I always assumed that being a parent meant teaching my children the basic skills–and with luck, perhaps a few extras they’d need to become productive members of society. As it turns out, I’m learning just as much about life from them. Remember that book, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten? I think the lessons start much earlier. Here are some that I’ve learned:
Lesson 1. Be yourself. Somewhere along the way, we–or at least I–got caught up in worrying about how others see us. We put on our best face and maybe if we’re starting to wear our hearts on our sleeve, we throw on a cardigan. I’m not advocating for throwing public temper tantrums or sob fests, but I’ve noticed that if my kids are tired or otherwise having a cranky day, they don’t hide their feelings and most people cut them slack. As adults, we’re quick to dismiss others as rude or snobby when they might simply be having a bad day.
Perhaps one of the worst places for a kid to lose it is on a typical commercial airliner when 100-plus people are stuck riding out the tantrum. When I flew alone with both my kids (ages 3 and 1), from Virginia to Florida, I felt prepared for anything. Except for what I got: My daughter, Ellie, decided to flip out at the end of the flight.
I spent the descent trying–mostly unsuccessfully–to catch my daughter’s vomit in a barf bag. If anyone made negative comments while Screampuke Fest 2013 was happening, I didn’t hear them. I couldn’t have because Ellie’s hysteria set her brother off, too–although he kept his cookies in. When the plane landed, it would have been easy, understandable even, for everyone on that full flight to bolt past us fleeing the screaming and the smell. But a man clad in a business suit stopped and offered to take one of my carry-ons off for me. He didn’t take my daughter’s behavior personally, and he didn’t judge me for not getting her under control. He just smiled and took my bag to the jet bridge.
Lesson 2. Forgive and forget. Kids don’t hold grudges. My daughter might be crying tears of pure sadness one minute because her friend took a toy/cookie/cup/book/ball/Lego she wanted, but moments later, they are back to playing together. Of course, the heart of their dispute seems pretty trivial compared to what adults may disagree about (think: Republicans and Democrats, Putin and Obama, Israelis and Palestinians), but it’s relative and age-appropriate; the trauma is the same. I’ve had to learn not to be condescending–“Oh, you have a zillion dolls. It’s silly to get upset because your friend wants to hold the same one you do”–and instead empathize because the pain is real. But so are the perseverance and forgiveness. Children are quick to give second chances.
During a recent play date, Ellie started sobbing because her friend wouldn’t play the way Ellie wanted her to. My first reaction was to say, “Ohmigod, this qualifies as a problem worth crying about?” I didn’t say that, though. Instead, I put myself in her shoes and thought about the heart of the issue: Ellie had a plan and her friend was an obstacle to carrying it out. We adults know how that feels, and it feels annoying. I suggested they find a compromise. Through sniffles, she said to her friend, “Want to play my way for a little while and then we can play your way?” Problem solved. (And yes, I know all too well that it’s not always so easy.) More than that, my daughter didn’t say later, “I don’t want her to come over anymore,” or “She sure is mean.” She hugged her friend goodbye and said, “See you soon.”
Lesson 3. Speak up for what you want and negotiate. Playground dynamics are tough to watch. But if, like a preschooler in the sandbox, you dig past the surface grit, you’ll find something fresher: an ability to be straightforward. Children aren’t afraid to say to other kids, “I want that shovel,” or “I was next to go down the slide.” And they aren’t upset when they work out a disagreement on their own. As long as a parent doesn’t jump in too quickly, kids work out their own compromise and stick to it.
At a local play gym, there’s one slide. Many youngsters under age 5 and one slide is a bad, bad combination. Ellie tends to be cautious, opting not to push her way through to get where she wants to be, so she often waits patiently only to be literally nudged out of the way by another child. She used to get upset, but somewhere along the way, she learned to stick up for herself. Now instead of standing there pouting until every kid has cleared a three-foot radius, she says, “I’ve been waiting. You go after me.” And 90 percent of the time, it works. Maybe the other kid is stunned frozen or maybe she or he just gets it. Whatever the case, I’ve never seen anyone my daughter told to wait throw a fit.
Lesson 4. Embrace attention. Many adults, celebrities-and-politicians-who-shall-remain-nameless aside, don’t handle attention well, deflecting it and even avoiding it. That’s a far cry from the kids who scream, “Watch me!” every 18 seconds on the playground or even in the house, excited to show off a new skill. At some point–and I’m not sure when–we learn that being proud of our accomplishments and abilities is a private matter, but maybe it shouldn’t be. Other youngsters don’t get jealous or mad when their peer yells, “Look what I can do!” Instead, they’re motivated to try, too, or at the very least offer a “Cool!”
My son, Jared, had to do several months of physical therapy to learn to crawl. When he finally lurched forward on his own, I felt a mix of accomplishment and pride unlike any I’d felt before. I wanted to ask the cable news channels to put out news alerts announcing Jared’s new found skill. I decided a status update on Facebook was good enough. As I started to type it, I found myself second-guessing what I was doing. Am I being THAT mom? The one who annoys people by only posting about her kids, because, let’s be honest, I do post about them a lot. Are people going to roll their eyes and think, “Seriously, pretty much everybody crawls. Get over yourself?”
Excitement overruled the doubt and I quickly hit “Post.” The likes started pouring in along with comments such as “Go, Jared!” and “I’ve been waiting for this post.” No one faulted me for being proud and wanting to share it–or at least if they did, they were kind enough not to say as much to me.
Lesson 5. Be OK with being imperfect. My kids are teaching me other things, such as how to be patient, a quality I sorely lack, as they try out new stuff. For instance, Ellie likes to buckle her own seat belt now (how could it possibly take so long and why does she struggle more when we’re running late?), and Jared wants to use utensils to feed himself (how far does physics say yogurt can fly?).
I’m learning to raise my voice less (most of the time–fine, sometimes). I’m learning to be one with the mess. I’m learning to think more about what I do as I see my actions and words mirrored in those of my kids. (When my daughter was 18 months old, we made a pact with each other to stop saying the F-word.) Some days I am good and others not so much, but I try and I hope that shows.
The point is my kids aren’t perfect, and they’re OK with that. I am, too.