Thursday, June 24, 2010

Remember how young your children are (and you, too)

boy in reusable shopping bag 3I've had several occasions recently (and here's where I reveal what an imperfect mother I am) where I'm behaving like a total self-righteous and selfish jerk to my kid — like, say, intentionally ignoring him because he "offended" me — when suddenly I'll see his face — I mean that it will really penetrate my consciousness, not just float around the periphery — and it will come home to me: This is still a child. This is still a baby I'm talking to. This is a 3-year-old I'm having a spat with.

And then I realize how immature my maturity is.

I think sometimes it's easy for us to lose track of how young our children are, especially when they're astounding us by the leaps and bounds they're taking in their development. I wrote before that I was glad Mikko was a "late" talker,1 because it allowed me the clarity to see him as very young and very immature in a way it might have proven impossible as he gained vocabulary:

But I think it gets even worse once babies can talk. Because, now, hoo boy, they must be all growed up and understand everything.

And so you get parents who interpret tantrums not as understandable frustration with not being able to make the world work the way these burgeoning young things want it to, but as intentional and adversarial misbehavior, of crossing a line that (I believe) they didn't know was there to be crossed.

So I'm glad Mikko's not that verbally adept yet. It keeps me humbly considering him still to be a baby and not a malicious mastermind. He must not know that taking all my makeup out of the drawer might be not just an exploration of color and texture but an inconvenience for me, or that pouring his drink on the sofa might not be just a fun experiment in liquids and gravity but an unholy mess for me to clean.

Here's hoping I'll keep that perspective once he can verbalize his intentions and motivations, even if they're at odds with mine.

It turns out I was right (about myself). Now that Mikko can talk so well, I forget sometimes that 3 years old is still, for all intents and purposes, very, very young. He's trying to express himself, but sometimes he gets it wrong. He's trying to understand everything we say, but sometimes he doesn't, even when we think he does.

Just tonight, for instance, our cat sauntered up to us. "Oh, look, Mikko," I said, "Mrs. Pim is saying hello to us."

"No, Mama," says he, patiently. "Mrs. Pim not say 'hello.' She say 'meow'."

In an older child, this would be a joke or sarcasm; in a 3-year-old, it's just a presentation of fact.

I can see this when I'm unemotional and really listening and using my senses to perceive whether he's understanding me or not. When I'm in the middle of anger or frustration is when I lose sight of his sweet baby face — those rounded cheeks and snub nose and wide eyes that should, at all times, remind me he is not an adult and can't be expected to behave like one.

But, you know, I also forgive myself. Because I've had the experience, and maybe you have too, of remembering some sin I committed years ago. For years, there was something I'd done as a 4-year-old that haunted and embarrassed me. One day a few years back, I was watching a 4-year-old play, and it hit me: That 4-year-old me was worthy of forgiveness; she didn't know what she was doing. I might have thought I did, but I was still learning then, still feeling my way. If a 4-year-old now behaved as I did then, I would forgive her without a second thought, realizing that 4 years old is too young for lifelong accountability. Finally, I was able to afford myself that same peace.

I've been watching Joy Nash's videos (reintroduced to me by Arwyn at Raising My Boychick), and "Fat Rant 3: Staircase Wit" has this lovely section at the end where she asks us to look at pictures of ourselves ten years ago and see how dang cute we were — and then remember how harshly we were judging ourselves at the time.

She intends it physically, but it applies in other aspects, too. It's easy in the moment to think about how horrible you are, and how every time you try to act a certain way, you invariably end up acting exactly the opposite — but Future You will be more forgiving, more aware of the fact that you were in transition then, that you were still evolving and changing and becoming and finding your feet.

This is how, ideally, we see our children. And when we stumble, it is ideally how we see ourselves. In ten years, you'll look back on your children as they are now and wonder why on earth you got so bent out of shape over the little things, how you could ever have imagined evil intentions coming from those pursed lips and tiny fingers. And in ten years, you'll look back on yourself as a parent now and see all the ways you were growing and changing and working things through, and you'll — hopefully — have compassion.

