Each week I was finding my bathroom mirrors looking like a Colgate catastrophe had occurred. The youngest suspect, my then 4-year-old, adamantly denied having anything to do with the crusted toothpaste spatters across my mirrors. Until I secretly observed him one night "brushing his teeth". He placed a chunk of toothpaste on his brush, then suddenly shook the brush vigorously side to side, splattering toothpaste all over the mirrors. I confronted him immediately and he still denied having made the mess. I asked him why he had shaken his toothbrush like that to which he simply responded "I got too much toothpaste". I realized his eyes never left that brush and he genuinely thought he just made that excess disappear! My boy learned a lesson on permanency of objects that day, and I got a tiny glimpse of the world through a child's eyes. I suddenly recalled the promise I made to myself when I was 8: I would NEVER EVER forget what it's like to be a kid.
Being a kid is hard. I remember feeling legitimately confused when my name was hollered in frustration as I honestly did not understand what I was doing wrong. Yet as adults, we forget that sometimes what seems like intentional mischief may in fact be innocent, normal, developmental behaviors. It becomes especially difficult when we add on the stresses and responsibilities of adulthood. Even more when raising children in the system, who bring with them a complicated, painful past. As adults, we tend to get 'tunnel vision' and think how much simpler life must be as a kid with no responsibilities such as bills to pay and other adult-complications. But the reality is all stages of life have their challenges and being a kid is no different. Especially being a strong-willed, curious kid with no concept of basic laws of physics, and relationship dynamics.
We might assume we know why a kid might be doing something (I often hear that easy go-to useless response of "attention-seeking"). But until we learn how to put aside our own bias and "rules" about conduct and really try to see their perspective, we are destined to forever bang our heads against the wall in frustration about why said kid just "doesn't get it". Sometimes, even the kid might not know why they do what they do, or might even deny the perceived issue. For example, do you know why babies LOVE to play "peek-a-boo"? They don't yet understand the concept of object permanence so they really think you magically disappear and then reappear! It's cute to watch but not as fun when you have to do some things out of their sight and they freak out because they think you disappeared!
What it really boils down to is the most basic human instinct, summarized in one word: Survival. Kids are by nature selfish creatures in their earliest developmental phases. Can you think of a baby who might consider the time of the night before hollering out its needs? Or a toddler who might consider whether the parent has "important things" to do when they want to play? It's not malicious, kids just learn about their own needs before they have the capacity to understand others. Unfortunately, time does not always carry them out of that phase (I can think of a few adults that never seemed to grow out of that "me" phase). Especially when needs were not met as an infant (whether because the parent/s were busy trying to provide for the family or in a severe case of intentional neglect). The kid might not be able to express what is going on, because behaviors are often reactive rather than responsive. There are MANY more complex factors at play such as early life experiences, environment, cognitive ability, emotional awareness, and even personality.
So what is a parent to do when facing these challenges? First, we must be aware of the perspective we are taking. Are we looking at the situation through "adult expectations"? Or are we trying to look through the lens of the child's perspective? "But he/she just wants to do what he/she wants!".... why? Why are they so resistant to authority? Is it because they are strong-willed personalities or is it that every authority figure in their life has abused them therefore they see authority as threat to safety? It's not an easy answer and sometimes, they child might just need some increased awareness or boundaries set. But often times with kids who were removed from their home and placed in the system, it might be more complicated than that.
We don't have to become child development experts to gain perspective on development. There are many awesome resources that we can access with the click of a button. Most importantly, we must remember that a lot of times life experiences can stunt that development and some things can send us reverting to our most infantile selves. Just think of a person who experiences a tragedy. We might be apt to wail and revert to infantile manner of emotional expression. That's acceptable because we look at the context of the situation but such a response might not be as acceptable if the situation was perceived to be less extreme. Think of a person reacting that way in response to losing their watch. We might judge such a response until we learn that was their last reminder of their late parent, then we might realize its not just the "watch" they are grieving.
Likewise, the first step in dealing with "salty kids" is looking at the context. Not only what might be driving the child's behavior in the present, but how past experiences might be influencing their response and our own as well. Why are we setting that specific expectation? Is it a matter of preference, convenience, culture, morals, values, or safety? I was pretty irritated with the toothpaste chunks on the mirror but it was really not a safety issue,or a moral one at that; It was more of an inconvenience. As for my boy, he simply thought he was solving a problem by making excess toothpaste "disappear", not trying to make my life miserable as I initially may have felt. He learned a lesson in object permanency that day and me, a reminder to be patient and examine situations cautiously and lovingly. And my bathroom mirrors? They have not been as crusty since!