Expect children to act like children and you will never be disappointed.
My first reaction when I walked into this scene in my bathroom today: eww! Then, I thought about how I have been teaching my son to put toothpaste on his toothbrush himself. I did a little internal rejoicing as I remembered that he did not ask me to do it for him today, but did this all on his own. I could have gotten angry and scolded him for making a big mess. I am thankful that I paused and remembered that this is actually progress. He is a child learning a new skill. Learning is a messy process.
As I reflect on this mess and the ways I could react, it reminds me of some conversations clients and I have about expectations. We often expect more of ourselves and others than is humanly possible. Then when those expectations are not met we feel a range of emotions – guilt, disappointment, anger, inferiority. Had I expected my son to put his toothpaste on his toothbrush neatly and wash the spit down the drain after the first time I showed him how to do it, I would have been disappointed or angry when I found this mess. A wise child psychiatrist and neuroscientist, Dr. Bruce Perry, taught me that people usually need to hear something new at least seven times before they remember it. One of my mentors in grad school, Dr. Roberto Clemente reminded us students at least seven times that “children are not miniature adults!” Indeed not. For children, everything is new.
Most skills we have learned have been taught to us by other people. When we fail to meet our own expectations or others fail to meet our expectations of them, perhaps we could look at it from the perspective of a learning opportunity. Did someone ever teach us how to do this seven times? Has this child been shown how to spit into the drain seven times? If not, can I forgive myself or them for making a mistake? Could it maybe even be a joyful learning experience I can laugh about?
Narina is a licensed mental health counselor with a private practice in Lima, NY.