Yesterday afternoon in Fitler Square Jay played in the orbit of an 18-month-old boy named Seamus, who’d come to the park with his mom and dad. Seamus had a tangle of red curls atop his head, a sheen of drool below his mouth, and a tendency to eat his sidewalk chalk: Every few minutes his mom would call to his dad, “Is he eating that? Oh, he’s eating it again, get it out of his mouth.”
Jay and Seamus had two cars between them—a plastic yellow dump truck and a scale model of a Mitsubishi Eclipse convertible that sped forward after you pulled it back—and every few minutes Jay would decide he wanted the car he didn’t have and would snatch it from Seamus’ soft hand. Seamus would cry until his dad diverted his attention elsewhere. “There are so many toys to play with,” he’d say. “Do you want some chalk?”
The line that caught my attention, though, came when Seamus decided for reasons all his own to run away from our cluster of benches. His mom, sitting on a bench beside me, Caroline and Wally, said, “Seamus, come back here please.” Seamus paused (most likely because the sound of his mother’s voice suddenly reminded him of how much he loved trains; or maybe because he was seriously considering her request). His mom said, “Thank you for listening Seamus,” but before the words were out of her mouth he’d taken off again.
Countless times during the day I say things to Jay that would make me cringe if later I was confronted with a transcript of them—gooey expressions of love, feeble attempts to control his behavior, piques of frustration that surely seem absurd when directed at a 28 lb. boy who only last week learned that he has a last name. So it’s not that I think this mom sounded more ridiculous than all parents do from time to time. Still, the line “Thank you for listening Seamus,” caught my attention given how clear it was that Seamus either didn’t know how to listen to commands like that, or if he did, had no intention of following them.
That night I mulled it over: Was that a ridiculous thing to say to an 18-month-old?
On the non-ridiculous side, parents talk and act towards their kids in aspirational ways all the time. We read books to newborns who can’t even hold their heads up because maybe early exposure to books will instill a love of reading and a familiarity with stories. I say to Jay, “That’s a beautiful drawing” when the marks he’s made on the page are clearly not beautiful at all because I want him to have confidence in himself as an artist. Or I tell a gassy Wally, “That’s a great burp” because, well, he’s got to be good at something.
So there’s definitely a place in the parent-child conversation for language and actions that express a vision of who we want our children to become.
At the same time, it seems important that language not run too far ahead of the reality of a child’s actual behavior. I find myself praising Jay all the time for things he’s not actually done. I tell him “Good job eating your vegetables” when he merely glances in the direction of a pea, because I hope the glow of the praise will make him forget how much he hates those shriveled green balls on his tray. Or in the evening I tell him “You’re being a really good boy” when for the last half-an-hour he’s been anything but a really good boy. The praise is often something of a last ditch effort: Maybe if I say it, it will make it so.
All of this is probably less detrimental to Jay’s long-run development than any number of other things I could be saying to him. At the same time, listening to Seamus’ mom praise her chalk-mouthed son for an action he hadn’t performed and probably doesn’t understand, it struck me that there is a tendency often on display in the park and in my living room, to confuse praise with education, and to rush to use positive reinforcement before there’s anything there to reinforce.