A PRECOCIOUS TODDLER’S REPLY TO A PASSERBY

From the NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY

By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.

The topic of thumb-sucking continues to prompt responses from readers.

Q. My “children” are now 32 and 24. Your column reminded me of my favorite thumb-sucking story.

A friend and her toddler son were shopping. He was sitting in a child’s seat in the shopping cart, happily sucking his thumb, when a woman approached and said to him and his mother, “Imagine a child that age still sucking his thumb.” My friend’s child took his thumb out of his mouth, looked directly at her and replied, Hurts you?”

I’d love to meet that young man now. He was a wise soul already almost 30 years ago.

A. Your friend’s toddler’s reply to a judgmental busybody is quite a hoot! How does a child just old enough to make two word sentences come up with something like that? A toddler might have sensed this intruder’s negative emotion without fully understanding it. At 2 years or less, a child certainly wouldn’t have known that it was none of her business. And at his tender age, he may not yet have encountered the disapproval of thumb sucking that often is reserved for older children. Toddlers do already know that people have feelings, and by 2 and 1/2 years or so are already hard at work trying to understand what causes them. (This child must have been a little precocious.) Their range of understanding of feelings, and their explanations for other people’s feelings, of course, can only come from their close-at-hand experiences. This child was too young to understand the very abstract notions of persnickety value judgments, or competitive parenting. (His mother may have felt that this woman was saying, “I’d certainly do better than that!)

A child this age would be likely to think that he’d caused her emotions, and would be bound to translate “condescending” or “judgmental” into “hurt” or “mad.” Why would a lady in the store sound upset and mad while looking in the toddler’s general direction? From a toddler’s perspective, this might very well be because he hurt her! This poor child sucking his thumb might even think that he’d caused her distress by sucking too hard, or using his teeth! This may have been the best explanation he could come up with for her arching eyebrows and turned up nose, but it sounds as if it seemed a little implausible even to him!

What a wonderful story! The profound truths of young children’s words let us into their world – one that we have long since left behind, and so often fail to understand.


Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.

Dr. Brazelton heads the Brazelton Touchpoints Project, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is Director of Strategy, Planning and Program Development at the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.

Reprinted with permission from the authors.