Arguing with a Six-Year-Old

The mother was sitting across from her young daughter and attending to some task on her iPhone. Out of the blue, the daughter launched a volley across the table: “You never play with me.”
In the best of relationships, them’s fighting words.

Mother: “That’s because I work full time.”
Daughter: “But even when you’re not working, you never play with me.”
Mother: “Never? I never play with you?”
Daughter: “No.”

Clearly, this conversation had already gone off the rails. The mother was arguing over semantics. Defending herself by attacking the daughter’s choice of words seemed to miss the point. The daughter seemed to be wanting some of the mother’s attention.

Mother: “So, when I take you to the park, that’s not playing with you?”
Daughter: “But you don’t play with me at the park.”
Mother: “I’m too big to play on the equipment.”
Daughter: “You could play soccer with me.”
Mother: “We didn’t have a soccer ball.”

In the end, the daughter quit pestering the mother and quietly dissolved into tears. The mother continued to attend to the tasks on her iPhone.

We’ve all been there. We’ve just come home from a tiring and trying day at work. We might still have work to finish. We have been stuck in traffic on the way home. We have, perhaps, just had an argument with our spouse. We just need a break, a minute to be left alone and to catch our breath.

I’ve no reason to doubt that the mother was right, that she does play with the daughter, perhaps regularly. But I fear that in this case insisting on being right will in the end prove costly.

The daughter seemed to want some attention. Perhaps she didn’t word it accurately, precisely, or correctly. But focusing on her diction, seems to have missed the proverbial forest for the trees by shifting the focus away from her ideas and feelings and onto the inaccurate or imprecise way she articulated them. After all, the daughter looked to be about six. We should probably forgive her some lexical missteps.

Moreover, attacking her diction made the encounter adversarial. When accused, whether wrongfully or justly, we tend to strike back. Both mother and daughter retrenched, thereby ending any interesting conversation and making it a contest of wills. This time the mother won, but youth always prevails in the end. How much healthier and happier would our relationships with our children, our parents, and our spouses be if we looked for the forest instead focusing on the trees?