Posted in a Santa Monica play yard. Originally posted at Abundant Life Children.
My little boy, who is two and a half now, calls ice cream sandwiches “domino flavored ones”.
As I think about it, there are other reasons I don’t push saying please, thanks or sorry.
Sorry is the one I feel strongest about. Saying sorry when I don’t actually feel sorry feels humiliating to me. It feels like submitting — collapsing who I am inside — for the sake of avoiding having something bad done to me. It feels like letting down my defenses for a wave of awfulness to avoid an even worse wave of awfulness that might come if I don’t. It feels like being over-ridden, being wiped out, being not okay fundamentally. Being shameful. Being bad inside.
I never want that for my kid. I don’t want that for myself, either.
It’s one thing to say I’m sorry when I feel sad about someone’s situation, or when I bump into them or step on their toes, or when I see looking back that I hurt them and I didn’t realize it at the time, or I understand the situation differently now and I would definitely do things differently if I could go back in time.
The thing is, I can’t make my little one feel any of those things by telling him to say he’s sorry when he has done something socially unacceptable. I think the straightest route to helping him figure out what is and isn’t okay to do is to gently coach him, to keep him and the kids he is with safe, and to avoid humiliating him at all costs. Humiliation makes me defensive. I think that’s true for my kid, too. When I’m defensive, I’m stuck in my own head. I’m not learning new things. I’m not tuning into the people around me. I’m not feeling like good connection is easy or even possible in that moment.
What I want for my kid is good connection. I want him to be able to see how what he does affects other people, and to be free care about how they feel.
I imagine writing thank you notes for Christmas and birthday gifts together in the future. (I like writing thank you notes, so when I picture doing it together I imagine it being fun.)
But other than that, please and thank you are things I’d rather skip prompting on. He hears me and Gavin talking politely to each other, to him and to other people. He joins in. He knows how to do it. I’ll let him speak for himself.
If the way he’s asking for something is annoying me, I let him know. “Could you please stop screeching? That bugs me.” Or, “You don’t need to yell. You can ask more quietly. I can still hear you.” Generally, that seems to work pretty well so far.
One of the things being a stepmom for so many years has left me with is a sense of how fantastically fast kids grow up. People say it all the time. Now it’s something I feel.
Kids figure things out. They learn what they need to learn to go where they want to go.
I don’t want to spend my little one’s childhood poking and prodding him. I want to enjoy it, to have fun with it, to play in it together. I want us both to bathe in the good connection we already have and to spin it on and on.
The other day we went to the beach after dinner to watch the sun set and to let our son play with trucks on the sand. He looked up at us on our way back to the car, calm and exuberant, and said, “Well, thank you for going to the beach! It was very helpful!”
He says thank you when he’s especially joyful — when he’s satisfied and close and connected and feeling good all at once. We don’t tell him to say it. We just say it to him and to each other whenever we feel it. When someone does something nice for him, we thank them ourselves.
When he looks up at me and says thank you, it feels like the sun is rising in my chest.
I never want any other kind of thank you.
When I’m talking to another adult, I almost never say please. If I’m asking for something, I might say, “Would it be possible…” or, “Would you do me a huge favor…?” or, “How would you feel about…?”
I figure my son has been learning to talk all this time by listening to us and imitating us and using the phrases we use, and I figure he’ll keep on doing that as he gets better at communicating.
Sometimes if he’s being demanding and it bugs me, I’ll tell him, “Sometimes people say ‘please’ when they’re asking for something, because it feels good to hear and it makes people especially want to do what you are asking for.” But I don’t push it. He doesn’t have to say please to get what he wants if it’s something that feels right to give him or to do for him. And if he’s demanding something he can’t have, I’ll try to empathize with him. That’s about the extent of how we’re teaching him manners. As he gets older and more sophisticated, he’ll master the finer points of communication.
We treat “sorry” the same way. If my little one does something to hurt someone, I’ll stop him from doing it again, and I’ll check with the other kid to see if they’re okay. I’ll remind my kid that the other kid doesn’t want to be bumped into or have sand thrown at them, and I’ll tell the kid and/or their parent that I’m sorry, but I don’t tell my little one to say “sorry” himself.
And if I bump into my son, or if I hurt his feelings, I tell him I’m sorry, because I am.
I want him to care about how other people feel. I want him to say how he feels. And in the meantime, while he’s still developing a sense of empathy and experimenting with what’s okay to do and what’s not okay, I’m working on making sure he and the kids he’s playing with are safe and I’m talking about how I feel.
Related: Please, Thanks and Sorry, Part 2
The other day at the aquarium, little one wanted this truck. It was in an outdoor gift shop — the kind with no doors or walls.
We had just bought a plastic penguin about thirty minutes ago inside, so I didn’t even bend down to look at it. We moved along (under protest) to the shark touch tanks and the penguins and the submarine movie. But he was so sad and so out of sorts. I chalked it up to being hungry or overtired. “Want to go back outside!” he told me, after we left the submarine movie early. Thinking he wanted to see the touch tanks again, I carried him out, but as soon as his feet touched the ground, he ran to this truck. This time, I bent down to look at it with him. I was going to sympathize about how much he wanted it and how hard it was not to get it. But as soon as I saw it at eye level, I realized how cool it was.
If I was two and loved trucks, I would want it so badly. I actually kind of wanted it myself. You fill up the truck tank with water and the fish can FLOAT in the tank. And there’s a submarine that floats in the tank with them.
So we got it. And then the morning was easy. He wasn’t overtired. He wasn’t hungry. He wanted a plastic penguin and he really wanted an aquarium tanker truck, and that was that.
