Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Just shut up already

I ran across a quote the other day that made me really stop and think, and I found myself coming back to it over and over again for days afterwards.

"Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them."
-James A. Baldwin

I know absolutely nothing about James A. Baldwin, but after reading this quote, finding out more is on my (never-ending) list of things to do, for the simple, effective wisdom contained within this quote is astounding. 

I like to talk. A lot. I've been told many times by friends and family that one of their favourite pastimes is to simply get me a bit (lot?) intoxicated and then sit back and listen to my (never-ending) musings, rants, whathaveyous. It's quite flattering, I must say, because truly, it's one of my favourite pastimes as well. 

But children don't want to listen to that shit. Endlessly lecturing children on the rights and wrongs and acceptables and unacceptables of life is a surefire way to encourage them to tune you out completely. But socializing my children is my job. In addition to the basics of care and providing endless love and cuddles, my job is to teach them the appropriate way to act and interact in every situation. And they aren't lessons that get taught, reviewed, tested and then forgotten. They are lessons that are integral to almost every single waking moment of our day. The repetition is endless. ENDLESS. With two toddlers, it's actually BEYOND endless. And I have zero clue what resides beyond endless, but it's definitely that.

And the stakes and intensity are increasing by the day. Two, as all parents know, is an entirely different beast than the baby years that precede it. Their language and understanding and creativity and experimentation are growing by leaps and bounds every single day. It is absolutely awe-inspiring to watch. But that also means the challenges are growing by the day as well, and I have found myself falling into the "do as I say, not as I do" trap more and more often. 

I will share a truth with you: I am not perfect. I know, I know. But you must get used to disappointment around here. And so that means that my interactions with my children are not always perfect. Sometimes they're downright absurd when I stop and really think about them. For instance, The Goblin Queen gets pretty bent out of shape about, well, about a lot of things, but the one that's REALLY getting to me these days is that she loses it when I have to go to the bathroom. She. Can't. Handle. It. Even if I pick her up and bring her with me and let her hang out and apply lotion or powder or line my tampons up on the edge of the tub or whatever suits her fancy that day, she just freaks and generally stands in front of me crying while trying to crawl into my lap (I finally put the kibosh on her sitting in my lap while on the toilet recently--boundaries, people, boundaries). And do you know how fucking annoying it is to have a very small person, and sometimes two very small people, lose their minds every single time you announce you have to use the facilities? Let me assure you, IT'S VERY FUCKING ANNOYING. So I, naturally, GET ANNOYED and I find myself freaking out and telling her to just CALM DOWN. And the irony of telling someone to calm down while you are yourself freaking out is really just too much, no? 

But the reality is that getting on your high horse and lecturing someone about appropriate behaviour is infinitely easier than modeling said behaviour--yet worlds less effective, and more work in the end, as you find yourself having the same one-sided conversation again and again...and again. And while modeling the behaviours we want to foster in our children is absolutely challenging and requires focus and patience, it is perhaps a tad easier than it may at first glance seem because of one simple fact: Our children are watching and listening and processing everything we do and say, all the time, in a (never-ending) insatiable quest to learn, learn, learn. So in a way, modeling things we want to see in our children is a passive endeavour. We're already doing it--whether it's having the desired effect is the question.

Having read that quote a week or so ago, I became more conscious of some behaviours already present in TGQ especially that come directly from The Barbarian and me without our ever having focused on making them a lesson, and it's definitely a mixed bag. The one that snapped me back to reality was witnessing her twice now bite her nails. SHIT. Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit. I have battled with nail-biting my entire life, and although the practice and its effects have lessened considerably over the years (I actually have nails and intact skin around them now), I do absolutely still bite my nails. It's more of a grooming style at this point, though. The Barbarian has taken the place of my father in admonishing me to just cut the damn thing and be done with it, but when I have a nail splitting, I bite it off. It's infinitely quicker and more convenient. I mean, ostensibly, that's what teeth are for, right? They're tools. Just as fingers are tools to pick boogers. I'm pretty sure we're born with the equipment needed for basic self-care. We wouldn't have gotten very far as a species if we found ourselves otherwise. BUT. Having said that, biting nails just for the sake of biting them is a habit I don't really want to encourage in my children, especially not at two years old. So being aware of and changing that habit has now been added to my (never-ending) list of things to do.

