Mothers at Play

Children work out lots of issues through play. When moms get the chance to do the same--like laughing over wanting the same toy--everyone benefits.

Two little boys in our parent/toddler group both wanted the same toy at the same time. It's a scenario that I've seen played out hundreds of times, as, I'm sure, has every parent and everybody else who's ever been around two-year-olds. But this is not a story about sharing. It is a story about mothers and play and laughter.

Our strategy in this scenario has been to assume that the problem is probably less about the particular toy than about the whole issue of wanting and getting/not getting what you want, so that's what we tend to focus on. "I see you both want that bus. It's a good one to want, and you don't have to stop wanting it." We don't rush toward a solution. Often they both end up crying as they struggle to get what they want.

In this case, one little boy was very quick to give up, to decide that he really didn't want the bus after all. (The other one, who had struggled hard to get it and burst into tears in the process, suddenly found himself with the bus. He looked at it a moment, flung it aside, and kept on crying in his mother's arms. She told me that, with a three-year-old sister at home, this was a daily source of pain for him--the opportunity to grieve was even more attractive than the chance to play.)

The first mother wasn't sure what to do. Theoretically everything was fine. Her son had very cooperatively elected to turn his attention to something else. But she wasn't entirely happy about how ready he had been to give up on what he wanted, and wasn't sure what to do about it. Neither was I. She's a wonderful mother--loving, thoughtful and extremely considerate of others. She certainly deserved some help here with her son.

On an impulse I invited her to take on her son's role, and want the same toy that I wanted. I picked up a little wooden pull-toy, held it up invitingly and announced that I wanted it. She was willing to try. She grabbed and pulled on it, laughing and saying that she wanted it more. I pulled back. We pulled and laughed and pulled and laughed--and didn't give up--and her son looked on with great interest and an enormous smile.

Now this is an unfinished story. I don't know exactly what we were doing or what result it had, but I have some hunches. My guess is that this mom doesn't put herself first in wanting very often. And my guess is that her son watches her closely and is influenced by what he sees. And my guess is that any time a mother gets a chance to laugh and laugh about something related to her job, that she has a little more space, and things go better for everyone.