As my child gets older, naturally there are more and more things he is able to do himself, like getting his own shoes on, being able to reach things out of the fridge, pour his own juice, that sort of thing. And he loves being helpful too, so it’s not just about what he can do for himself, but what he can do to help around the house too.
I can see how important it is to him when he accomplishes these small things, and yet at times it’s a struggle for me to accommodate his eagerness. It’s all very lovely, but the trouble is, he’s quite clumsy, and a little too eager at times. He also likes to do things his way, and is not too receptive to suggestions. On top of this, he can get very frustrated and upset when he can’t manage something he wants to be able to do.
Normally, I like to think I’m pretty big on the idea of letting my child figure things out for himself and discover things for himself. I try not to jump in too quickly if he’s playing with some friends and they can’t agree on something immediately. I try to encourage him to find his own way down the climbing frame rather than have me lift him. If he’s about to jump off a wall that I think might be too high, instead of just saying no, I ask him to use his judgement. He’s pretty cautious really and generally gets it right without me having to place my own restrictions. It all seems pretty obvious to me. I mean, most parents wouldn’t just tell their child the answer to the maths problem they’re trying to figure out, would they? And I’m pretty easy-going about him getting himself dirty, loving to watch him play and explore freely without being encumbered by my adult concerns and restrictions.
But when it comes to him showering cornflakes everywhere, or packing the bag with the sandwiches at the bottom, this child-led approach doesn’t seem to come so naturally to me. For a while, when he first started being more self-sufficient, I’d often find myself trying to find a nice way to stop him and tell him I’d do it, keen to either avoid an upset, a mess, speed things up, or just have things done my way. (now, where I have already mentioned this trait?) But I soon realised that however I phrased it, he was missing out on feeling capable, helpful, valued, involved, respected, and from learning to do these things on his own. More importantly, I also realised it was my stuff, and allowing my stuff to get in my child’s way just wasn’t fair.
I remember this dawning on me one summer day when we were getting ready for a day out. I’d gathered together all the things we needed to take out with us, and pulled out one of the rucksacks ready to pack the things into. I always pack things in a particular way, remembering what went where, in which little pocket I’d put the sun cream, rolling up the swimming towels neatly so they took up less space.
Then when I came out of the bathroom, my child announced cheerfully, “I’ve packed the bag mummy”. As I looked at him, so very pleased with himself, so eager for my approval, so keen to feel useful and part of the process, I realised I needed to take a deep breath and let it go. What was more important? My child’s feeling of self-worth and ability, or that the bag was packed just the way I liked it?
So much of parenting is about being aware of our own stuff, and not just the big things like how we react when our children make us angry. It’s all the seemingly little things too, like how we feel about them getting messy, or taking risks, or not wanting to store their toys just the way we would have. And so often, we let our stuff get in our child’s way, or in our own way forward as parents. Plus we risk making our stuff our kids’ stuff.
So every time I identify something that’s my stuff, however small, like being overly particular about how to pack a bag, I feel my self-awareness is my child’s gain.