But the other behaviour we've noticed in TGQ in the past few days has really blown me away. We're proponents of the philosophy that does not encourage children to apologize, as they simply just don't understand the concept and empathy cannot be forcibly taught that way. It also often creates a reality for children where saying "sorry," regardless of whether there's actual meaning and sincerity behind it, gives them an automatic pass and excuses the behaviour (kind of like confession, no?). I witnessed this countless times as a nanny, children doing something they knew was solidly in the asshole category and then just tossing out an obnoxious, flippant "sorry," and moving on. It always riled me, even though I fell into the pattern of demanding sorries from my charges as well. I thought it was just what you did. 

But, turns out, it's not "just what you do," so we consciously choose to not do it--which makes the fact that TGQ has started apologizing, with a downcast look and obvious sincerity at appropriate times that much more amazing. The first time it happened, I was bringing their lunch (or dinner...the details of life often escape me these days) to the table, and as I walked behind her chair to set King Toad Agooga's plate down, she pulled her chair back so she could climb in, and toe and chair leg made an undeniably painful acquaintance. I made some noise appropriate to the situation and bent over cringing for a few seconds. The Barbarian asked what had happened, so I said briefly that she moved her chair just as I was walking past and I stubbed my toe, at which point I heard a very soft, "I'm sorry, Mama." I looked over and she was sitting in her chair, slumping a bit with her chin on her chest, looking downright dejected. I nearly started crying. I hadn't said anything directly to her, nor said more about it to The Barbarian than just relaying the simple facts, but it was enough for her to ascertain that her action caused me pain--and she genuinely felt terrible about it. So terrible, in fact, that she uttered a phrase we've never, ever asked her to say, but one that she has heard countless times from us.

The Barbarian and I are both extremely compassionate people, and we have very big emotions and we work very hard on acknowledging and accepting each other's feelings and communicating in a compassionate way about everything. So it's not uncommon to hear us saying we're sorry to each other for inadvertently hurting the other's feelings or because something bad or sad happened to the other that day or for various other reasons. But it doesn't stop there. We also apologize to and commiserate with our children on a regular basis. We say we're sorry when we acknowledge that they would rather stay up and play instead of have a nap, or continue playing outside when it's time to come in for dinner. We tell them we're sorry when one of them hurts themselves or when one of them hurts the other. And we tell them we're sorry when we fuck up, when we misunderstand what they're trying to tell us, or accidentally hurt them, or get frustrated and angry and lose our patience. It's just part of who we are, and so, inadvertently, without any effort on our part to translate it into a teachable lesson for them, it's become part of who they are as well. And that's fucking awesome.

I think of these as passive or natural lessons in a sense, ones that aren't forcibly or formally taught. And, just like natural consequences versus wholly unrelated ones pressed upon a child from someone else, they are, without a doubt, the most effective lessons. 

So. We are clearly doing some things right in the modeling department, but as the day to day challenges of raising two toddlers become more and more, er, challenging, becoming more conscious of how our actions, reactions, and interactions, no matter how small, elicit the same in our children--and how those lessons are infinitely more effective than the ones that all too easily pour from our mouths--has now officially been added to my (never-ending) list of things to do. 

Less talking, more modeling.

And this one's going at the top.              


  1. Great post. This is such an important thing that I wish more parents of toddlers understood (in my generation also). They absolutely do pick up on your actions more than your words aka "lectures". You will have lots of fun when they turn three (more challenging than two, watch) and then as they are four, five, and six, they are so empathetic it seems and really love to help mom and dad so much more.
    Demonstrating the proper times to genuinely apologize is key. I hate it when someone just throws that "sorry" out there. A major pet peeve for me. Empathy is in short supply, I don't have to tell you, and what you are doing is fantastic. One thing I would watch though. I tried to work with my girls on not saying sorry about just anything, not that is wasn't sincere, but they would apologize for something that did not warrant it or that they didn't do. It is something many females in our society just do as though they are responsible for everything. Keep an eye out for that as they kiddoes get older and interact with the greater society. I don't know where it comes from but females just start doing it or so it seems. But, as I say, more action, less words. And, I have been told I "have the gift of gab" so I am a talker, too. But, modeling for your little ones is the only way to go!!
    Wonderful post and I look forward to your next one.

    1. Thank you so much, Susan! I'm so glad you enjoyed it. I very much appreciate your thoughts on appropriate apologizing, especially in relation to girls. My mama is an over-apologizer and I've picked up the habit to some extent, but want to be sure our little goblin understands the difference.