Anyone who has ever had the experience of watching 2-year-olds play together knows that it is not all fun and games. At age 2, children have figured out that might-makes-right, but they have not figured out concepts like private property, or the benefits of sharing, or the benefits of playing together as equals. As a result, there is about as much crying as there is laughter.
For many parents, this can be jarring. The desire to step in and equally distribute toys and treats, to police the process of taking turns, and to generally manage every step of the playing process on behalf of the children, is almost overwhelming. To do this, however, is a big mistake. Children must learn how to resolve their own conflicts. It's an ugly process with a lot of tears, but if we don't leave them to it, then the only thing they ever learn is that whenever somebody cries, a parent or authority figure is there to step in and give them direction. Ultimately, this stunts their emotional development. Thus, we have to leave them to their messy play.
Some parents, however, respond differently. Rather than being surprised or alarmed, they laugh. They see children running around, stealing each other's toys, cooking up schemes to gain an extra turn on the playground slide or an extra five minutes with a favorite stuffed animal, and they (the parents) think it's funny on some level.
Although it's a mistake to step in and try to manage the situation for the children, I believe it's also a mistake to sit back and laugh. They don't need mom and dad to just do it for them, but they certainly shouldn't be taught that their inability to cooperate is a laughing matter. If the micro-managing approach to parenting teaches the children to rely too much on parents and authority figures, the laughter approach teaches them that it's funny to scheme and to get what you want at the expense of other people.
What children need in these scenarios is guidance. Over time, and with lots of repetition through practice and consistent parental messaging, children must learn that the reason it's nice to share is that, in the long run, everyone has more fun together that way. It might feel instantly gratifying to hoard the prettiest blue ball, but in five minutes, when your best friend has ripped it out of your hands and you don't get to bounce it for the rest of the night, you'll realize the value of finding a way to provide more harmonious access to toys. In a perfect world, we teach our children to do that.
By chance, I happened to meet a parent in the "laughter" category. This parent told me about how difficult one the family's children had been. The child often misbehaved, often threw tantrums, often rebelled. The child seldom obeyed the parents and seldom followed the rules. This caused such a major headache for the parents that it negatively influenced their desire for more children.
Ultimately, they did have a second child, though, and the second child was much more peaceful and cooperative than the first. Already only a year into the second child's life, an insidious narrative had begun to take hold. The second child was the "easy" one, and the "good" one. The first child was, and I quote, "a little shit."
Today, the two children are still quite young. They have a lot of life ahead of them. That life is going to be very difficult and complicated for them - especially for the older child - if the younger one accepts the "easy/good" narrative and the older one comes to believe that s/he really is "a little shit." My heart goes out to them both.
More importantly, my heart goes out to my own child, who I could never even imagine thinking such things about. She doesn't always do everything right, but I couldn't in a thousand years drum up the willingness to call her a name like that. My chest hurts just thinking about it.
Is there any connection between the fact that the so-called "little shit" received parental laughter and joy when acting out as a youngster, and the fact that the misbehavior became more prevalent and problematic later on? There probably is, isn't there.
Will there be any connection between the child's future bad behavior and the names his/her parents call him/her at home and in conversations with other parents? Certainly.