NEW YORK TIMES COLUMN: FAMILIES TODAY:
A 5-YEAR-OLD WHO NEEDS TO LEARN SOME LIMITS
By: T. Berry Brazelton, M.D., and Joshua Sparrow, M.D.
Q. My son is almost 5 years old and an only child. He loves to talk and interrupts quite often. My husband and I have brought it to his attention numerous times and talked with him about taking turns when speaking, but we have yet to see much improvement. Is it just the age or is there more we should be doing?
Our other concern involves the relationship between our son and another child at school. The two of them have been in preschool together and friends for a couple of years. The other child has begun acting out in negative ways and sometimes tries soliciting others to join in the behavior. When our son has been the target, we have suggested he tell the other child that he does not like the action(s) and then walk away. He is comfortable with walking away (although the other child often persists) but doesn’t want to say anything that might hurt the other child’s feelings. I don’t want to discourage his compassion for others but don’t want him to feel unable to stand up for himself either.
We would like to know how to speak with our son better about both issues.
A. Five years old is indeed an age when children want to intrude, partly to test their new found power over others — adults and peers. The other, more subtle reason for the irresistible urge to break into parents’ conversation arises from what Freud called the “Oedipal” struggle. Children this age want to possess each of you as their own, and may have trouble putting up with the intimacy of your speaking together.
Of course, parents must insist on their need to be in close touch, and a child this age shouldn’t be allowed to interfere, for his sake as well as yours. As much as he wants to interrupt and have you all to himself, he’d feel terrified and out of control if he succeeded! An only child may have an even more difficult time learning that he doesn’t need to be the center of everyone’s attention. He can be adored but not arrogant.
You are right to want to help him, but I sense from your language that you and your husband may feel torn because you find his interruptions hard to resist — maybe even precocious? No matter how compelling he makes himself, if you can consistently insist each time that he wait his turn, you will be teaching him to value other people’s significance.
This kind of sensitivity is priceless, and sometimes seems almost like a lost art. And it sounds as if you are afraid an only child may not have the opportunities to learn to value the rights of others as one would in a larger family, but there isn’t any reason why he can’t. You can start helping him develop this valuable social asset by labeling each interruption: “You are interrupting now. It’s Daddy’s turn. After he’s finished, we will be ready to hear your idea. Meanwhile, Daddy’s idea came first.”
Don’t let a single interruption slip by without doing this, or you’ll be giving him a mixed message — sometimes it’s OK to interrupt, and sometimes it isn’t. It may seem like discipline, but it is in an important cause — learning how to value others, and to listen as well as just to talk. He does sound exciting and it must be intriguing to hear all his ideas. You can reassure him that if he waits his turn you’ll be sure to listen to what he has to say.
Second question: I am not sure what “negative ways” you refer to, but most children at this age begin to “try their wings.” It’s a way of both testing the system and of learning an important goal, how to stop themselves when their wishes are getting out of hand. They may be used to hearing parents say, “I have to stop you until you can stop yourself.”
But at this age they must find out for themselves whether or not you still will, whether or not you still can. For your boy, living vicariously through his friend’s troublemaking may be a safe and appealing way to try this out. Of course, he’s both attracted and repelled. All the other 5-year-olds are, too.
Although you may prefer to say it as all the other child’s fault, if you can face his role in the “negative ways,” you’ll stand a better chance of helping him understand what he’s up to. Let him know that all children are bound to be curious about “getting into trouble,” even though they know they shouldn’t.
You might ask him “How do you feel when you do “bad stuff’?” With this question, you are not condoning the behavior, but helping him to realize that he feels both excited and guilty if he would go too far. Becoming aware of these guilty feelings is not unhealthy, but instead, a powerful motivation to keep himself under control. His friend may be silently asking the others to help him take this kind of perspective on his mischievous urges and to learn to stop himself.
Walking away, as you suggest, is one way to handle these situations. But as a close friend, he may be able to find other ways to help his friend that will allow him to stand up for himself. “I don’t want to get into trouble. And I don’t want you to either. Because we’re friends.” Warn him that his friend may thump his chest in response, “Scaredy cat! No one’s gonna catch me!” Your son can still stick up for himself and say, “That’s no reason to do bad stuff!”
At this age children should know that breaking rules will lead to punishment. But recognizing the reasons for obeying for rules for their own sake is a whole new world. They will both be learning together, the good and the bad. Then your son can be proud of himself — as a friend, not as a victim.
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.
Before Dr. Brazelton’s passing in 2018, he was the founder and director of 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 now the director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.