So have that compassion now — both on your child, and on yourself.

1 When, of course, we know he was not late; he was later than average but still within the normal range.


Liz Mays said...

How incredibly honest, but the fact that you recognize it happens is going to help you combat it! I know you're not alone though! I kinda remember doing the same thing myself from time to time!

Elita said...

Yes, this is really important to remember. I try to put myself in my son's shoes, how hard it would be to have very little control over your life. To be told when to go to sleep and to not get to eat chicken nuggets for breakfast when you want them, to have to go to the grocery store when you just want to go to the park. Heck, I feel like that sometimes and I'm in my 30s.

Dionna @ Code Name: Mama said...

If it were possible for me to remember this AND to remember that Kieran is not *trying* to inconvenience/anger me, I think I'd be a much more gentle parent. It's a work in progress.

Rachel said...

This is the thing I loved about The Virgin of Bennington by Kathleen Norris. She writes about her own young adulthood, looking back from a distance of 20 or more years, and the compassion that older Kathleen the author has for younger Kathleen the subject is palpable. As a young adult struggling mightily to have it all together, I found the perspective that OF COURSE no one in their 20s has it all together -- and that's okay! -- to be a great comfort.

Janelle said...

This post came at the right time for me. My 3 year old and ihave been in an escalating temper tantrum this week. Looking back I'm ashamed of my actions. Now I'm making sure I really look at my little guy before I react. Thanks for the great post!

Anonymous said...

I have been thinking a lot about this lately, even just as recently as today.

My boy is only 15 months, but it already dawned on me 3 months ago or so how much more people (myself at times) expected of him all of a sudden. It was okay that as a baby he would cry to express a need, but it no longer seems okay that he would, say, "tantrum" to express a frustration. The poor kid must be thinking, I don't really cry like an infant anymore and I don't yet have the words to tell you what's upsetting me: what else, in fact, would you like me to do?

But tonight I was being the immature person. He wouldn't fall asleep, so I stayed in his room with him as he played, but almost as if I were offended that he was cutting into my private time, so often coming only when he sleeps. I sat there stewing for a while, and then he just kept coming up to me to bring me a ball or a Little People person and how could I not look at him and realize what a fool I was being and say "thank you" and want to play with him?

I try to always tell myself that he's not doing whatever he's doing to annoy me, but it is hard to remember sometimes, in the moment. And I'm his mama. It seems much harder for everyone else to accept this. Sigh.

Anonymous said...

I found that this got even worse when I had a second child. Suddenly my 3 1/2 year old seemed HUGE. And MATURE. And I think it made my expectations increase, because compared to her newborn baby brother she was these things. But she was also still very young herself, and still is almost 2 years later. Comparisons have a way of tricking you, I think.

Brooke said...

Oh wow. Occasionally I read a post that I know I'll think about for weeks after and this is one of them. I needed the reminder for compassion. Thanks for the wonderful post :)

Kristin @ Intrepid Murmurings said...

Excellent post. I think about and struggle with this daily. I have a really hard time being calm and respectful in the heat of moment, when my girls are driving me nuts or doing something when I feel like they should "know better". And I know when I am judging them or being negative, they are being even harder on themselves.

Its hard! But so important to keep in mind and keep working on.

Lisa C said...

All of a sudden lately I've gotten it into my mind that Michael should come to me the second I call him, which, of course, means I'm getting irritated with him all day long. All because a few weeks ago he suddenly took a huge developmental leap. Just before I read your post, I was reminding myself how young he is and that I was probably expecting too much out of him.

Michelle @ The Parent Vortex said...

This is SO TRUE. Bea is a highly vocal kid with a huge vocabulary for her age, and I do catch myself assuming she has more ability to reason than she actually has. But she is still really little.

Excellent post.

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