July 02, 2015

Q: My wonderful mother daughter my 10 month old how to play "keep away". I recently got an email telling me that my child, at this age, should be learning how to 'hand something over'. Anytime she brings me something, especially something she shouldn't have, I ask her to hand it to me, and she pulls it away, and smiles. What can I do to stop this?

A: Pulling away is as normal and natural as handing something over--in fact, they are both milestones along the same path of child development.

Your daughter already knows all about "handing something over"--she is showing you that she understands perfectly well that you want her to hand you something and that she has enough gumption to tease you a little bit by withholding it. She has discovered that she is a person, and that you are a person, and that you are not both the same person but two separate persons and therefore capable of disagreement as well as agreement. She is exploring the fascinating and important new discovery that she has a will of her own.

When it gets down to it, a child of her age is pretty much constantly under mother's thumb. Thus the few moments when she exercises her capacity to resist your will are important for her development. She needs to feel as though you can tolerate her disagreeing with her for a little bit, without losing your cool about it. She also needs to feel that you would take away something immediately that posed a real danger to her (a sharp kitchen knife or bottle of ant poison, let's say).

Your daughter's pulling away is a game, like peek-a-boo, in which she is discovering that people come and go and interact with one another and must negotiate between them about what they want. Your goal is not to make her obey or mind or cooperate or listen--when parents aim for these goals, they end up adding even more power-struggles. Your goal is to keep her safe (first), and to keep the day moving in a constructive direction (second)--acknowledging that she isn't ALWAYS going to mind or obey or cooperate or listen.

She will out-grow pulling away, but she will continue to want to depend upon you and to want to be independent of you. Like all children, she has to settle this stormy contradiction within herself. You can help her grow by jumping in actively when necessary (you'd need to grab that sharp knife!) but avoiding a power struggle whenever you can.

Elizabeth Berger MD Child Psychiatrist and author of "Raising Kids with Character"

Answered by Dr. Elizabeth Berger