I recently talked with a mom whose seven-year-old son, Jacob, would become enamored with girls at school and wouldn’t take “no” for an answer. Once he fell for a girl (usually a year or two older) he’d transform into a little stalker, relentlessly wanting to play with them, constantly trying to strike up a conversation and even sneaking up to kiss them when they weren’t looking. It didn’t seem to matter whether the girls told him “no” politely or abruptly Jacob was undaunted in his pursuit of their affections.
Jacob didn’t have any problem taking “no” for an answer in other social situations. In fact, he seemed to be socially astute and respected the boundaries of peers and adults. His mom sat him down several times and tried to explain to him the importance of respecting the wishes of the girls he liked and listening when they told him “no”. Although Jacob seemed to understand this, he had a harder time understanding that the girls actually didn’t like him. After one conversation about this he was reduced to tears and inconsolable for almost ten minutes. Thirty minutes later when he saw the girl in question he tried to kiss her when her head was turned.
Things came to a head when Jacob’s mother discovered he’d gotten the girls phone number from the online PTA directory and was now calling her at home despite the girl repeatedly telling him she didn’t want to talk to him.
Now I’ve known this family for some time and know that her son has been raised surrounded by loving, attentive women. There was a nanny that was with her son whenever mom was working and a grandma who doted on him. So I asked the mom, “Before he went to school was there ever a woman or girl who didn’t welcome his affections?” “No” she immediately responded. “And when he wants your attention to talk or show you what he’s doing or interested in, do you try to always be available?” “Yes. And I know Maria (the nanny) is the same with him. It’s a very rare that I won’t give him my full attention if he wants it”, she said.
So for her son the idea that a woman might not want his attention and welcome his affections was completely out of his realm of experience. The conversations his mother or teacher might have with him about “no mean no” must be weighed against his years of experience that taught him “women/girls always welcome my affections.” The bottom line was the history of his interactions with women outweighed any conversation about boundaries.
It’s a common myth that if a child is misbehaving it’s because they don’t understand how they’re supposed to behave. So we’re surprised when after a rational conversation the problem behavior continues. But behaviors don’t have to be “appropriate” or “good” for a child to choose them. They just have to work. All the rational conversation and explanation in the world won’t change the fact that 99.9% of the time when Jacob has wanted the affections and attentions of females he’s gotten it. “No” isn’t part of his experience, and experience trumps reason.
Jacob’s “little stalker” behavior is a natural result of his experiences, not a sign of an inability to understand social norms and cues. And his behavior will change as he accumulates experiences that contradict his previous ones. His mom and I talked about setting consequences for his “stalker behavior” that could speed up the realization that Jacob needed to come to, namely that his not taking “no” for an answer wasn’t going to work for him any more.
Our conversation about his led to a discussion about the experience an affluent, only-child has versus that of a less affluent child in a big family. My wife, who is fifth of six children, commented that being aware of social cues was part of surviving when she was a child. Her mother had five others to feed, cloth and attend to so if she wanted attention, or even her share of dinner, she needed to stay aware of those around her. From a very young age it was important for her to read the social cues and know how to communicate her needs effectively to those around her.
On the other hand, many children today have parents that are so attentive to their needs that there’s not much need for them to become aware of the needs of others or the social cues around them. While there’s inevitably a lot of healthy development in children with such attentive parents there’s a downside to not needing to consider others.
Much of our children’s behavior and thinking about things is a direct outgrowth of their experiences in the home. Just as parents of children in bigger families should make special efforts to make sure no child’s needs get lost in the shuffle, parents of only-children and affluent parents should make special efforts to create situations for children to postpone or let go of having some of their needs met in order to meet the needs of others.