Okay, I’m lying. It is important what he said.
He said “Dada’s nice and Mama’s not.” Ouch.
Context: I had one of my least exemplary days as a Mama yesterday; our little guy is cutting a molar and is waking to nurse more than his usual five times a night, since we came home from vacation with my in-laws, my kids seem bored out of their minds in a house full of toys that they supposedly used to love (if affection for toys is to be measured by how much time they spend playing with them), and I go back to filming in a few days and have a trillion things to do and not enough time to do them.
That’s no excuse for being impatient, short, and sarcastic with my kids, though, and I know that.
But when my 5-year-old quite innocently uttered that hurtful but accurate-for-the-moment phrase (“Dada’s nice and Mama’s not”), the “learning moment” from the whole miserable day was that, as I started to well up with tears and I gently said, “That hurt my feelings,” the 5 year old–unprompted–said to me in a small but sincere voice, “Mama, I’m sorry I hurt your feelings.”
I quietly left the room not in a stormy punishment, but as a retreat of shame, and also to contemplate a victory of sorts.
You see, my husband and I are of a philosophy that we do not encourage our children to “Say you’re sorry!” or “Say please!” or even “Say thank you!” We teach these niceties by example and modeling, and for us, it has worked. Our older son has indeed developed into a “polite” and “well-mannered” little person who knows when to use the phrases I know that so many parents think you have to force your child to utter.
The “Mama’s not nice” example is a good demonstration of what has, in our family, worked. My son saw that my feelings were hurt, and for that he was genuinely sorry. That’s empathy. I was not accusing him of being “wrong” nor did I ask that he “take that back!”
For me, parenting has been an amazing opportunity to both be called on my crap and to teach the next generation that I may be bigger and stronger, but I am not always “better” at managing my difficult emotions. Being real in the presence of my children, allowing myself to fail, admitting when I do, and not requiring that a child’s reality be twisted to justify my behavior makes me grateful to be a mother in this age of awareness and child-centered parenting.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I am going to take a deep breath, and try and make today better than yesterday. I may not succeed, but I know that, if nothing else, that empathetic 5 year old will keep me honest.