As a rather anxiety-prone person, there are many things about which I’ve always been nervous. One of the things most guaranteed to tie my stomachs in knots, however, is the prospect of disciplining, correcting, or otherwise training another person’s child. The reasons for my hesitancy? Before I became a parent, I’d not thought much about it and was well aware that I had no clue how to do it effectively. After I became a parent, I’d thought about it a great deal, developed my philosophies about how best to do it, and assumed that other parents had done the same—without necessarily coming to the same conclusions Jeff and I have embraced. That means that every time I discipline, correct, or otherwise train someone else’s child, I am aware that I may be undermining the parent’s chosen child-rearing strategy, and that the parent may be no happier about it than I would be if someone else interacted with Alexa in a way that I believed was inappropriate.
So what do I do here in Cambodia? I start attending a playgroup! Now, please don’t misunderstand, playgroup is a wonderful thing, and the other moms are truly good women and good mothers. And, although it didn’t occur to me until today, from what I’ve seen, they tend to interact with their children in ways that fit nicely with how I try to raise Alexa. BUT, in this playgroup, the children pretty much run all over our chosen venue—someone’s house or Monkey Business, which is deserted other than our group at the time at which we meet—without too much concern on the mothers’ part about keeping close watch on their kids; there’s always a locked gate to ensure security and plenty of adult eyes to prevent serious mishap. This state of affairs means that when kids get into disputes or otherwise do things they shouldn’t, the mother or mothers belonging to the kids in question is not always right there to resolve the situation. Sometimes, there arises a situation where a mother needs to get involved in a situation that involves someone else’s child.
(On a side note—no other moms have had to get involved with situations involving Alexa, mostly because she rarely gets far enough away from me to require it. She’s a bit anxious and shy, like her mama. But I do trust the other moms enough that when the day comes that Alexa is running around with the rest of the kids, I’ll have no problem with them intervening as necessary.)
Twice, I have become involved in a situation involving someone else’s child. Both times involved the same little girl.
On the first occasion, I was hosting playgroup at our house. One of the most popular toys of the day was a ride-on giraffe, a gift received before Alexa was even born. It’s become one of Alexa’s favorites lately, and apparently the other kids agree with her assessment: the giraffe rocks! Throughout our time together, the giraffe was zooming around the house. I didn’t pay much attention to which child or children were using it.
This little girl came up to me and asked “Can I ride on the giraffe?”
“Yes, as long as no one else is on it.”
“Can I ride on it for a really long time?”
Mental response: Child, why didn’t you go to your own mama with this question?! Ok, ok, I guess it’s because as the hostess, as the de facto owner of all the toys, since Alexa isn’t old enough to have a real say, I was the one with the power to distribute toys. But still. It was a rather simple question that felt more like a social landmine to me. However, the question had been asked, and so …
“Well, no, not for a really long time. Other kids want to play with the giraffe, too, so you have to share it. You can ride on it for a little while, but then you need to let someone else ride it.”
Ok, first test, and I think I did well enough. It really was an easy one: I was asked a direct question, for permission to do something, and all I had to do with give or withhold permission. Directing other people’s kids, lesson one: pass.
Fast forward to today. We’re at someone else’s house. The children of this house have several dolls, or “babies,” as Alexa calls them. Alexa was fascinated with the babies from the time she first saw them, but she wouldn’t play with them because I was talking to someone and wouldn’t walk across the room with her to get them. Eventually, she decided that the room had emptied out enough for her to be comfortable: Only three children still were in the room with us; the others had gone into the other room or outside. So, while I wasn’t looking to see what happened, she apparently walked across the room and took four babies, whose last known-to-me location was the toy crib, but who could have been anywhere at the point at which she took them.
A few moments later, after Alexa had returned to me and was sitting in my lap playing contentedly with the babies, the same little girl from before stalked up to me. “Excuse me. She took the dolls.”
Now, let me explain the reason my heart really started pounding here: This time, I had to play the role of authority figure in a situation that directly involved Alexa and another child in conflict. My instincts in this situation were divided. Due to my own anxiety-ridden past, I always seem to believe, instinctively, that I and mine should sacrifice—right or wrong, I should give up what I want if someone else wants it, and that extends to making my child give up a toy, or even encouraging my husband not to defend his political positions quite so adamantly. On the other hand, this is my child, and my instinct is to defend her: She’s a sweet little thing, she’d never take toys you were playing with, she’s mine and she’s perfect, so back off, kid! Luckily, I recognize that neither of those instincts should rule. Next instinct: Stall. Get more information. Give myself time to think. I went with that one.
“Yes, she did. Were you playing with them when she took them?”
I suspected the answer was no, because Alexa is too shy to do that yet (I’m sure she will at some point, but probably not while she’s still as timid as she is now), and this other little girl is not one to succumb to that kind of thing without a certain amount of noisy protest, which would have drawn my attention.
“We were playing with all those toys.” She made a wide gesture that included the little boy with whom she was playing and all the toys located in that corner of the room—approximately 95% of the toys in the room, way more toys than any two (or ten!) kids could play with at one time. The correct answer became clear, but I wanted to make certain, so I asked another question.
“Were you playing specifically with these dolls? Were they in your hands?”
“No. But we were playing with all those toys.” Ah, complete clarity, and a decision about how I was going to proceed!
“You can’t play with all those toys at once. You were not playing with these dolls when she took them, so she can play with them. But,” inspiration striking as I saw one doll lying untouched on the ground near Alexa, “Alexa needs to share, too, so you can have one of th—“
“I want that one!” The little girl pointed at a doll held securely in Alexa’s arms.
“No. She’s playing with that one. You can’t take it away from her. You can have this one.” And I handed her the doll from the floor.
Pouty face. Accept the doll. Go back to the corner and put the doll in the crib, then promptly turn away and start playing with something else.
My comment to my friend, who’d been sitting nearby, listening in, not intervening, despite my telepathic pleas for relief: “If Alexa went over and took that doll right now, I wouldn’t make her give it back.”
According to my friend, I handled the situation well. I think the outcome was the correct one, though I wonder if I was too stern in my tone of voice. My friend says no, and I think she would tell me if I had been too harsh.
I know you can’t judge my tone of voice, not having heard it, but … what do you think? If it had been you, would you have done anything different? If either of the children involved were yours, would you be upset or disappointed in my handling of the situation? I admit I’m looking for reassurance, but I also would like to know if anyone would have handled it differently, and how.