The other day at the playground, I heard it happen again. It came out in that pseudo-gentle, condescending tone with an understated, forced calm.
It was the threat of a "time-out".
Ineffective, invalidating, meaningless time-out.
"Uh-oh. Does someone need a time-out? Come over here and sit," the boy's mother said.
Little Tommy had cried because he wanted the ball in my son's hand. Tommy lay on the ground, quite upset. At his mother's prompt for a time-out, Tommy obediently moved over 3 feet from where he was crying, presumably into time-out position. His whining and complaining didn't stop, despite his mother's instructions to settle down. He repeatedly tried to move back towards me and Munchkin.
I offered my own words of validation for Tommy: "You want the ball, but Munchkin is having a turn right now. It's really hard to wait, isn't it? When he's done, you can have a turn." (incidentally, Tommy ended up waiting about 5 minutes, after which Munchkin happily gave him the ball).
I said nothing more, but I did have two immediate thoughts:
1) Tommy is two and a half. He's crying because he wants something he can't have at this moment. Crying seems like a pretty natural and age-appropriate thing to do in the situation.
2) What behavior was he supposed to exhibit to in order prevent the time-out?
But I get it. His mother wants to teach him to interact nicely with other children, so she punished him for...what, exactly? For acting his age? For behaving in a "normal" but socially unacceptable way (for adults, that is)? For being sad? Maybe his mom really just wanted him to withdraw from the situation, to find entertainment in something else. Maybe what she meant is that he should be patient while waiting for his turn. I wondered how Tommy interpreted the time-out.
About a half hour later, I heard something else that struck me just as hard. It came out in that mellifluous, exaggerated cheerleader voice, with an overstated, hyper-excited positive tone.
It was praise.
Empty, blanketed, unattached praise.
"Good digging, Tommy!" the boy's mother exclaimed.
I watched silently and had two immediate thoughts:
1) He's two and a half. He's in a sandbox and has a shovel. Digging seems like a pretty natural thing to do in that situation.
2) What would "bad" digging look like? Is there a way for a toddler to dig in the sand that's incorrect or morally reprehensible?
But I get it. His mom wanted to praise him for...what, exactly? For acting his age? For behaving in a "normal" and socially acceptable way? For having fun? Maybe she really just wanted to connect with him. Maybe what she meant was that she was happy to see him enjoying himself in the sand, not throwing it. I wondered how Tommy interpreted her remark.
Now, I can't read minds and I don't even know Tommy and his mother. But I'm pretty sure that without reading any research about the harm of both praise and punishment Tommy is already making his own conclusions about how he is treated. I imagine it's something like: Mommy isn't nice to me when I cry, but she's nice when I'm happy.
Or maybe he's reasoned: If I express my unhappiness about coveting another child's toy, then I make my mom uncomfortable. Instead, I should ask politely and then patiently wait my turn...or I'll end up in a time-out. If I'm having fun and not causing any trouble, then I make myself and my mommy happy... then she compliments me and I feel even better.
Sound crazy? Far-fetched? Too judgmental? Perhaps.
Like I said, I can't read minds. But I can wonder about the child's perspective. And I do, I always wonder...
What are your thoughts? How do you think children perceive praise and punishment? Do their perceptions matter as much as parental control?