It’s Not All Mary Poppins

The Myth of Better for Others than Parents

At the library this morning, where the following little vignette occurred:

I am herding my tots through the security gate (which will “BEEP!” if you take an unchecked book through it. SO exciting.). Another tot, about the same age, attracted by the children her age, is sort of being swept along with us.

Her mother calls her.

“Sadie! Come back to mama, sweetie.”
Sadie doesn’t appear to hear. Mama repeats herself. “Sadie, honey. Come back here to mama, please.”
Now Sadie pauses.
“Sadie? Come back to mama, sweetie.”
Sadie looks back at mama, smiles, and then turns toward me once more. Mama calls after her.
Sadie walks through the security gate to me and my tots. Mama calls to her receding back.
“Sadie, silly girl. Come back to mama!”
I smile at Sadie, put my hands on her shoulders and say, “Hello, Sadie. You know what? You need to go back to mama. She’s calling you.” Then I gently turn her around and then let her go. She races back to mama, bubbling over with (very loud) tears.

“Thanks!” says mama, then turns to Sadie. “Now why will you come to mama when that lady says, but not when mama calls?” Mama turns to me. “They always behave better for someone else, don’t they?”

I simply smile at her as I gather my tots to leave. I can’t give her a direct question because, you know what? Popular as that sentiment is, I don’t believe it for a minute. It’s nonsense.

I can hear gasps even among my regular readers. You didn’t know I dissed that myth, did you?

See, here’s how it is. Even as I watched her interact with her child, I saw that woman make a critical error. If she makes that error routinely, as she probably does, this would pretty much entirely explain why her child doesn’t ‘come here’ when mama says “come here”.

Then there is me, The Stranger. I actually put hands on the child — very gently, of course — and directed her mildly back to mama, and that was enough to set her to wailing and racing back to mama.

This would not have happened were I mama, of course. The response I got was qualitatively different than mama would have received for the exact same action. And it is from this discrepancy that the Myth of “Better for Others than Parents” arises.

And that myth extends not just to strangers, but to caregivers, too. What I do is somehow magical. The child will behave better for me, simply because I am not mama. Even when I am no longer a stranger, the child will behave better for me, because of my not-mama-ness. This is the Myth of Better for Others than Parents.

At first, the “Better for Others” myth is in fact grounded in fact. A stranger is often unsettling to a child, unnerving, perhaps even intimidating. Rather than interact with a stranger who gets a bit directive, the toddler will very often head back to the security of the parent, even if that means (sigh) doing what they were told. That works — but only so long as the other adult is still a stranger.

There’s a transitional period during which a child in my care gets used to me, when I go from Stranger to familiar. It generally takes about three weeks, sometimes as long as five. But I can guarantee you that, after no more than six weeks, if I had been consistently responding to the child as mama does, that the child would be ignoring me just as she ignored mama.

Conversely, if mama, for about three to six weeks, responded as I would in that situation, her child would be responding to her directions the same as she would to me.

There is nothing magical about what I do vs. what mama does. We’re just doing different stuff.

Okay. This will be your quiz, your chance to analyze and evaluate. What did that mother do wrong? What action did she take, or not take, that pretty much ensured that her child would igore her instructions? Why did the child feel secure to ignore her?

July 2, 2008 Posted by | outings, parenting, power struggle | | 24 Comments