- We Don’t Throw SandUncovering the Impulse Towards Others
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It wasn’t my finest parenting moment—that much was clear. My daughter Sophie was just under two, and we’d taken a long weekend trip to the North Carolina coastline to get away from the early snows and play on the beach. We’d taken our towels and plastic shovels out to the beach, and my husband Philippe had gone inside for his sunglasses. The day was a gorgeous one—brighter and sunnier than any in recent memory, with a direct light that made me squint.
We hadn’t been to the beach in a while—the closest we’d gotten was a water table filled with toy boats on our common roof deck. Most recently, Sophie had played in the season’s first snow, laughing and throwing loose snowballs in Philippe’s and my face as she rolled around. We were grateful for the trip, grateful to get away at a time when the weather was sure to get worse.
Only a few minutes after we arrived, a girl a bit taller than Sophie sat down near us with a blond, freckled woman. With only a few others on the beach, we introduced ourselves—she was a high school English teacher who “needed a break.” I nodded and watched as her daughter and Sophie began to play together, or rather argue over whose toy was whose. Coaxing each of them to trade a toy, we laughed at their half-successful, parent-induced attempts to “share.”
The two of them were playing in silence, digging and scratching for shells in the sand, when all of a sudden, Sophie took a big handful of sand and threw it straight in her new friend’s face. Her friend, without hesitation, started wailing and rubbing her eyes, crying that she had gotten sand in her eyes, that she couldn’t see. I was alarmed, and the child’s mother was too, holding her daughter tight, pleading with her to open her eyes, even a crack. Who knew if it was truth or melodrama—the point was, the girl was in pain, and Sophie was the one who had caused it. Racing down the beach with Sophie trailing behind, I grabbed a bottle of water I’d left near my towel. “Here, take this,” I offered. “Sorry. I’m so sorry.” The girl’s mother gave a half-nod and took it, tipping her daughter’s chin up to rinse her eyes.
Sophie stared at her new friend—or non-friend, rather—blankly watching the scene unfold under the midday sun. Her face had the look of someone who’d only recently awoken from a dream. “She’s hurt,” I tried to explain to her, knowing it wasn’t the worst thing that could have happened—she’d been around her share of biters—but upset and mystified, and frankly embarrassed, at how completely unprovoked it seemed. I’d rarely seen Sophie act angrily for no clear reason—and this time, she’d hardly even interacted with the girl before throwing sand.
I asked Sophie to apologize—one time, two—but she continued just to watch me, her face a puzzle, shaking her head. I ended up apologizing for her, I suppose because I felt I had to, that the injury was, by extension, my fault. The girl appeared to be fine in the end, and as we walked away, I wondered whether we’d heightened the drama by reacting so strongly.
Once it was just the two of us, I asked Sophie what had happened. It was her apparent lack of empathy I didn’t understand, the fact that she sat and didn’t react as the girl cried.
“I didn’t know that sand hurt,” she said, with a face in a sadder pout than I’d ever seen.
Suddenly it came to...