It is so easy to look at the behavior of a toddler and condescendingly shake your head and think how silly they are, when, in reality, many of their desires and actions mimic our own. We’ve just become better as masking the silliness of it. But it struck me the other day that maybe we’d all be a bit happier if we stopped trying to mask our own silliness and sought to learn in such an independent and experimental way.
Allow me to illustrate. Last weekend, I took Aiden to the pool on both Saturday and Sunday. The difference in him was so stunning and remarkable from one day to the next that it was hard to believe that Sunday’s child was even the same boy. Had I not witnessed it with my very own eyes, I would not have believed. Saturday’s child was anxiety ridden and whiny. He clung to me like a chimpanzee repeating the same constant refrain, “I wanna get out!” It wasn’t until we gave up and went to the baby pool that he finally began to relax and have a good time. Whereas Sunday’s child was jumping off the edge of the pool into my arms, getting fully submerged, and crying, “I do it again!” He never even mentioned the baby pool. But what was the difference? Had some magical developmental switch been flipped that suddenly bestowed bravery on him? I think not. The difference lied entirely in my approach to him. On Saturday I simply undressed him and brought him into the pool with me and went straight out toward the middle. And, because I had read in some parenting book or blog that it was wise to do so, I held his nose and dunked him completely underwater. He emerged coughing and sputtering and even more terrified than he had been previously. He had no control over the situation or what he did and how he felt about it. Whereas on Sunday, I listened to his ever-present mantra of, “I do it myself!” and let him take the lead. I got into the pool by the steps and never told him one way or another what he should do. I left him walking around the steps on the concrete (watching carefully of course) and let him see me enjoying myself. When he determined for himself that what he was watching looked like fun, he got into the pool on the first step. I proceeded to lure him with a ball, just out of his reach, till he was standing, of his own volition, on the “deep step” where the water reached up to his chin. Then he surprised even me by stepping off of that step and letting his feet dangle in the water while he held onto the edge. Later, after seeing the other kids do it, he decided he wanted to jump in, but absolutely could not do it without both of my fingers and “no dunk.” This quickly morphed into one finger and then no fingers, full dunk, followed immediately by “I do it again.” The whole way home from the pool all he could think about was sharing his accomplishment, “I tell Daddy I dunk!”
I didn’t just tell you all of this because it is cute, although it undeniably is. I told it as an illustration of behavior. Many parents would look as this situation and tell the child some version of, “See, I told you! If you had just listened to me on the first day, you could have had fun then too.” But I think it’s the other way around. If I had just listened to him on the first day, then we all could have had more fun. Instead of trying to force my knowledge on him, I should have allowed him to learn it in his own way, in his own time. I believe this principle is true in most of our relationships. We need to learn to meet people where they are and not expect them to meet us where we are. How many of our relationships could be improved if we learned to listen to the desires of others and better communicate our own learning desires to them? Spouses, Bosses, Friends, Coworkers, Parents, Teachers, Boyfriends. But, when asked to learn a new project at work, too many of us are afraid of looking silly by saying to our boss some version of, “I do it myself!” (That is: “I actually learn much better and will retain the information longer if I can just dive in and experience it for myself.”) And so we let them teach us in whatever way is most natural to them and we learn only half of what’s expected. We’re too afraid of sinking to learn how to swim. And we’ve lost the gumption of our toddler selves that approached every new situation head on with a drive to learn by experience. I think we all stand to learn quite a lot if we would stop teaching long enough to listen.