Google+ Authentic Parenting: Communication Failure

Friday, September 16, 2011

Communication Failure

Yesterday my daughter walked into the kitchen exclaiming she wanted to eat the crumbs. I frowned “Crumbs? What crumbs are you talking about.”
Calmly, she added she wanted the crumbs that came with the airplane.
I still didn’t understand and asked my husband for help. But he didn’t know what she was talking about either.
We had an airway delivery of food lately, so I was quite sure it was something that had come that time, but I couldn’t figure out what she meant.
“Do you mean the crumbs of your cookies?”
“No!” she screamed, getting seriously ticked off at our ignorance. “The crumbs that came with the AIRPLANE.”
I was thinking frantically at what she could mean, offering suggestions, opening and peering into the fridge.
 My husband quizzing her, thinking she meant a box of chocolates he keeps at his desk, which he brought the last time we returned from Belgium. “They are finished,” he said, “but we’ll get new ones next time we take the plane.”
Now she was wailing. “I want the crumbs, I want the crumbs! They are not finished.”
I was sure that was not what she meant, and with the rising of the volume, my patience was slowly exiting the building.
“Tell me what you mean, I don’t understand you. I cannot help you if I don’t understand you.”
She shook her head and repeated “the crumbs” falling to the floor and crying. 3I’m going to die, I want the crumbs.”

Image: Chirag Rathod on Flickr
I tried to get a grip on myself and think rationally: “were the crumbs in a bag or in a box?”
She got up from the ground: “a box,” she said.
“And do we keep them in the fridge or in the pantry?”
“The fridge.”
My brain was working overtime, and then it came to me: we had received a little box of chocolate sprinkles, that must be what she was after.
I got it out of the fridge and the storm clouds made way for sunshine. With redness in her eyes, she produced a smile.
I excused myself for not understanding her and told her I didn’t mean to upset her. That it’s best to talk and help each other when we don’t understand, instead of each of us getting angry or worked up.
She nodded, fell into my arms and gave me the cutest hug.

Sometimes communication with a toddler can be really difficult, with them screaming things at you which you don’t understand, and getting worked up as they notice they are not getting any response, or at least not getting what they want.
Sometimes I think it is best to see them as a foreigner who doesn’t master your language. If you can’t come to an understanding, try to get them to use different words, ask other questions. Don’t ask them what they mean, because for them it is as clear as it is gibberish to you. Not being understood is frustrating, especially if they really want something (which is like 98% of the time).

My reaction of getting worked up at our incapability to communicate is obviously wrong We would have gotten much further and with less tears if I had remained rational and had asked the right questions right away.
If she would have been a foreigner, I probably would have, but when it comes to ou children, we se them as demanding, we find their frustration intolerable. Instead of being tolerant and helpful, we get angry and frustrated ourselves, because they don’t behave in the way we think they should.
We start worrying about a million other things instead of getting the communication flowing. What will the neighbors think? Can they hear her? Must this be every evening...
If it were the lost foreigner, we’d probably show much more patience, and anger wouldn’t even cross our minds. Surely we owe our children the same courtesy we do strangers?



  1. I think it is so frustrating when we start thinking we'll never figure out what they're trying to tell us. I go through the same thing with my 2yo. Though I think I get MORE frustrated when she is crying and just will NOT tell me why at all and won't answer my questions.

    I love the foreigner comparison, though I think we might still get frustrated and be a bit short with a foreigner.

  2. Great example. I shall remember it.

    Did you ever find out what the 'airplane' was all about or did I miss that?


  3. I love reading this--by some random combination of characteristics among me, my husband, and our little one we are pretty good at this game. The reward when you get it right (we get sweet hugs or "I love yous" also just about every time we figure it out together) probably has reinforced this so we are able to stay patient when it arises.

  4. Thank you so much for writing this! I needed to read every single word. When I was in high school, we had a foreign exchange student, from Japan, live with us for three months; and you are right in saying that I had more grace and patience and understanding for him than I do for my own toddling son.

  5. Love it and completely relate: both to the problem and the eventual solution. I am like you, a detective in a toddler's mind-space, with a big flashlight desperately trying to shine the light on the right bit to help me (the ignoramus that doesn't speak *her* language).

    I too LOVE the analogy about the foreigner. May well use it :p Thanks.

  6. I am *not* yet the parent of a 3 year old (my son just turned 2), but I wonder if there may have been a lesson in there about asking nicely and being patient . . . I'm concerned that your daughter may be learning that when she screams at Mommy and makes demands, she gets what she wants. This, in turn, could make things a little difficult for her later down the road.

  7. @Arlington Girl... I think the 'lesson' of asking patiently goes overboard if that clearly doesn't work. Three year olds are extremely trailing... much more than the so called 'terrible two' they know what's out there and realize their capacities are smaller, so they are often frustrated with themselves. We do incorporate the lesson that staying calm and asking gently works better, and as she is growing I see that it does bare fruit (some days)... But some days everybody is ticked off easier. SO are we adults, and I believe we have to respect that too, and now jump to the lesson taking pattern

  8. @Nev, not sure if I explained in the post, but the airplane was indeed the airplane that had come with the food earlier, and the sprinkles had been brought by my husband's coworker

  9. I'm with Arlington Girl -- this was a missed opportunity and the analogy is all wrong. When a toddler is unreasonable, demanding and whining, we should give them an honest reaction, not exactly what we would give a stranger behaving similarly -- but close in tone. In other words, be authentic (it is the name of the blog, right).

    An authentic reaction would be to let the irrationally behaving child know that you don't respond to such demanding, selfish behavior. Not a lot of words, something simple like, you need need to use a better tone with me. And only give help when some settling down has occurred.

    To get "frantic" in thinking and actions, as you describe, fuels the dynamic, makes the situation worse and, worst of all, creates a sel-centered, emotionally crippled person that the rest of us have to deal with (not to mention setting up the kid for wild mood swings, unhappiness and lots of therapy time.

  10. I agree with anonymous. You often say in your articles that we start repressing emotions from an early age because of bad parenting or "dominance." I believe you should have empathy with your child, especially when they are upset or hurt, but if they are being demanding and becoming enraged over some sprinkles, why would you want to encourage that? I cannot become enraged at my boss for being unable to understand me, I have to speak to her in a patient, polite way. Your child needs to learn how to ask for things politely, not just go with every emotion they feel. It won't be so wonderful when she is in high school and screaming at her teacher for not understanding her question...


I love comments! Drop me a line