That was the reason a clinical psychologist in her thirties gave for her parents’ divorce when she was eight years old. She “knew better.” She was smart and well educated and, as an adult, fully aware that marriages didn’t break up over a glass of spilled milk. But sometimes—maybe when she was having a restless night—she was racked with the same fear she had felt that night when she spilled the glass of milk as she listened to her parents exchange angry words. Later, when they told her that they would be divorcing, that scene flashed before her eyes. She knew what had happened; it was all her fault.
Children, particularly young children, have very little actual control over the events in their lives. Adults tell them when to wake up and when to go to sleep; they decide which clothes and food and toys and activities are suitable. Even when they want to be in charge, children don’t have the skills or the resources to manage their lives. So they pretend. They can be mommy or daddy – a teacher, shopkeeper, policeman, movie star, prince or princess – just by the power of imagination, sometimes aided by a few props.
The world of fantasy knows no bounds. The magic that allows for wishing on a star is the same that gives spilled milk its destructive powers. Magical thinking leaves children convinced that their actions – or sometimes just their thoughts – can control adults’ behavior.
If bad thoughts or behavior can lead to catastrophic consequences, then it follows that good thoughts or behavior can make the world right again. Children who believe that they are responsible for their own misery may decide to take matters into their own hands. We wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the little girl who held herself responsible for her parents’ divorce suddenly announced that she no longer liked milk, having decided—without telling anyone—that drinking it just wasn’t worth the risk.
When we disrupt children’s lives, we are often quick to reassure them, “This is not your fault,” before asking them how they make sense of what is happening to them. If we stop to ask and are willing to wait patiently for the answers, we might learn the particular ways in which children explain their parents’ divorce, a parent’s failure to visit at an appointed time, or one of the many disappointments that we knowingly and inadvertently cause children.
“There’s no use crying over spilled milk,” may just miss the point entirely.
By Toni Heineman