My biggest parenting lessons of toddlerhood (Part 1)

Reya turned 3 this January. I thought I would reflect on some of the biggest parenting lessons I’ve learned as we stepped into the toddler years.

A summary of the last 3 years

Year 0-1 was a year of mountains and valleys in a new, unchartered land in whole new universe. It is the pouring of your whole self into this new little soul. Your sense of self becomes distant and hazy. You eagerly anticipate every milestone. A smile! A laugh! A gurgle! A slobbery kiss! A hug! A crawl! Standing up! A step! The first word! A noise that almost sounds like a word! Sleep deprivation adds an invisible pressure and apathy towards the things that are cherished to you; like happiness, like patience, like your husband. Echos of your old, well rested, well nourished life reverberate in the hollows of a particularly sleepless night. Everything feels far away.

Year 1-2 was a quieter year. A year of settling into a new life that begins to feel home. Routines and rituals start to take shape and anchor you in chaotic days. Life seems more brilliant when re-lived through your child’s eyes. Simple things feel exciting. I start catching glimpses, bright happy flashes of my daughter’s true self as her personality forms. I am so desperate to know who this mysterious little soul truly is. As a parent, I began to witness the emerging of a new self; and she’s pretty dope. I start to find little pockets of space and time in my day to fill my cup in small but important ways.

Year 2-3 is vibrant. A friendship and companionship grows between my daughter and I. She starts tending to our relationship with the tools she has. We explore the world and each other with language; stories come to life and life becomes a story. Everything is absolutely magical. We welcome and accept the whole spectrum of emotion together, with security and patience. As a parent, I begin to feel equipped for difficult times. I learn to lead with confidence, to hold space, to accept all the emotions that are felt. Parenting my daughter makes me hyperaware of how I was parented, and I feel compelled to examine and work through this. I begin my reparenting journey with myself. I learn to give to myself what I give to my child; respect, unconditional love, acceptance, forgiveness, leadership, boundaries and grace. Our breastfeeding journey comes to an end. & I start to sleep again.

Here’s (part one of a) few things I’ve picked up along the way.

Your words matter

Bringing language to a new little being who does not know language, it’s no small thing.

The other day, I overheard her speaking to her sick teddy bear: “Are you crying, baby? It’s okay to be sad. Reya’s here for you. You are safe here. I will catch you.”

I’m so glad that this is how she thinks about sadness. I’m so glad that she has the emotional resilience to sit through it, rather than to shut it down with a quick “don’t cry!”

Or when I spilled a drink on the floor, she said “Don’t worry mama, it’s just a mistake! We learn from our mistakes and we can try again.”

I’m so glad that this is how she thinks about making mistakes.

And then, perhaps my favourite of all – one evening, for no reason in particular, she walked over to my husband and said “Daddy, you are beautiful.” She then scurried over to me and said “Mommy, you are beautiful.” and as she walked away and I heard her quietly whisper to herself “You are beautiful too, Reya.”

I’m so glad that this is how she thinks about sharing love, that how there’s enough for her too.

Ultimately, the language and our thoughts about things are intricately connected. This is especially true for our inner language to ourselves, which is free from outside expectations or societal norms. Speak to your child how you want them to speak to not only other, but also to themselves.

Question everything

Becoming a parent has made my life into a giant question mark.

And once your child starts asking you “why” about everything, you begin to realize that there is a lot you do not know.

If my daughter can question life and herself so much, then I can too.

I try to reflect on the following questions in my interactions with Reya:

What am I teaching my child about life?

What am I teaching my child about herself?

What am I teaching my child about me?

I talk about it more in this blog post, if you are interested.

Another helpful question is:

What would I do if I was in this very situation?

For example, what would I do if I was watching TV and my husband/mother/friend turned the TV off abruptly and told me it was time for me to take a shower? In the middle of my favourite show!! Unacceptable. I would assert myself and the privilege of adulthood would grant me my way.

Isn’t it so understandable that our child would have a hard time with this if it is handled in this way?

But, their reaction will be quickly deemed a tantrum (they don’t have the language, the emotional regulation, or the privilege of adulthood to assert their point of view in any meaningful way) and we will find ways to coax them out of it while making them do what we want them to do.

Knowing this, I try to find a kinder and more respectful solution. Things like: letting her know in advance when the TV will be turned off. Reminding her periodically. Letting her finish their favourite show. And then, I can build a transition built on connection by sitting with her and watching the last couple of minutes together. Connecting with her in her world before rushing into my world of important things that we have to get done. Asking her questions about the characters, which slowly loosens her attention and focus on the TV. And then turning the TV off together. Followed by a fun transition to bath time (“shall we see how many hops we can do to the bathroom?”)

What if it was my friend in this very situation?

I’ve seen this so many times. A child falls. The parent says “Oh he’s fine!”

How do you know he’s fine?

Doesn’t it make more sense to ask your child “Are you okay?”

If we were walking with a friend and they tripped in front of us, would we grab them, lift them up and say “you’re fine.” lol.

It’s okay to not be okay! It’s okay to be hurt, physically and emotionally. And most importantly – our child should be the ones telling us if they are or not. How could we possibly know otherwise?

