I consider myself an informed and reflective person so I’m sharing a word of advice with you here on toddlerhood: training for the big leagues. But in the spirit of full disclosure, if you looked through my Amazon’s “recently viewed” feature, you would find a bag of unicorn farts in my account. So you can take this advice with a grain of salt.
Toddlers are hard.
Miss P is great with her little bro but she’s still an unpredictable three-year-old struggling to control her impulses. That’s a nice way of saying that sometimes, out of sheer frustration, she whacks him into next Wednesday.
A tactic that has been working for us lately: instead of just telling her things like “don’t touch that, share, don’t hit, no no no no” on an endless loop like a drunken speed-dating auctioneer, we’ve been asking her about feelings.
“How do you think your brother felt when you hit him like that? Do you think it made him sad? How do you feel after hitting him?” This comes after we’ve sat her down, probably taken away a toy, and made sure everyone is OK and calm.
This tactic of asking about feelings helps to create empathy, and I find it easier to do because I have been practicing this on myself lately, too.
Spoiler alert: the results have been pretty fucking glorious.
For example, I’m asking myself how I feel about certain things rather than what I think I should do or what I’ve been automatically trained to do. You might be thinking, duh, Ali, this is pretty freaking obvious, but I’ve found that even if we know this, daily life makes us forget it on a regular basis.
Before we know it we are back on the hamster wheel and over-committing ourselves with to-do lists and unending people-pleasing. But checking in with my own feelings helps me prioritize and weed out those things that may seem important but actually are time-suckers that don’t do anything to make my soul happy.
Back to the toddler. This approach of checking in with her own emotions, and those of others, has been encouraging her to think for herself while empathizing at the same time. It goes beyond the logistics (“don’t hit because hitting is bad and mommy and daddy will punish you and take away your toy”) into the emotional (“this is why we don’t hit, acting like this makes us all feel bad inside”). It helps her understand it without making her feel she is inherently bad. Because she’s not – this is normal. And I think it’s the connecting emotionally that will serve her better in the future.
I can see that it’s working because she is getting much better with her brother. She will still hit sometimes but now once she’s calmed down, and without any prompting from us, she will check on him, apologize, and give him a hug. She’s even gone so far as to say, before kissing him goodnight, “I’m sorry I pushed you at breakfast, Ciro”. She also constantly flips through books or magazines, points to people’s faces and says things like “Mama, she’s happy!” or “Mama, why is he sad?” or “What is he thinking about?”
She’s become much better at explaining her own feelings to me, too, catching me off-guard with things like “but mommy I don’t feel happy about going to (fill-in-the-blank)” which has on multiple occasions made me do an about-face at the door and realize: you know what? Neither do I. Let’s stay home and watch a movie together and stop overcommitting ourselves.
And she’s speaking up for herself. My proudest moment yet as a parent was when I picked her up from preschool one day and her teacher told me: “A little boy in class was poking at her face today and before I could intervene, Penelope yelled, ‘Hey! I don’t like that and you better stop right now!'” It made me even happier that her teacher was just as ecstatic about it as I was.
I view toddlerhood as training for the big leagues. If I want her to trust me, to come to me with her problems well into adolescence when I know things are going to get dicey, then I need to establish that solid connection from now. If we want her to be empathetic, we need to treat her with empathy. If we want her to be in touch with her own feelings and be a strong person who knows what she wants, and to not be coerced into what others may want at the expense of her own will or happiness, we need to help her hone those skills from now.
We’re laying the canvas for what’s to come later, and if we brush her off or treat her as if she is incapable, or teach her that we are unapproachable, that is the way she will likely operate with us as she grows older. We all know that how we speak to our children becomes their inner voice. I want hers to continue to be the empathetic and strong one it already is.
But for the record, as much as I’m trying my best, I am becoming more accepting of myself when I screw up. Because I think it’s kind of OK for my children to fear me every now and then. Is that so bad? Not like, “oh no here comes mommy everyone duck and cover,” but maybe just enough that it makes them think twice about doing something they shouldn’t. Like a once-a-year eruption, where they experience scary octaves in my voice and see my face contort into a sub-human creature of nightmares, to let them know that the monster lives inside me and they best not wake it? To know that sometimes daddy loses his shit because he’s human, too? I think that’s a healthy balance – don’t you?
Even though sometimes toddlerhood can be an annoying, taxing, sanity-robbing, gray-hair-inducing time, taking this approach has taken the intensity down a few notches around here. It’s a win-win because operating within this frame of mind helps me to get through the tough times a little bit easier. Because when it comes to toddlerhood, I’ll take all the help I can get.
And if I am wrong, and this fails miserably with my kids and myself, at least I can drown myself in a big bag of unicorn farts.