The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

November 8, 2012

Sarah Coyne: Affirming feelings calm kids

By Sarah Coyne
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Grocery shopping with a preschooler is like playing a game of racquetball against a terrier: frantic and exhausting. It's not the worries about her toppling a display of canned goods or being run over by a shopping cart so much as it is the lobbying for treats and presents that causes me trouble.

The first time she asks for a toy, it's easy to say no. "We're not shopping for gifts today, just food," I say, as if my logic makes any impact against her urgent need for a trinket. I suddenly loathe the marketers who sprinkle toys like little-kid catnip around stores in the least likely places.

Her requests and disappointments resurface every 50 feet or so. There is a sandwich box shaped like Elmo's face. A plastic cup with floating glitter inside. A teddy bear on a rope absurdly advertising laundry detergent.

By the time we reach the checkout lane, I'm out of excuses and maneuvers.

I shouldn't be surprised when the checkout lane becomes the location of her last stand. She lays siege to my exhausted walls, banking on motherly fatigue to weaken my defenses.

Instead of giving in, I let her play with everything in sight while I empty my cart onto the conveyor belt. For a few minutes, she is content.  

But then we're leaving Ñ without the toys Ñ and her lip wobbles. Her heart hardens against her selfish, hateful mommy, and I am stranded in the parking lot with a sobbing 4-year-old.

I sort through all of my most reasonable reasons: "You have plenty of toys! Plus, Christmas is coming soon and that baby princess would be good to ask for from Santa."

Meanwhile, she's shaking her head and covering her ears. This is not what she wants to hear.

I've just finished reading "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen, and Listen So Kids Will Talk" by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. If the authors were here right now, they would probably remind me to affirm her feelings before anything else.

"I see how much you wish you could have that toy. You want to take it home and play with it forever!" My preschooler takes her hands away from her ears and nods tearfully in my direction. "And if you could just have that princess, you would be so happy!" I sigh, matching her longing with my own.

This is working better than trying to erase her anger by denying her emotions, so I continue with another idea from the book. I exaggerate a solution, making it into a fantasy. "If you had a whole shopping cart for yourself, how many of those princesses would you fill it with?"

She wipes her eyes and pouts up at me. "A hundred of them. And some Elmo boxes, too."

"Oh, the Elmo boxes! Yeah! And then you could go to the toy section and get enough ponies and babies and markers and books to fill your whole bedroom!"

Her lips are curling upward and I see her eyes lose focus. She's captured by the daydream, and she builds it bigger and higher. "Yeah! And I could get lots of toys for Bubby and Sissy, and ..."

This lasts the whole way home, and she isn't mad anymore. She's completely happy without a toy and calm without being ordered to rein in her emotions. Allowing a fantasy to bloom showed her that her feelings were understood, and that was enough to calm her down.

Sarah Coyne lives in Joplin. She writes about life and motherhood at her personal blog, http://thisheavenlylife.