When he picks out his own toys, he chooses things I would not have picked out myself. And he loves them. He doesn’t play with them once or twice and forget about them — he plays with them over and over and searches them out in our house and talks about them. Sometimes if he’s watching a video of a particular kind of truck working, he’ll find the toy version of that truck and try to copy what it’s doing on the couch or our patio table. It seems like he is collecting little models of the things he wants to learn about, and then works really hard to try to get them to do what he sees them do in real life.
The point I’m trying to make, though, is that he knows what he wants. And he’s right. He doesn’t just have a million flickering whims that come and go. He has desire — focused and lasting.
Sometimes — like yesterday — I hear a voice in my head saying, “I don’t want him to be spoiled. He has to learn…” But I never know what exactly it is that he “has to learn” because that phrase — even though it runs through my head — it isn’t really mine. It isn’t really what I think, when I think about it. What does he have to learn? That he’s powerless? That he can’t have what he wants? That even though I could easily help him get what he wants, I just don’t feel like it and don’t care about how urgent and important it feels to him? I want him to have an appetite. I want him to follow his desires. I want him to yearn and to be satisfied, over and over. I want him to reach, to ask, to try. I want him to play with his models of the real world.
And maybe part of me wants to play with them, too.
I thought I wasn’t going to let my kid play with computers or watch TV until he was much, much older. Like maybe sixth grade. I wanted him to get comfortable in the “real world.” I wanted him to run around and use his limbs and his senses. I wanted him to get bored and to learn to entertain himself. And I wanted to be all the way there for him. I didn’t want to substitute screen time for my attention.
Guess what. We let our two-year-old play with the iPad.
I spent the first year and a half of his life with an old school cell phone because I was afraid a smart phone would be too sticky. I went online during his naps, and my internet time was rushed and short. I had always thought that screen time was wasted time — that if I watched TV, surfed the internet or checked Facebook, I was avoiding being fully present.
Then I got an iPhone.
After a year and a half, I was connected again. It felt good. It didn’t feel like it was changing my parenting. It just felt like I was getting more — and better — brain food here and there. And getting in touch with people more easily. And not needing to print out Google maps before I left the house.
I used to read my kindle or actual paper books when I was nursing. Now I read my iPhone. Pretty soon, my son started grabbing for it. I locked it and let him hold it. Why not let him explore? What could he do?
Within a week or two of poking at it, he pushed the little slider all the way across the screen with his finger, and it clicked unlocked.
I laughed in surprise and grabbed it back.
It turned into a game. He unlocked it and shrieked with laughter while I tried to get the phone back. After a few days, I just let him have it. Why not let him mess around with my phone? It felt… okay. It didn’t feel wrong. Then he started poking around in my email and randomly calling people in my contacts, and I realized I could make us both happier by installing a few games for him. Soon after that, we got a big puffy plastic case and some screen protectors for our iPad and let him play with it in earnest.
He wanted to play with it a lot. I didn’t want to use it as a substitute for my attention, so I sat with him while he played. He loved it. He got really upset if I wanted him to stop and do something else, and I was bored. The amount of time we were spending playing with it bugged me. I knew that if I didn’t add any new apps, eventually he would get tired of it and move on to other things, but I didn’t want to wait for weeks or maybe even months. Left to his own devices, we wouldn’t be going outside or reading books or doing anything other than swiping at screens for a long time. That didn’t feel right.
Around the same time, he started fighting getting into his carseat and stroller. He hated them so much that we stayed home more often than not. That’s when it all clicked. I stopped giving him the iPad on demand and offered it to him whenever he had to be strapped down instead. He was playing with it by himself and I hadn’t wanted to substitute screen time for my attention, but this was different — it felt like substituting one kind of freedom for another and during a time when he wouldn’t have very much of my attention anyway. It worked. Having clear times when he would get to use the iPad (when strapped in) and clear times when the iPad would be put away (when we got where we were going) made it easier for him to stop, and it turned riding in the carseat or stroller into something he liked instead of something painful for both of us.
We went to museums, aquariums, parks, the library, playgroups and playdates. We played in the sun and the dirt and the water. In between, when we were driving or strolling to the places where we could do these things, he played with the iPad on his own and started doing things that amazed me.
One of the apps I thought would be way too hard for him had an activity where you moved four batteries into a toy with the positive and negative sides alternating directions (like how you stick batteries into things in the real world). The next thing I knew, he had it all figured out and was clicking them into place by himself in the back seat. There’s another one — Truck Tunes — that showed music videos about construction vehicles. The menu didn’t have pictures of the trucks — just numbers and text, and the menu was split between two screens. So to choose the backhoe video, you had to touch “Next Screen” and then “7 – Backhoe”, for example. After a lot trial and error, he could navigate it.
He started recognizing numbers. Then, he could kind of count to fifteen. He matched letters. Then he knew most of the letter names. He knew letter sounds. He was two — less than two and a half. From what my friends were telling me, their kids who played with iPads or iPhones could do the same things or even more.
On a touch screen, it was safe to explore and mess up. He wouldn’t get hurt or break something or make a fantastically huge mess. He chose what to try or not to try. He chose when to quit and when to try again. There were fewer interruptions, corrections, instructions, admonishments or directions. It was just freedom — the kind of freedom he almost never got in the real world. It’s not like I punished him or constantly bossed him around, but he didn’t get to walk in the street or squish dog poop between his fingers or pour rice on the floor. There were a lot of things he wanted to try that I pulled him back from. On the iPad, it was different. I could load it with apps that I thought were safe for him, and then let him loose. With this kind of freedom, he learned like crazy.
Watching my son play with the iPad — especially seeing what he could do on his own — took my respect for him to new levels. I still want him to be comfortable in the real world, but I’m starting to feel like reality is more complicated than I initially thought. These days I’m thinking that screens are part of the real world, too.