The other day I woke up late, congested from a double whammy of bad allergies and a cold, to the high-pitched whines of one kid arguing that a nature show is not “a real movie” and the other running around with a poop-filled diaper, refusing to be changed. It was 7:57 a.m. and I had to take my older son to an appointment in exactly 33 minutes. But first, I had to fully open my eyes, feed the dog, fill a Star Wars lunchbox with semi-nutritious snacks, change that diaper, and get myself dressed. Luckily, it was not a shower day. I mean, for me. (Since having children, I have completely embraced a reality that does not always involve consecutive days of bathing, but this is a discussion for another time.)
When we were all finally out the door, my younger son ran to push the lobby “star” button in the elevator and my older son quickly pushed it instead, sending the younger into a predictable episode of toddler fury. Perhaps because I’m an only child and don’t personally understand the obligation siblings have to annoy each other, this kind of scene always infuriates me. It is mean-spirited, causes fussing and chaos, and ultimately makes it harder to get everyone to where they need to go.
While my husband took our now calm younger son to school, my older son and I ran to catch a taxi. Since jogging and parenting is such a good combo, I took the opportunity to explain to him why he shouldn’t be such an a-hole to his brother (I am paraphrasing here). For whatever reason, I always feel compelled to tell my kids I love them and say something positive after I scold them (I also can’t believe I’m now someone who uses the word scold). So I added that I think he’s a very smart, nice boy, and Mommy and Daddy love him, and that he should just make a better choice next time.
Of course when we arrived at the doctor’s office, nobody was thinking of elevators or the need for brotherly love. And that’s not just because 5-year-olds don’t care what you say, but also because the receptionist was unable to find our appointment! I swore it was the right day and she insisted it was for the following week. She also said that the doctor simply could not see us even if we wanted to wait. Eeehh!
So we got back in a cab, and three blocks in we got stuck in traffic for what seems like eons. I could feel myself getting impatient and huffy, thinking about my long day ahead and the mess of a morning already. I passive aggressively muttered (to no one and everyone) that we should’ve taken another street, while I’m texting too many people at once. I started telling my son directly that this traffic (and this morning) stinks. And then I looked up at him and asked myself: what the hell am I doing? I realized I was wrongly showing him that if things don’t go your way, you whine and sigh and complain about innocuous things that now can’t be changed. I was most certainly making a bad choice at that moment.
Unfortunately, the instant you realize the impact of your negative words and actions—and that it’s useless to get so worked up—is also when you know it’s too late, and you can’t take any of it back. Also unfortunately, I am of a particular breed of human that tends to focus on “mistakes,” so I remember many of the instances I would’ve like to pause, rewind, and redo. This is an especially frequent truth to arrive at as a parent. But really, all I can do—all any of us can do—is acknowledge the error and commit to making a better choice next time. Or at least try to. Which, of course, is just what I was telling my son to do earlier.
Some of the “bad” choices we make are small, and relatively benign, even if we regret them—like eating a dry unspectacular donut from a street cart in New York City. Others, of course, can be very serious and hurtful, like participating in any form of bullying or intentional exclusion (at any level or age…I won’t even get into current world politics). But the small moments, and the way we handle them, add up, and essentially turn us into the people we are. This is why I was making an example of the relatively harmless elevator incident for my son, and also why I am making the taxi an example of my own less than super star behavior. These moments matter.
These are also a reminder (to myself and anyone reading this) that sometimes, it’s hard to make a good choice. This is absolutely true for a child—who is psychologically and emotionally ill-equipped to deal with uncomfortable or unpleasant situations in the first place. But it is true for adults too—evidenced, if by nothing else, the clear difficulty that we often have as grown-ups to do so (see: taxi example). But the best part of my revelation—though no easier to remember—is that we can each do better, and almost always have the chance to the next time around.
So if I hope for and expect my son to learn not to tease his brother—or learn to show concern when a friend gets hurt, or to withhold unhelpful complaints and negative commentary, or to practice patience, and so many other things—then I can surely learn to let go of minor inconveniences and frustration, and in particular make more of my own choices from an empathetic perspective.
It also wouldn’t hurt to be more discerning about baked goods, but that might be an even harder lesson to learn.