Saturday, June 18, 2011

How to Like and Other Things I've Learned From My Toddler

The other morning, my husband and I woke up to our son listing off the things he likes: "I like guacamole [he says huacadole]. I like fire truck. I like Finn [our dog]. I like playgroup. I like Oma." And so on.

Later that same day, a friend of ours commented, "You know, when someone sits next to me on the subway or in a meeting, I can instantly think of something I don't like about that person before they even open their mouth. But it's rare for me to instantly think of something I like about someone I don't know. And it's rare for me to even tell my friends the things I like about them."

I agreed with what he said. I too am guilty of finding myself next to someone on the subway and finding something I don't like about them. While I often give compliments, I don't know that I make a point to tell the people in life what I like about them. And I rarely ask the people in my life what they like.

I started to wonder, when it does switch from waking up as a two year old already thinking of the things you like to adulthood when you wake up thinking of the things you don't?

So chalk this up as another lesson I learned from my toddler. As a result, I too started listing the things I like about my life: my marriage, the gift of ease and communication I have with my husband, that my sister lives around the corner from me, that rhubarb is in season and that I know how to make strawberry-rhubarb pie, that every day my toddler son surprises me with the things he says, the things he’s learned to do for himself, or the experiences he remembers, that I’m pregnant with our second child, the library, napping, and oh, once I got started, I had a hard time stopping. Continuing to follow my son’s example, my husband and I started asking the people in our life what they like about their life.

And I started thinking of some of the other things I have learned from my toddler:

- He is growing and changing literally every day, and every day he becomes even more independent and self-sufficient – as long as I grant him the space to do so. It’s when I insist on doing something for him that he wants to do for himself that he gets frustrated and I see the seeds of a potential power struggle, so I back off. When I let him try to do more and more things for himself, and he does, the sense of accomplishment that I see lighten up his face makes me realize that doing too much for one’s child only disempowers them in the end. I realized – not for the first time – that most children are far more capable than we give them credit for.

I also realized though, that while I relate to my fast-growing son as someone who can do something new or who changes each day, I don’t grant the same gift to other people in my life. I assume everyone else stays the same; I forget or I don’t think about that they too are growing, learning, evolving, human beings. My parents, for instance, are getting older and they have different concerns than they did ten or fifteen years ago. Or I assume that some people in my life will always say and complain about the same things, but what if I approached them the way I do my son, like they may have something new to say?

- My son is an adventurous sort. He tries new foods (sushi! calamari!) and he tries to do things at the playground, even things that as a parent I might think still may be above him for a bit. He tries them anyway. And he keeps trying, over and over and over again. Sometimes he gets frustrated; sometimes he doesn’t. But watching him, I realized I don’t keep trying over and over again. My son keeps trying just to try and because he thinks it’s fun, while I give up out of frustration because I’m attached to the outcome I see in my head. But what if I too just kept trying new things just because – and not to achieve a particular outcome?

-I can give my son space, compassion, and patience for a lot of his behavior –or what some other people would call misbehavior – because I know that as a toddler he is driven not by thought and reason, but by emotions and he is just doing what toddlers do at his particular age. For me to expect him to do or be something different or not age appropriate (ie to sit quietly in a fine dining restaurant while my husband and I enjoy a multi course meal) would just be, well, dumb. So I don’t and consequently, I don’t get as frustrated with him.

It occurred to me that other people in my life are very similar, in that they are just doing the thing that they do, that it’s just who they are, and like my son, their behavior actually has very little to do with me. My grandmother giving me unsolicited advice because she gives everyone unsolicited advice? It’s just the thing she does. My neighbor who sits on his stoop and daily tells me the weather and that my son will either be too hot/cold/wet in what I have him dressed in? He does the same thing to everyone and it’s just his thing. I don’t take my son’s behavior personally; why should I take anyone else’s quirks and habits personally? (Do I still struggle with this one? Absofrickinglutely. But when I start to get irritated with my grandmother or other loved ones, I am better able to talk myself off the ledge.)

I’ve learned several other things from my son in my short life as a parent, but what do I learn every day? Be open - to who he is, to what’s next, to what’s possible, to what he needs (vs what I think or when I think his nap should be), to the unexpected, to the day ahead (vs attached to what happened or didn't happen yesterday) to play, to laugh, to life, and to the new things my toddler will teach me.


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