Three weeks ago, my family and I went to our local farmer's market, excited to eat some breakfast and get a few groceries. We were enjoying our assorted pastries when Sully (newly four years old) started cry-screaming. It was when he got out, "A bee bit me! A bee bit me!" that it clicked with us what happened. I picked him up, walked away from the picnic tables, and soothed him, while my husband collected our things and got our toddler ready to go. The next day or two involved some bee-related questions (including, "But why did it want to hurt me?"), but then the incident faded.
The following Saturday, Jack and I were planning to go back to the market when Sully defiantly told us that he refused to go. He was clear and insistent, but he couldn't tell us why he didn't want to go. After 10 minutes of shouting, throwing his body on the ground, and telling us he didn't like us, we chalked up his behavior to being contrary, and we started getting ready. It was only then that he said, "But I don't want a muffin with a bee!"
I felt terrible. Of course, I should have independently been able to connect his clear desire not to go back with what had happened the week prior, but I had totally forgotten about his bee sting. Knowing what was at the root of his objection allowed us to address his fear and create a plan that made him feel safe enough to go back.
The thing that made me feel so badly in the moment was how quickly we had moved to labeling him as causing trouble instead of listening to him. In retrospect, I can see that he was showing us stress behavior, not misbehavior. I can't fault him for taking a few minutes to be able to figure out what was making him so upset; he wasn't able to think yet. I am grateful that he was able to move into his rational brain quickly, especially given his age, but I wish that we had done a better job of slowing our consternation so that we could focus on what was happening in his body and brain rather than in our own (a goal that I think must continue throughout parenthood).
When we told him we wouldn't ask him to go back to the stall where we got the muffins last time and shared that we would let him pick wherever he wanted to sit to eat, he said we could go back. Armed with the plan to hold Jack's hand and squeeze it tightly if he saw a bee, Sully was able to walk through the farmer's market. He found a different booth with breakfast options and decided he wanted to try apple strudel. He even ordered his own food (which came out as, "Can I have an apple scooter with no bees?"). Sully chose a picnic table, sat close to my husband, and exclaimed only slightly too loudly when he saw a bee near us. Really, he did a great job, and both Jack and I felt relieved at the end of the excursion. I think Sully probably felt that relief, too.
It's hard as a parent or a teacher not to feel sidetracked when a kid displays behavior that we interpret as troublesome. But it's also really important to read behavior as communication for us and not about us. If we had put aside our frustration about potentially shifting plans, we could have probably helped Sully regulate himself better and return to his thinking brain sooner.
I'm glad that he already asked if we could go back to the market this weekend; let's hope we can steer clear of the bees.
Image of Sully and Sara baking post-bee incident, courtesy of Brad Bailey.