Wednesday, May 23, 2012

What I Love about the Rough Toddler/Preschooler Stage

Whether it's called the terrible twos, the terrible threes, or some other words that describe how frustrating parenting a young child can be, we all know that at one point or another we will hit a wall with even the most gently parented and fiercely loved toddler or pre-schooler. In short, everyone has a rough patch with their kids. We wait for months and years to hear what our lovies have to say and to experience all of their thoughts and opinions and then, well, and then they start sharing. The good, the challenging, and even the ugly. Part of it is just the shock of encountering the unfiltered and unmitigated thoughts and feelings of another human being. As we matured into grown ups, we got used to the social niceties of others filtering their raw emotions and thoughts and when our children hit us full force with their stream of consciousness and emotions, it can be overwhelming. Our children, unlike our spouses, or our siblings, or our parents have trusted us with their every need, feeling, and whim from the very beginning. They don't know that just because they are old enough now to put it all into words, that we will respond to them any differently and yet, we do. Before a child can communicate in words, we see them as little humans, but we don't see them as completely distinct from us. Even their first words we often see as parrots of our own words, but when they can talk, cry, joke, and throw temper tantrums, they become scarily distant from us. For the first time, they become completely "other." They are unpredictable and that can be quite the test for us. However, no matter how strong my son's tempter tantrums have become (when they occur, which is thankfully rare right now), and however frustrating his new "maturity" and communication ability can sometimes make the day to day business of our house, I've also found that this "difficult" stage is really one of my favorites. Not because of the challenge exactly, but because of what the challenge means. You see, for the first time, I am being faced head on, not with who I think my son will be or how I predict he will be or even how I interpret him to be, but how he really is in his own words. I am seeing both the seeds of his success and triumph and the potential for his self-destruction, sometimes even in the same breath and I love him all the more for it, even as I struggle to keep myself from throwing up my hands and walking away. For example, he has a wicked bossy streak. He wants to plan everything and be in charge of every detail. He tries to direct everyone and everything from his parents, to the dog, to every other child he meets. This means that play dates can be challenging and it is difficult to make him understand that he cannot always be in charge (although it is a lesson that he is learning quickly). He also has a strong shepherding streak. Not only does he want to direct everyone, but he also wants to know where everyone is all the time and to take care of their every perceived need from his duckies (his favorite toys) to his cars (his current second favorite toys) to every relative in the vicinity. This makes for both some tender moments, like when he makes sure to feed his duckies when they are hungry and tucks them each into bed together, but also some very frustrating ones like when I can't find the car "family" he wants so he is throwing an outrageous fit because they "need" to be with "somebody" and they are "sad" and "scared" and "somebody needs to find them." He cried for a solid twenty minutes in the grocery store after I recently dropped off the dog at boarding before a family vacation. He was frustrated that I was not following his orders to either let him stay at the "doggie hotel" with our family pet or "go get her so whole family be together" (sic). (See how he's learning, he's picked up that I usually give him two choices so that I can maintain control while still giving him some autonomy and he's started trying to use that trick on me!) That's a brief example of some of his personality traits and how they add to day to day frustrations, but here's what I see beyond that. My son, my baby, (I'm realizing) is a leader and not just any leader, one with a strong compassionate and caring streak. This means that he has within him the ability to be exactly the kind of person who should be in authority. He has the means, intelligence and determination, not only to get people to do what they ought to be doing, but, also, to care for them at the same time and to take other's feelings and needs into account. These same traits that could lead him to be too bossy or to be too easily hurt by other's pain, if left untempered or unguided as they are now, could one day hurt him or undercut his own natural abilities, but if I work to give him the tools to shape them just right. . .well, wow, he is already showing signs that he is someone that the world definitely needs! I've learned to let go of the illusion that I can control my child and have instead embraced the idea that I can control my own actions and use them to teach him how to control himself. It requires a lot of deep breathing and letting go on my part which is really hard for me because I, like my son, have a strong bossy streak. However rough our days get and however often I find myself fighting both him and myself in these tumultuous toddler times, I will end this tough period with an even greater since of awe of who my son is and the strength of his spirit and self-determination (and my own). Perhaps, what we identify as our greatest challenges with our head strong, determined toddlers are also the root of our children's greatest strengths and the parts of our children's identities that they hold most dear and are, therefore, the parts that they are most resistant to let us shape. What's great about this period is that through these challenges, we glimpse what will be their (and maybe our) greatest triumphs in their growth if we can just hold on tight and continue to guide them, even when they are convinced that they can and should be guiding themselves. When times are their toughest, I try to hold on to that and, I'm finding, that, soon enough I do see a glimmer of growth and even deeper connection between us as parent and child. Thanks for reading, Shawna


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