I was recently in a client’s home talking with them about their five-year-old and was at the same time able to observe the interactions between the parents and their younger son, Jacob.
Two-year-old Jacob is charming but needs constant attention. The parents are taking turns accommodating him and his needs. Jacob is curious about a dish of olives and his father puts one in his mouth; Jacob doesn’t like it and spits it back into his father’s hand. Now the toddler decides the olives must go. He climbs onto the coffee table and grabs the bowl of olives. The father catches the bowl before he can throw it and asks, “What do you want to do?”
The toddler ignores his father and tries to pull the bowl from his father’s hand. The father says, “No thank you, we don’t throw olives.”
But the toddler is unfazed, “No Daddy, no Daddy” he says while he tries to pry his father’s fingers off the olive bowl. During the next ten minutes the toddler keeps coming back to try and grab the olives. Sometimes he gets his hand on an olive and throws one before a parent can stop him.
They explain to him not to do it. They try to distract him with other things, but at no time do they firmly say “no” or give him any kind of consequence for ignoring their directions. I got the impression that if the father had been fast enough to catch olives thrown in every direction without letting any hit the floor he would have let his son throw them.
A few minutes later Jacob decides he wants to play the dog like a drum, banging his hands against its back. Fortunately, the dog remains good-natured and ignores the mild beating. “It’s not Okay to use the dog as a drum. Do you need to bang on your drum?” the father asks, then brings out a drum and gives it to him. The toddler ignores the drum. A bit later Jacob decides it’s funny to pull the dog’s tail. After the parents have told him several times ”No thank you. We don’t pull the dog’s tail”, the mother tells the boy, “I want you to say you’re sorry to the dog.” After repeated prodding, the boy says to the dog, “You’re sorry.” Having the toddler apologize to the dog means about as much to the toddler as it does to the dog.
Before I leave the mother asks me if I want to watch Jacob play his piano. I stand in his playroom for over five minutes while he happily bangs on a toddler-sized piano. It is apparent that the mother feels that she, and maybe I, should stay, listen and appear fascinated by his happy banging as long as Jacob wants us to.
I share this anecdote not because it’s an example of bad parenting but because it’s an example of typical, some would even say exemplary, parenting. I also share it because within these interactions are the seeds of the developmental shift that feeds omnipotence.