“Did you ever get the feeling that you wanted to go, and then you get the feeling that you wanted to stay? Go, Stay? Stay, Go?” An old vaudeville star used to do that as a routine, acting the feelings with body motion – feelings with which we can probably all identify. Maybe that’s why “wake up and smell the coffee” is needed to lure some of us with the aroma of perking caffeine to get us up and out of bed in the morning.
It’s called ambivalence. Defined by Webster as simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings toward an object, person or action; continual fluctuation between one thing and its opposite, and uncertainty about which approach to follow. Any or all of these definitions certainly sound familiar. As parents, we not only deal with such feelings in our own lives but also especially in the lives of our children.
The problem is that our children often want to stay when we want to go, and to go when we would like to stay. A familiar complaint from parents is having to get a child ready to leave in the morning. Instead of getting dressed there is a book to read or a toy to play with. By the same token, lunch or dinner means staying at the table, when children seem ready to go after one bite.
The difference is that reality operates for adults when it doesn’t in the same way with young children. Mom or dad know they have to leave in order to get to work on time. School doesn’t carry the same imperative for the child – especially compared to staying home to play. The ability to give up immediate pleasure for a longer-range goal is theoretically, at least, a sign of maturity.
In that sense, children are not ambivalent. They are not torn about whether to stay or go – they want to stay with what they are doing. That is why transitions are often so hard for young children. Moving from one thing to the next means shifting interest and attention. Parents often try to help things along by pointing out to a child how much he likes going to the park, or how he will see all his friends at school. But those things aren’t real at the moment while the toy he is playing with is very real.
In the same way, trying to persuade a child to go to bed in order to get enough sleep to be able to play tomorrow is a doomed strategy. She is not thinking about tomorrow tonight, but rather about how mom and dad are up and that’s where the action is. The song about “tomorrow” seldom carries much weight.
We may think children express ambivalent feelings toward friends or parents. A child may say, “I hate you” to a parent when deprived of something he or she wants. In the same way children express negative feelings toward a friend or teacher. But children don’t experience this as ambivalence. They are overwhelmed by their feelings of the moment and feel that moment as the totality of feelings and experience.
For that reason, it usually doesn’t help much to tell an upset child she will feel better soon, or to try to persuade her she really likes the person with whom she is presently upset. It may reassure us as parents, though, to remember that when our child yells she hates us it is not the totality of her feelings. We know there are times we may feel the same way about our child.
The fluctuation between one thing and its opposite, and uncertainty about which approach to follow, is something about which our children (and even we ourselves) may at times, need help.