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Raising children? Have to deal with someone else's? Considering a family?Let's talk kids!Claudia Quigg hosts this weekly reflection on best practices, experiences, and research related to child rearing and parenting. Thursdays at 12:50 PM and 7:50 PM

Let's Talk Kids: "On Returning Pretzels, Not Corn Chips"

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NPR Illinois | 91.9 UIS

You have to admire the efficiency of a vending machine.

You put in your dollar and you choose pretzels.  If you push the right button for pretzels, you’re soon rewarded with the sound of the snack tumbling down, and—voila—there you have it.  Pretzels.  Not corn chips or candy.  

Once in a while, the machine malfunctions and you get corn chips instead.  When that happens, you can often get your money back or ultimately get handed pretzels.   After all, in the vending machine world, the customer is always right.

If only interactions between human beings worked with such accuracy.  Especially between parents and children, we don’t always get what we choose.

Here’s an example.  We come home from a frustrating day at work, hoping for a pretzel in our child’s happy disposition.  Instead, he’s a growly mess, offering us corn chips instead of that pretzel we craved.

But he’s being difficult because he also had a hard day at school and had his heart set on a cheerful greeting from us.  He was also hoping for pretzels, but our disappointing response gave him corn chips, too.  
Family life is defined by many occasions of “serve and return.”  This term describes our children’s bids for our attention, followed by our responses.  A baby squeals in delight (her “serve”), and we respond with a big grin (our “return”).  A preschooler puts her hand on our leg while we stir the soup (her “serve”), and we pat her hand and let her know we see her there (our “return”).  Our seventh grader races into the house looking for us (his “serve”), and we stop what we’re doing to give him our expectant gaze (our “return”).  

No parent always “returns” attention in a way that matches a child’s “serves.”  Those who study these matches tell us that even in the healthiest families, we only get these interactions right about 30% of the time. It’s ok that we’re often busy and distracted. Our relationships can withstand plenty of corn chips, not dependent on a diet of only pretzels.

But like the most accurate vending machine, we parents hope that when it comes to our beloved kids, we can deliver pretzels, at least most of the time.

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