Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

The Science of How to Share Mother’s Lap

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The safety and comfort of a parent’s lap is a refuge in an unpredictable world.   In the midst of chaos and confusion, a parent’s lap invites a child to enjoy a moment of tranquility.  It is no wonder that sharing this safe haven with others causes tears, tantrums and fierce rage in young children.

When my son was two years old, he would habitually declare “only Mama” when other adults (including my husband) tried to care for him.  Needless to say, the welcoming of his baby sister at this age was not an easy process.  Nursing, especially, was a nightmare, because the new baby required my lap to feed and this arrangement was absolutely unacceptable to my toddler.

* “Schadenfreude” encapsulates the plethora of complex emotions that come with the feeling of delighting in another’s misfortune.

Since the early months that we added our second child into the family, fighting over my lap, or moreover my attention, has not ended.  The most fascinating aspect of this ongoing rivalry is the smug look of the victor when it is his or her turn to sit on my lap.  The Germans succinctly coined this look as “schadenfreude”.  Not only does the child delight in claiming the coveted lap, in this example, but he or she also relishes the fact that their sibling is, consequently, not getting this benefit.  Thrilling, yes.  Schadenfreude, absolutely.

Up until recently, scientists didn’t believe that young children were even capable of these complex, sinister thoughts.  It is hard enough to admit that each and everyone of us adults can feel schadenfreude from time to time.  How dare we project our malevolence onto the innocent nature of a young child?

In a recent study, researchers found evidence for the presence of schadenfreude in children as young as two years of age.  The explanation for the early presence of schadenfreude is that it is an important evolutionary mechanism, which results from the competition for scarce resources.  In the case of family life, the prized resource that sibling must vie for is the love and attention of their parents.

How can parents help their children to resist the inevitable evolutionary drive to hoard resources and, therefore, become the most fit sibling (or in many cases the loudest child willing to go to the furthest extreme to win the attention of mom and dad)?

#1 Sharing is Caring:

The trite aphorism “share is caring” can help to create a consistent system in which a child can come to understand the importance of taking turns sharing mom and dad.  In families, it is common to find a child who is willing to be loud, obnoxious and deviant to win proportionally more parental attention than his or her other siblings, who may equally crave parental attention, but are not willing to exert the same efforts.  Commonly, younger siblings and middle siblings are known to be among the most vocal in the shouting match.

The important lesson is to not overlook the child who isn’t willing to fight dirty for a turn with you.  In the case of lap sharing, this can take the form of creating a rotation system for lap-space.  For example, during storytime ensure that everyone is regularly offered a chance to sit on their parent’s lap regardless of age.  Even a the younger sibling can handle sitting next to mom or dad, occasionally, and will learn from the experience of watching their older sibling enjoy time on their parent’s lap.

#2 Empathy Training:  

*For advice and information on teaching children empathy, click here.

From my research and practical experience, I repeatedly find empathy to be one of key life-skills (second to self-control) that can predict happier and healthier outcomes for children.  The smug and vindictive smirk of schadenfreude is impossible to experience if a child is instead feeling compassion and concern for his siblings who is at a disadvantage.  The desire to claim scarce resources is natural and important for survival, but there is never a need to flaunt one’s victory.  Learning to care about other’s feelings and experiences is part nature and part nurture.  So, be gracious as kids learn, but also take advantage of opportunities to gently teach them the ins and outs of sharing and caring.

#3 Make Yourself Less Scarce:

Schadenfreude can only claim power over the minds of our children in so much that they feel the need to relish their victories.  The realities of life, of course, will limit how much of yourself that you can offer to your children.  When you can, try to weed out activities and habits that are not essential and that distract you from offering your entire attention to your children, at some point, daily.

This can practically take the form of turning the news off while you are home, putting your smart phone away (expect for when you absolutely require it) or choosing between the book club or PTA commitments instead trying to do both.  I’m not suggesting that you quit your job or turn down a promotion.  Rather, seek out small ways to free up some time in an effort to demonstrate to your child that they don’t have to fight with each other to feel loved by you.

P. On Mother's Lap My favorite gift for families who are expecting their second child.

So long as people exist, schadenfreude will persist, but we can at least try to reduce its presence in our homes.  One of my favorite stories to counteract the powers of schadenfreude is On Mother’s Lap by Ann Herbert Scott.  It is a beautiful story about a young Eskimo boy who is trying to find room on his mother’s lap for his favorite toys, puppy and then younger sibling.  The prose are simple and forgo preaching.  Instead, they whisper softly of the unchanging truth that there is no need for competition, because “there is always more room on mother’s lap.”


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