Generosity Misunderstood Through a Toddler’s Eyes
Happy Birthday. Why did you take the fire truck? You shouldn’t have done that.
Like many families ours has memorable stories from early childhood we repeat every now and then. This one is about the birthday message my son Jacob asked me to write on his cousin Maxwell’s card.
Maxwell, a year older than Jacob had let my son take home a toy fire truck Jacob had been playing with during one visit. “He loves playing with it so much. Could he take it home and play with it longer?” My sister had suggested to her son.
Jacob took the fire truck home with him and played with it on and off until one day Maxwell visited our house and we returned it. I had probably suggested, “It’s time to give Maxwell back the fire truck.”
A lesson in generosity yes – but as orchestrated by the adults and through the adults’ eyes.
Many months later this is what happened.
Me: “It’s Maxwell’s birthday. What do you want to say to your cousin on his birthday card?”
Jacob: “Dear Maxwell, Happy Birthday. Why did you take the fire truck? You shouldn’t have done that. Love Jacob!”
Me: “We can’t really write that on a birthday card. Usually you just say happy birthday.”
Jacob: “But he took the fire truck.”
Me: “Lets just say, Happy birthday!”
Jacob: “I want the fire truck.”
I thought of this story as I read Julia Luckenbill’s excellent tips on raising compassionate infants and toddlers. Early childhood is a time of strong feelings. In the moment it can be difficult to dissect the complexity of the feelings, to say the words, and act in the ways that will guide our children toward understanding and compassion. Often we put an adult spin on things. “It was his toy! He was generous to lend it.”
I have no recollection of how we explained the fire truck exchange or if we helped my son navigate his feelings from his toddler perspective but I thought about all the layers of feelings, expectations, and social conventions involved as I read Julia’s tips: that he missed the toy; that he felt bad when he had to give it back; that it was generous of Maxwell to lend it to him but it still felt bad when it was time to give it back; that it wasn’t the right thing to do to keep a toy that wasn’t yours; that wishing happy birthday on a card is a time to say nice things.
I imagine my sister and I had seen the fire truck exchange as a lesson in generosity – and probably to some degree it was. But many thanks to Julia Luckenbill for a reminder of how complex toddlers’ feelings are and how we can guide them toward compassion and generosity daily and in small ways -like petting an animal gently, talking about and naming another child’s feelings, reading books about feelings - in a ways that makes sense to them.
Susan Friedman is Senior Director, Content Strategy and Development at NAEYC.