Honoring the impulse: saying yes before no

We were at my mother-in-law’s house yesterday when my toddler noticed his 10-year-old cousin G tossing a tennis ball with her hand. “Want to play,” my toddler said. So G threw the ball towards him and he picked it up, but rather than throwing the ball back towards her, he pretty much threw it at her. Thankfully he’s a little guy so I doubt the throw hurt G much. Either way, I jumped up right away ready to do some “parenting” and said, “We don’t throw the ball at people. You have to throw it towards her… uh, so that she can catch the ball… yeah, throw it in her direction.”

My husband retorted in my toddler’s defense, “Yeah, that’s real clear to understand.”

After hearing my blurb, LO took the tennis ball, and instead of throwing it towards G, he walked the ball over and placed it into her hand. He’d run back to his spot so that she could toss the ball back to him, and each time he would chase the ball only walk it back to her to place it in her hand again. The scene reminded me of the movie The Sandlot where the new kid playing baseball with the neighborhood kids did the exact same thing—rather than throwing the baseball back to infield, he ran it in and placed it into the pitcher’s mitt.

Oh, man… did I just create Scotty Smalls from The Sandlot?

We explained that he could throw the ball, so finally he threw it again, but towards the door. Eventually he started rolling the ball on the floor towards G and she would roll it back to him. So much for throwing the ball around.

When we got home that night, my husband and I talked about the incident. “I don’t want to discourage him from throwing a ball,” he said. “Maybe it wasn’t too big of a deal that he accidentally threw it hard at her.”

The discussion reminded me of a phrase I read in the book Becoming the Parent You Want to Be by Laura Davis. She wrote about “honoring the impulse.” When a toddler misbehaves or does something we don’t want him to do, usually he’s acting out of curiosity or because he doesn’t even know he’s doing anything wrong. To us, a baby is misbehaving when she’s coloring on the walls, but to her she wants to know just what happens when you rub this red stick on the wall.

In my toddler’s case, he didn’t understand the different ways to throw (or not throw) a ball and that he isn’t supposed to throw the ball hard right at someone. Or maybe he was trying to throw the way his cousin was but just didn’t have the same physical control and aim that a 10-year-old has.

While a baby or toddler’s misbehavior still shouldn’t be encouraged (kids shouldn’t be writing on walls or throwing balls hard at people), adults still need to acknowledge their intent and honor the impulse. So before jumping up and immediately telling him what not to do, I should have said something like, “Were you trying to throw the ball to your cousin? You ended up hitting her instead. What if you try throwing it lower or slower, like this?”

So when it’s apparent that the baby or toddler isn’t misbehaving out of rebellion and instead is simply curious or acting within their confines, we’re better off honoring their impulse and acknowledging the effort before telling them what to do or not do. Sometimes I get so caught up with making sure my toddler knows right from wrong (don’t hit or throw things at people) that I forget he’s probably not intending to do wrong in the first place.

I don’t think this incident has forever scarred my toddler from ever laying his hand on a ball and throwing it. But I just had to make sure so I asked him to throw a ball this morning. Thankfully, he did.

Your thoughts?

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