Family outing with two boys

Two commonplace ‘formative moments’ put under the magnifying glass

by Marita Brune-Koch, paedagogue

Two lively boys, just 4 and 6 years old and their parents are on an excursion ship of the Blue-White Fleet somewhere off the coast of Germany. They are sitting in the lounge. Their father is attentive and interacts with the two boys, talking to them and taking the time to answer their questions, explaining things to them. At length, he invites them to come topside with him to see the sights. He fills his father role well, opening his boys’ eyes to the world. It is a joy to observe this. But even in such a paradigm family scene dynamics occur that merit attention.
The smaller boy climbs onto the bench situated at the railing. The father is concerned that he does not fall overboard. He gives clear instructions: “Don’t climb, sit down! OK, you may kneel, but not higher.” Meanwhile, the 6 year old has eyed a sister ship. He tries to draw the fathers’ attention to his discovery: “Dad, look! There’s another ship of the Blue-White Fleet! But his father doesn’t hear him. He is preoccupied with the safety of the four year old. The older boy doesn’t give up: “Papa, look! Another one of The Blue-White Fleet”, he shouts, louder now, punching his father’s arm. Although the smaller boy is safely kneeling on the bench, the father still doesn’t seem to hear his other son. The older boy becomes more energetic, pulling his father’s sleeve. “Dad, look!“ And his arm points in the direction of the ship that threatens to move out of sight. This recurs four or five times. Still the boy does not give up. He becomes steadily more demanding, speaking louder and louder, as he becomes more desperate. The father lays his hand on the son’s head, to calm him down. He tells him not to behave so. Still he does not look at what the son wants him to see. Perhaps indeed he has not heard the boy. For he says; “Now we have to take some photos,” pulling out his cell phone, snapping everything, everything that is, except the ship that was of interest to his son. He doesn’t seem to even notice when his son finally gives up resignedly.
Back below deck in the dining salon the father and mother are in conversation. The two boys begin to quarrel. They begin to shout, pushing and shoving. The ruction begins in earnest. Suddenly the father leaves off the conversation and intervenes, hitting his older son on the head with a cardboard menu holder. A stunned silence ensues. The chastised young man looks at first puzzled. Then hurt and ashamed he turns his chair away from both his family and the rest of the room. His father seems to sense that he may have over-reacted, because he next speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear, perhaps to justify his action: “Didn’t I warn you! You’ll get it again to if you don’t behave.” The boys’ mother just gazes out of the window. She says nothing. The four year old climbs onto his father’s lap. The two are obviously very fond of one another. Meanwhile, the six year old is still facing away from everybody. He is for the moment not part of the family. But after 10 to 15 minutes he stops sulking, turns his chair around, and is received back by his father with outstretched arms. He has been taken back into the family circle.
Two little everyday scenes. Such scenes are neither unusual nor significant, but yet we know that it is from just such moments in family dynamics that deleterious later developments often emerge.
Let us look closer at the two scenes. The boys’ father is eager. That he likes both sons is obvious. He wants to show them the world and he is also engaged in building and cementing relationships. He plays his part as father. And yet small unintended mishaps occur, sometimes going unnoticed by him.
In the on-deck scene it would have been enough if he had realised what his son wanted to show him. Had he just looked and confirmed what his son had discovered his son would have felt acknowledged and understood. Developmental psychology teaches that for healthy childhood development it is often surprisingly little that is needed, just perhaps a moment of attention, calm observation and appropriate reaction. If this doesn’t immediately occur on a particular occasion it is of no consequence. As we can see from the example the boy typically demands his father’s attention again and again. On this particular occasion the boy has experienced a moment of failure. He feels that his father has neither seen nor acknowledged him and therefore has not been available to him as his source of reassurance and strength. Once doesn’t count, as the folk saying goes. So if such a little incident were unique or rare it would matter little. It only becomes formative of the child if repeated. There is included a danger that the boy will record this failure as evidence that his little brother is more important to his father and that his father’s attention is more to the little brother. This impression may be made regardless of whether or not it is actually the case. With the older boy such an episode can strengthen an already existing experience of ‘dethronement’. He may feel pushed aside. It is important therefore for parents to keep this in mind and to correct it where possible.
And how do we evaluate the second episode?
Surely the father is right when he asks the boys not to cause trouble, to stop arguing noisily when he wants to talk to their mother at table. It is important that children learn not to seek always to be at the center of attention, to allow adults to converse in peace. Even if the children cannot very well follow their parents’ conversation they should understand that there are other people in the restaurant who want to enjoy their food undisturbed. A few minutes previously their father had focussed his attention totally on his boys. But now the latter are breaking their father’s rules. They have started to argue noisily, even getting rough at the table. We don’t know if the ructions are a follow-on from the previous interlude on deck. Perhaps the older boy has started the little argument in a pique of jealousy. Be that as it may, their father was right to intervene and to set clear limits. It was also good that he reacted promptly, even out of emotion. The children must realise how their behaviour affects their parents and other significant others. They do not learn this typically by being lectured, they learn it through the drama of emotions. And yet: the single blow, delivered publicly, has a humiliating effect. It can hardly have hurt – the father had only used a cardboard menu cover. Though, it depends on what it signifies. Its significance  was amplified by the smaller boy climbing on his father’s lap and both acting in a loving manner. At that clearly the older son was ‘the evil one’ – and that is dangerous. Although we do not know how the row in the restaurant started, it is important that parents remain impartial and do not send out signals that reinforce such divisions in the children’s feelings. This can be problematic for the older child. If he were to experience such feelings frequently, a sense of rejection could arise and as a result, bad personality traits could develop, e.g., defiance, opposition, retreat, to name only a few typical ones. And for the younger sibling such division is also dangerous. A younger child who experiences that the older sibling is always ‘the evil one’, that he himself as the younger one is ‘the good,’ is in danger of developing a fear of what slipping into the role of being ‘the evil one. This may corrupt or at least constrain him. Such mutual evaluative attributions among siblings can inhibit the development of friendship.
Once again: A few of such experiences are not the end of the world. Educational errors can be corrected and one educational error does not cause trauma. We have noted too that the father consciously and joyfully welcomed back his older son. It only becomes problematic when such synamics as those described above begin to repeat themselves, when patterns of error begin to emerge without the adults noticing it. They must carefully observe the development of their children’s emotional life and possibly move to take corrective measures.
Back to the situation at the table. What could the father, or even the mother have done instead of striking? Perhaps they could have said clearly to both of them, and firmly insisted with full parental emphasis and authority: ‘No, Linus and Leon (or whatever their names are). Stop this nonsense immediately!’ If the argument and unrest had continued, it might have been possible to separate the two diagonally, one on the father’s side, the other on the mother’s. In any case, some definitive action in such a situation is clearly appropriate. It is necessary that the parents end such a disturbance, permitting a return to quiet conversation. It is also of paramount importance that children learn to be considerate and to respect their parents’ needs.    •