I told myself that the reason I taught my 4-year-old daughter, Ellie, this powerful phrase was because I wanted her to be more independent. That’s partially true — I do work from home in the evenings, and I need her to be able to take care of herself when I’m on a conference call, etc.
But, truth be told, when the end of my work day is complete, I spend about an hour “couch parenting.” I curl up on the couch with a book or my phone, and I let Ellie occupy herself or sit with me and visit. And I’m determined to NOT get up 3 times during that span to get her “a doll she forgot in her room” or the “pink cup instead of the yellow one.”
I’m reclaiming my life after the toddler years.
…when I felt that intense need to follow her around and prevent every injury — when picking my battles sometimes did mean dumping water out of the yellow cup to refill the pink one, no matter how insane it seemed, all to avoid an epic temper tantrum after an already crazy day.
But when Ellie turned 3, then 4, and after a particularly interesting classroom visit at her preschool, I started to realize:
I had been babying her way more than I needed to.
At preschool, the classroom is designed so that the children can do everything themselves. They have access to (real) glassware, placemats, and the sink. One child even fills up a small pitcher of water for the entire table. After lunch, they have access to their toothbrushes and toothpaste, their outdoor gear and, since Ellie turned 2, she had been prepping her table setting, filling pitchers, pouring her own water, putting her own toothpaste on her brush, combing her own hair, and dressing herself in coat, snow-pants, even mittens. All by herself!
“So, why on earth am I doing it at home?” I thought. Epiphany! I had been doing WAY more parenting than I needed to and not focusing on the aspects of parenting that I really loved — playing outside, blowing bubbles, dancing, talking to her about her little life worries and challenges.
So, the next time she had an epic meltdown about the yellow cup, about not wanting to get her baby out of her room, about wanting to paint instead of play Barbies, I told her:
That’s it. It’s that simple. You don’t like the yellow cup I offered you at dinner? Get your own. Your granola bar fell in the dirt? Throw it out, and get another one. We put a step-stool in the kitchen and bathroom, made both rooms as kid-safe as possible, put her items within reach, and let go of the mommy- and daddy- reins.
And a (maybe not-so) surprising thing happened! She stopped whining (as much), the temper tantrums have (almost) stopped, and I’m enjoying a nice afternoon couch sit without jumping up every 10 minutes to help her get a glass of water and feed the fish. I’m happier and less stressed too! Sure, there were some messes at first (that she helped clean), but as she got better at these tasks, those stopped too.
It now feels like we live with a third little housemate instead of a toddler-sized dictator.
I’ve also noticed her willingness to change other things in her life, and that she trusts herself more. She has more patience with other tasks, because she knows I won’t rush in and help her finish a puzzle or buckle her babies in their toy car-seat.
And I hope this feeling of empowerment continues into her adult life. There are so many times I’ve felt “stuck” or like I had no power to bring about change in my life. I’ve felt like I was obligated to stay in a job I didn’t want or in a relationship that wasn’t healthy. How empowering to feel like we have the power to change our mind or our life path at any time we want: from the pink cup to a new job!
And our lovely Vermont community is supportive too. The other day Ellie ordered her own chocolate milk from our local cafe. After she got it, she realized she had ordered chocolate by mistake and wanted white milk instead. After a lot of tears and screaming, “I changed my mind!” we calmed her down and got her to simply tell the waitress that she ordered chocolate by mistake. And do you know what that lovely woman said? She smiled and said, “It’s a woman’s right to change her mind,” as she handed Ellie a new white milk.