt rather than react during intense moments in the classroom and hard to let the children lead social interactions when they can. Julia Luckenbill

Great post!

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