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By Riikka Melartin, Psy.D.
Someone asked me recently why her seven year old child is such an “ingrate,” given that her parents have tried to teach her to value and appreciate things, don’t give in to her whims, and try to be consistent about rules and consequences. The girl had put her dolls into donation pile, including one that had been her mother’s when she was little, and when told that they weren’t items to donate, said she didn’t want to play with dolls anymore. Later, unnoticed by her parents, she put the dolls again into the donation bag, which was taken away. She naturally started missing her dolls. After the parents refused to replace them, had a “marathon meltdown,” including hurling nasty insults. She also “lost” her winter jacket, which the parents suspect was intentional.
Of course, this would drive any parent crazy! The bottom line is, children do not act “rationally” according to adult standards. Their cognitive (thinking) skills and their ability to regulate their emotional reactions are quite different than ours. This parent is doing all the right things in setting consistent boundaries and consequences, which I assure her will pay off in the long run. However, child logic can be murky.
Sometimes in a case like this, the child wants new things and assumes that the way to get them is to give up the old ones — not unreasonable, given that children outgrow clothes, shoes, and even books and toys, which are then replenished by parents. The daughter may even have thought that donating her dolls was an unselfish and praiseworthy act, if being charitable is a value in this family (as it likely is, given the existence of the donation pile.)
If this behavior happened in the lead-up to the Christmas holidays, the girl may have received a lot of media and peer messages about it being the “season of giving.” We often don’t realize that the language we use with children, about “your” toys, clothes, books etc., can be misleading: children may naturally think that these items belong to them, to do with what they want, whereas parents actually mean, “They’re yours to use, but we still own the items and have power over what to do with them.”
(I remember my mother being furious, much to my surprise, confusion, and sense of injustice, after I gave my silver pin to my best friend when I moved away.)
Another likely underlying factor is the daughter’s normal developmental ambivalence about how much of a big girl or little girl she is. She may very well one day feel like she’s too old for dolls, and the next day miss playing with them terribly. She has not yet learned that preferences and feelings come and go, that feeling strongly one day may not be true forever.
Finally, at seven years old, she’s in the transition from concrete to abstract reasoning, and may not have fully understood the permanent consequences of her actions (once donated, they’re gone and will not be coming back or be replaced.) This lack of common sense is hard for adults to understand, especially when the child is bright.
So let me assure this worried but wonderful parent: your child is not an ungrateful monster in the making, but a normal seven year for whom the world is still mysterious, and who, partly in response, behaves in ways that are in turn mysterious to adults. This is the magic (for better and worse) of childhood.
Riikka Melartin, Psy.D. is a licensed psychologist who provides individual therapy, counseling, and consultation for clients who are diverse in age, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. Until recently, she also worked as a school psychologist. Look for her monthly blog post about child & adolescent therapy on www.commpsych.com.
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