So last Saturday while at a local Mexican restaurant our little family of three sat down at a booth with our 20 month old daughter in a booster seat on the booth bench sitting next to my husband. The restaurant was warmer and cozier than the winter chill outside so as our daughter joyfully bounced back and forth from her booster seat to daddy’s lap, she quickly got hot enough to want to take her jacket off.
My daughter: like most toddlers, loves to do everything herself that she possibly can, even if it means it takes longer, even if it is inconvenient for us, even if it makes a mess, even if it means she gets frustrated enough to look to us for help, not help to do it (unless she’s absolutely given up or unless we say it’s something not safe for her to do without help)… No, quite honestly, she looks to us for us to help her figure out how to do it herself if she gets stumped. It’s a beautiful thing and it’s an extremely painful thing, kids grow up so fast and in my case my kid is asking me to help cut those dependency strings sooner. It’s hard enough when the kid cuts the strings by themselves of their own doing, but sometimes I think it’s exponentially harder when she cheerfully hands us, specifically me, the symbolic scissors and mooring strings, imploring me to help her cut one more string of dependency.
On this particular day she was furthering her mastery of taking off her jacket with pretty much no help other than verbal coaching. She unzipped the zipper completely, then she let the jacket fall down over her back and vigorously shook her arms until she freed one arm and then with that hand free she triumphantly pulled off the rest of her jacket and handed it to daddy. She only needed a little encouragement as she went through the motions, shaking the jacket off her arms is the hardest part because her sweater often hangs onto the coat for dear life so much that she gets frustrated, almost on the precipice, ready to give up because she doesn’t realize how far she’s come or how little she has to go to finally get the rest of the jacket off.
It would be so much easier and faster if I or daddy were to just reach out and just do it for her, but I have learned that easier and faster isn’t always better, so I coach and wait.
Love is… Letting her master the zipper
The joy, the determination, the pride on her face when she’s successfully done it, all by herself… That’s worth the wait, it’s worth it to be able to tell her with joy appropriately reflecting her joy: “You did it all by yourself! You took off your jacket without help!” I don’t tell her often (barely at all) that she’s a “good girl,” or “did a good job,” or that “I’m proud” of her. I know why so many parents do those things, it was the way we were raised when we were kids, but I’ve learned that “good” is vague, subjective and downright relative. I try to be specific in my praise without being qualitative, I try to state the specific skill or task she has accomplished without adding superfluous judgement.
My pride in her is important to me, but her joy, pride and belief in herself is absolutely paramount. When she goes out into the world, I don’t want her to worry overly much whether someone else thinks she’s “good” or if they are proud of her, I want her to believe in her worth and believe in her abilities. I want her to take pride in her abilities and herself first, because sometimes the world can be such a subjective and turbulent place. I don’t want her to be too caught up in the storm of peer pressure, where she’s not good unless she’s doing or wearing what her peers think is good. God forbid, honestly, I don’t want some authority figure whispering in her ear that to be a “good girl” she has to do something that feels wholly uncomfortable or unsafe… I want her to be able to trust herself enough to say: “I’m not comfortable in this situation and I trust my feelings, I trust myself enough to get out of this situation and ask for help.”
On this particular day, everything seemed mundanely normal to me, her taking off her jacket was a simple ordinary thing, however I didn’t know we had an audience. One of the restaurant managers come over from the other side of the restaurant to our table to ask how old our daughter was. We told him she was 20 months old. He responded, wow, she’s amazing she just took her jacket off without any help other than you telling her. That’s amazing.
I paused, and thought to myself: I think she’s amazing too, she always surprises me and I have so much pride in her. She is amazing.
The feeling was powerful, intoxicating and momentarily I let my pride grow. Because I felt amazing to have such an amazing daughter.
The manager then proceeded to tell me that his daughter was only a little bit older than ours and about the things she could or couldn’t do. I got the feeling he was comparing his daughter to our daughter. It was a brief conversation and I found myself trying to explain that I often didn’t realize all the things my daughter was capable of until I slowed down and let her take the lead. As my husband and I learned to follow her lead, following her allowed us to see all the things she could do if we let her and simply guided her.
Every toddler, every child is different in their unique personalities, their individual interests and their own abilities. I think the only singularity, the only congruity I can see is the natural propulsion of every young creature (human or non-human) involves the insatiable urge to grow, learn and be despite any obstacles. I think every child wants to learn, grow and be independent and self-sufficient. It’s often messy, extremely tiring, very trying, and it can even be painful (for both the parents and the child), but it’s so rewarding if we can manage to not hold on or control too tightly. We have to stay actively engaged to help the child stay safe, but we don’t want to hold on too tightly or too little.
Watching my daughter and husband after the manager went back to work, I found myself realizing that I would probably never *have* to help my daughter unzip and remove her zipper jackets anymore, she’s not even 2 years old yet, but that mooring, that dependency is gone. Sure, right now, I have a million other things that she’s still dependent on me for: putting on shirts and pants, zipping up coats, fastening buttons on coats, putting on shoes etc. but one more mooring has been snipped away.
I guess I’m realizing that with the very act of giving birth itself, with the very first scissor cut of the umbilical cord, from the very beginning, it has all been a push for me to let go, for her to be independent, to be herself, her own person. From her first breath it has been about her becoming who she is, independent of me and her father.
At first cutting the moorings was so painful, it will always be a little bit painful, but I think my willingness to cheerfully cut them with her so she can be confident in her own strength, her own beliefs, her own ingenuity, I think that strengthens an ethereal string that can never be cut, it can be pulled, stretched and played upon, but it can’t be cut.
My heart strings, her heart strings, our love can’t be fully cut.
Cutting and releasing the moorings, reveals more of the inner tenacity and undying strength of those heart strings. She feels it too, my willingness to let and encourage her take pride in herself, trust herself, all of those things, helps her to take more pride and trust in us, me and her father, because she’s able to reflect back the joy and trust we have shined toward her.
I have no idea what her life journey holds, I’m sure it’ll entail some sunny days as well as turbulence but I hope that our home and our hearts will always be a safe harbor for her to come back to no matter where she journeys in life. I hope she can become a safe harbor of her own one day for her loved ones too, one day.