The child in the shopping cart was staring at her mother. Not quietly staring, mind you, but letting out bursts of the most piercing scream I could imagine. Every couple of seconds. Taking a break long enough to get her lungs full again, brief silence would be followed by another loud scream. Each scream lasted for only a second but it would pierce every fiber of my being. Like a beating heart that continued relentlessly, one scream followed another as the cart passed from aisle to aisle. I could hear it long before I could see it.
Dr. Tamar Jacobson is Professor of early childhood education at Rider University. Growing up in Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, she writes freely about the emotional neglect she suffered as a child. In her recent book, Everyone Needs Attention, Dr. Jacobson encourages early childhood teachers to reframe their reaction to the annoying behaviors of toddlers. Our first reaction is to ignore them because “he is just doing it for attention.” What if we thought instead, ‘he is doing it for relationship,’ Dr. Jacobson asks?
In any other arena of life, ignoring people seeking relationship with us is not a normal response. Imagine getting on a dating site and then refusing to answer questions from people checking our profile? What would be the point? Isn’t that one of the reasons we brought these young hearts into the world? We want to lead them into a better life by showing them a better way to live. We accomplish this goal by sharing relationship.
The young toddler in the shopping cart was old enough to sit comfortably. I don’t know if she could have taken any steps on her own but she sure wasn’t old enough to follow alongside the cart walking. The irony of sitting in a place that forced her to face the person she loved step after step—while not being spoken to at all—seemed almost cruel to me.
Dr. Jacobson reminds us that the normal response to a person crying out for us is listening, observing, or waiting patiently. Why do people say it is best to ignore someone who needs our attention, she asks?
I’ll admit I judged the young mother when I finally saw her. She came and went from my view. Every time I saw her, she had one hand pushing the cart and her eyes glued to the screen of the phone in her other hand. Busted! Don’t you get that the little scream doesn’t mean my pants are wet or I’m hungry or I’m sleepy? The little one was screaming, “Look at ME! Interact with ME! I’m going to be annoying until this works! I can do this all day.”
It really wasn’t fair to the mom to jump to this conclusion. She is obviously very attached to this child. This child is accustomed to interacting with her mother and misses those moments fiercely. But with every new aisle, the phone remained glued in her field of vision and the child continued to pulse each piercing scream without a pause except for breath.
Mothers are known for their multitasking ability. They can dress a child while putting on their own clothes and barking directions at the child’s brother. Can’t a skilled mother interact with her soon-to-be-toddler and shop at the same time? Couldn’t Instagram wait until another time?
I can’t help but think that I witnessed another family training for their future of sitting in a restaurant or car interacting with their own screens instead of talking to one another. Ignoring a relationship screaming out for us is how we train for that future reality. Rethink. Reframe. Redo.