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Life lessons go both ways

In Other Words


Someone once told me that the first five years of a child’s life are remarkable in their ability for rapid change. Every few months bring about a new life stage that changes how a child sees his or her world and interacts with it. As my daughter moves through these stages, I have had to change with her. And change, as always, is challenging.

My daughter is now almost 4, and for some time we have been moving out of the moment-by-moment living that is the life of a toddler. At that stage, I found parenting her to be very clear. Her life unfolded right now, so depending on the needs of that moment, I gave her food, shelter, nourishment, and as much unconditional love as I could squeeze into our day. Teachable moments were also quite clear: sharing is caring, say please and thank you, kindness is king.

But as we have moved out of the reactionary toddler stage, I have seen her transitioning into a much more complex world where there is genuine purpose to her thoughts and actions. It has become my role to explain people’s motives and reasons behind disagreements. Not surprisingly, I often find myself at a total loss.

Luckily, I’m not alone in trying to explain this complex world of other people’s thoughts. It turns out reading a story can lend insight that a simple explanation from a parent does not. Research has shown that the more inclusive thoughts and feelings are in the characters of stories we read, the more my daughter will understand the emotions in others.

I’ve always been heartened by the pure kindness that I witness in children. In fact, recent research on shows that “kids come into the world programmed to be helpful and cooperative.” From what I’ve witnessed as a parent, it seems that a kind intent often gets lost in translation. Perhaps it is simply our job to help to relay the message and teach them how to express their own thoughts and actions clearly.

I’m not implying that children are pre-programmed to be perfect and we as parents are screwing them up. Sharing, especially of a prized possession like a toy, is not something any kid will willingly do. Without knowing when, or if, they will get that toy back, letting a friend play with it seems to a kid like they are giving it up forever.

However, new research out of the University of British Columbia shows that when toddlers share a treat, such as crackers or candy, they actually experience an emotional high and there is a boost of genuine happiness. Maybe it is our job as parents to remember to ask for things that are within the realm of understanding. Sharing goldfish is something they understand, whereas sharing a doll is terrifying.

My nearly-4-year-old is just on the brink of understanding the vast materialistic world that is just beyond her fingertips. Sharing toys has become easier as she has gained a deeper understanding of time and patterns. Never has a child come over for a play date and taken her favorite doll home, and by now my daughter is picking up on those patterns. But as she has gotten older we have moved out of only being interested in what is directly in front of her eyes.

Thankfully, there is enough of the toddler still in her to be delighted by what is directly in front of her. And here is a trait of children that even the most materialistic among us can learn from. Research in the Journal of Positive Psychology has firmly proven the old adage, “wanting what you have is more important to health and well being than getting what you want.”

It seems, as I’ve suspected from the moment my daughter first batted her baby blues at me, she is teaching me as much as I teach her.

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