A teachable moment

What’s at the top of your parenting regrets list? I’ve had 10 years now to second-guess all my mama moves and the list feels pretty long.

Most of the time, I cut myself some slack and allow that this journey is a human one — and therefore imperfect.

But as I was editing this Education Issue — our annual edition focused on the art and science of early learning in the modern age — I was struck by so many things I’d do differently if life were to rewind.

This issue has made me question where my son went to preschool, how much reading we did every night and the number of educational outings we had. 

Oddly, however, the one thing that stands out from all the others isn’t about academics, but about how I handled my wee one’s emotions, especially during those early days.

In our On Behavior column this month, the authors — two accomplished family therapists — share the best way to help toddlers process their constantly exploding/escalating/earth-shattering feels.

“Our culture often teaches children to ‘get over it’ or ‘suck it up.’ These adult responses to kids’ emotions often come from the adult’s own discomfort with emotional expression and desire to get the child to follow directions or ‘behave.’” Ahem. 

Yep, when my son was a little, I failed to fully control my own emotions — and didn’t make room for his either. I just felt victimized because he was being such a toddler

This all became painfully clear to me one night during a gnarly bedtime battle. My son and I were feeding off each other’s frustration, as per usual, when my then-husband said: “Remember, YOU’RE the adult.” 

Oh my god, I thought. I am. And for some reason, that was all it took. From that moment on, I realized it was insane to expect my son to get his raw emotions under control when I wasn’t even able to do it! 

Gradually, as the years went on, I improved dramatically in my reactions to my child and realized I had to be a leader for him — not so much a rule setter or an enforcer, but a role model, showing him, through my own actions, This is how we do it. (See how this strategy is playing out in the early education programs featured in this issue.)

To this day, I strive to be someone my son should imitate. But now that he’s moving swiftly into the tween years, I’m realizing my time is almost up (hence the regrets). 

At this point, I’m hoping the wise words of those therapists can still guide me: 

“Be sure that your reaction isn’t fueled by anger, frustration or embarrassment. Be clear, consistent and compassionate. Make no threats. The goal message is: How you’re feeling is OK; the behavior choice is not.” 

After all, if my son can cope with his own enormous emotions throughout his life, it probably won’t matter how amazing he is at reading, writing and arithmetic. 

He’ll be able to handle anything.