The Eye of the Beholder

What is a four-year-old? Well, almost four, anyway. If you asked me and you asked my husband, you’d get totally different answers. Of course, I think I have a much better idea of what a normal almost-four-year-old is than he does, and he thinks his estimate is more accurate.

Why? Well, lets’ take a look at a recent incident. Matt was holding Christian, our one-year-old, walking through the living room where he stepped on a Hello Kitty metal box of band-aids that he’d given Rose. Immediately, he said, “Rose, I stepped on your Hello Kitty box.” She started to cry. He yelled, “I wouldn’t have stepped on it if you didn’t leave it in the middle of the floor!”

Then I got mad and yelled something about how sick and tired I was of him always blaming her. But that’s not the point. The point is Matt expects that a normal almost-four-year-old can refrain from leaving her toys in the middle of the floor. This from the man who leaves dirty socks on the couch. But again, not the point. What almost-four-year-old cleans up after herself? She’s old enough to learn to start cleaning but she’s not old enough to do it without our prompting. Most of the time when I ask her to clean her room, she gets so overwhelmed that she doesn’t do anything until I help her. I “help” by telling her, “This goes there, and this goes in the box and this goes here,” and let her do the actual work.

He also thinks that Rose’s reaction time should be that of a 26-year-old international air hockey champion. This morning Rose was touching the lawn flamingoes that Matt had just repainted. We thought they were dry but Matt had just gotten some paint on him so he told Rose “Stop touching them. Stop! STOP!”

I said, “Take your hands off of the flamingoes.” I’m not sure who got through to her but by the time she was moving her hand down, Matt was angrily launching into, “When I say stop, you STOP!”

I learned a long time ago that a toddler doesn’t know what to do when you say “stop.” Instead, you’ve got to tell her what to do instead. So instead of saying, “Don’t touch the hot stove!” you should say, “Move away from the stove,” or something like that. I’m not sure that rule is still in effect with preschoolers, but it sure seems to work that way. I’ve told Matt several times about directing her to do something instead of directing her not to do something, but he says she needs to learn to stop when we say “Stop!”

She was sick this week, and we tried to contain her germs. Matt asked me to retrieve Christian’s pacifier from the floor, and Rose, trying to be helpful, started toward it. We both screamed “NO!” as if she was about to pull the plug on a lifeboat, and she burst into tears, but she stopped in her tracks. Then Matt said, “I said Mommy! Not you!” He mellowed as she continued to cry and said, “Honey we don’t want him to get sick too. If you touch his paci, he might get sick and then he’ll cry all night. Would you like that?” She shook her head. Sometimes we both forget. Sometimes we put too much emphasis on preventing things that can easily be fixed. We could have washed his paci if she touched it. Instead we made our little girl cry.

So Matt’s not the only one who’s got to learn how to better parent an almost-four-year-old. But we’re adults. We get used to doing something one way and if our way works, we don’t change it. But the essence of parenting is adapting to new circumstances. Kids change as fast as mutant viruses so the antidote you used a month ago doesn’t work today. Our methods lag behind our child’s capabilities.

It works in reverse too. Rose has the conversation skills of a six-year-old and we often overestimate her reasoning skills. We expect her to understand that her germs will contaminate objects and pass her cold to others. We expect her to think about contamination as she goes about her activities. But she can’t. Even if she remembered, four-year-olds are impulsive. She’s not capable of thinking about everything she touches any more than we’re capable of policing her every move.

We tend to think that having grown from childhood for adulthood qualifies us to be parents. But parenting is so much more than that. We’ve got to know what’s typical of a four-or-five-or-whatever-year old, then we’ve got to take our child’s individual development into account, and we have to account for our own strengths and weaknesses. When I signed up to be a parent, I thought labor was the worst challenge I’d ever face. But they have drugs for that. But there are no anesthetics for growing pains. My mistake was that I thought that the kids suffered them, not the parents.