Paying Attention to the Little Things

I was reading with my seven year old Timothy, when four-year-old Andrew walked by with some chips. I didn't even notice when Timothy broke a piece off of one and ate it, but Andrew protested in deeply hurt tones. I wanted to finish the book, so I told him to go get another chip--there were plenty where it came from--and went on reading. A minute later he was still upset. I reasoned with him: "Andrew, I'm sorry he took it, but you can get another one just like it." Not paying much attention to the response, I went back to the book. When we had finished and Timothy had gone off to play wit his friends, I looked up to see Andrew still sadly standing around.

I was inclined to brush him off yet again. I mean, no one could really be upset about a chip, could they? But I remembered what I've been telling other parents about taking our children's disappointments about "little" things seriously. So I took him in my arms, and when I asked if he was still sad about the chip, he started to cry. He said Timothy had just taken it, without even asking. His voice shook with feeling. He couldn't remember what shape the piece had been, and now Timothy had eaten it up, so he would never know. He asked if I could remember and when I said I couldn't, he cried even more.

It could have been comical ("chip trauma") but now my attention was actually engaged, and I listened carefully. I found myself really wanting to understand the root of this bitter disappointment. As I listened, two strong themes emerged. What Timothy had done--taking something out of his hand without asking--hadn't been right. Then, by eating it, he had destroyed the possibility of making it right. Whenever I said either of those parts back to him in agreement, he cried even harder.

Listening to myself and to him, I began to appreciate the depth of his feeling. Something had been done to him that just wasn't right, and done in such a way that it never could be made right. Of course he was upset. Who wouldn't be? It wasn't necessarily the chip itself, so much as the principle of the thing. (This was also probably just one of a great many such “little” injustices that had gone unnoticed and unrectified.)

I checked to see if he was okay several times, offering options of other interesting things to do, but he refused, staying very sad. So, I told him again how sorry I was that it hadn’t been right and couldn’t be made right—and he cried more. He must have cried for twenty or thirty minutes about that broken and lost chip before he was ready to stop. Having fully taken in how deeply grieved he felt, I wondered how he would recover. But it looked as if the cry—the grieving—was what he needed. Within ten minutes, he was back to bright, outgoing, adventurous activity with his brother and other friends.

I could probably train him to stifle his upset in such cases. (I’m probably already doing it—I certainly don’t take the time to listen him out on every disappointment, and he certainly toughs a lot of things out by himself.) There are times when flexibility and give-and-take are called for, times when little things cannot be made the center of attention. But I don’t want to dismiss lightly his experience of things not being right, even when they’re as little as a broken chip. When I do notice, and do take the time to listen, he gets to see me as an ally, as someone he can tell wants his world to be right for him. And that’s big.