Spend time in their world & bring them into yours

When you step into their world, respect it. You are a guest here. Let them show you the way.

I remember one time Reya was making art with post it notes. I see this and say “That looks cool! Maybe you should…” and she said “No! This is MY art. Is this your art? No! It’s Reya’s art. Come sit down and I show you.”

It was a wise reminder for whenever we feel the urge to play FOR our kids or somehow try to show them how to play better. This is her art. Not mine. This is her play. Not mine. And her play is her work. It deserves respect, space and autonomy – just as we require when we are at work.

When you step into their world, you get to experience their magic. Children have so little control and autonomy over their day to day life, so at the very least, during play, they must lead the way.

I also try to bring Reya into my world; I show her what interests me, the things I do, what my work is, my emotions, my struggles. We do things together; doing the laundry, putting the dishwasher on, helping with dinner. I talk to her about whats going on with me and how I’m feeling.

When a child comes into the adult world I keep in mind that:

🌸 Learning new skills take time and and mistakes and messes are part of the process. It is an opportunity to show them that it’s okay to make mistakes, to show them how to decide if actions are worth the consequences they come with, how to face the consequences of actions, and how to deal with failure. It is also a lesson in persistence and patience – for both of us. The self-trust that comes from working on a new skill and accomplishing it is rewarding and necessary part of life.

🌸 And that while I as an adult might be experiencing a difficult emotion, it is not my daughter’s responsibility to make me feel happy, and she is not required to carry the burden of my emotions.

The center of a tantrum is a call for connection

Sometimes I get caught up in the topic of the tantrum; Ice cream for dinner. The wrong colour socks. Wants to play catch with an egg. Wants to eat dog food.

I expend all my energy in explaining to her why these things are unreasonable and why I can’t let it happen. We go around in circles and I get exhausted.

The topic of the tantrum is the tip of the iceberg. It’s only about 10% of what’s really going on. What’s really going on is a call for connection, safety and confident leadership.

My tips for tantrums and meltdowns:

🌸 Don’t focus on the topic of the tantrum. Focus on connection. If it’s too far gone, you just have to sit with it and allow it to pass. Think of it as a meditative exercise. You have to keep them safe. You have to help guide them through the moment.

🌸 You can help move the moment forward. Sometimes action must be taken, and my daughter needs help to take those actions. When the time is right, I can move the moment forward. This often involves me physically helping her in some way, moving a dangerous object from her hand, or guiding her to her stroller, or carrying her into another room so we can have some space.

🌸 Notice their triggers and help extinguish them. Late bedtimes, too much screen time, hunger, too many people around, a new location – are all possible triggers. If you notice that some of these triggers are present in your day, then do your best to spend some quality time (cuddles, conversations, stepping out on to the balcony for a deep breath, taking a shower) with them through before it erupts.

I have learned that Reya’s love language is is physical touch and quality time. When I notice she is becoming irritable, I will stop what I’m doing and sneak her away to a quiet room for about 20 minutes of time together. We cuddle, dance, practice acro-yoga, and talk. I see her little love tank fill up, and then I bring her back to our routine. This works most of the time!

🌸 The goal of the tantrum is not to stop the crying. It is to accept the sadness. All of it. Your child is asking you “can you accept me and love me when I am experiencing something so difficult and dark?” This is not the time for “it’s okay, you’re going to be okay, stop crying, I’ll give you some candy/let you watch TV/give you ice cream for dinner if you stop crying!” This is the time for “You are feeling so sad/angry/frustrated. It’s okay to feel that way. I’m here with you.”

🌸 Tantrums serve a purpose. They can help to release unprocessed negative energy that has built up over time, for which they do not have the tools to release on their own. Sometimes she just needs to let it all out!

Limit setting & confident gentle parenting

First, limits. Setting limits just rolls of the parents tongue.

Don’t do that. Don’t go there. Don’t touch that. Don’t throw that. Don’t spit. Don’t jump there. Don’t eat that.

When I feel inclined to set a limit, I ask myself – does this limit really need to be set in the first place?

Example – “Reya, don’t mix the play doh” (why not? Because your mom’s OCD can’t handle seeing the beautiful colours being mixed and ruined?), or “Don’t pull apart your toy!” (There are more ways than one to play with a toy. Maybe her toy is more interesting pulled apart. AND if you pull apart your toy, you may not be able to play with it in the original way again.)

Secondly, I ask myself – is there a safe way for my child to do what she wants? For example, Reya wants to throw rocks. Can I find a safe place for her to throw rocks to her hearts content without hurting anyone or damaging anything?

And then if a limit does need to be set, and I decide on it. I let her know the limit and explain it. She often does not care for the explanation, and I feel compelled to repeat myself 5000 times but that is exhausting and does nothing. A couple of times is enough.

I then try to focus on the actions she CAN do, rather than what she cannot.

Instead of saying “Don’t run on the road.” I focus on “Let’s walk on the sidewalk.”

Instead of “Don’t cut your clothes with the scissors.” I focus on “Let’s cut this piece of paper!”

Tune in for more in Part 2 – coming soon 🙂

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