Sometimes it feels like parenting young children is really a seamless transition from one phase to the next. You’re always waiting for one phase to end and another to begin, but they tend to fold over onto themselves, and you often don’t realize you’ve transitioned until the phase has passed and you’re onto the next.
The first major phase is past infancy, past the sleeplessness, past breastfeeding and bottles and formula, past diapers and walkers and the giant baby swing in the living room. And then, the phases are subtler, like when you can actually leave the door to the basement open and not worry about them throwing themselves down the stairs, or watch a whole 30-minute cartoon without moving, or they put themselves in their car seat.
Each phase is bittersweet — it’s sad to think your babies are growing, but exciting to have the relief of a little more freedom and independence.
Today, I became aware of a new phase, and honestly, it hit me like a ton of bricks when I truly felt the weight of it. Playing at a friend’s house, my oldest, almost 4, was introduced to a couple of older kids he didn’t know, and he responded to them by acting, for lack of a better word, weird. Shy and aloof at first, he then started acting goofy and silly-aggressive (like pretending to be a lion and making odd noises and faces).
I could tell he was aware of his own outsider status and didn’t quite know how to navigate the situation, but frankly, his behavior was beyond bizarre compared to his normal personality.
At some point in the awkward first 30 minutes we were there, my friend innocently enough said to me, “You’ve got your hands full with that one.” I actually froze for a minute, because really, I don’t.
My 2-year-old, right now we are in the throes of it with him, but my almost 4-year-old is relatively easy. He has lots of friends at day care and loves to play make-believe and interact with others. He gets praise from his teachers and generally is really good with people of all ages, having spent a lot of his short little life with many adults.
Today, that little boy did not show up to my friend’s picnic. Instead, he was keenly aware that he didn’t fit in and that these older boys were friends and knew each other. The boys, understandably so, laughed at him because they too were uncomfortable with his behavior. But when they laughed and when my friend made that comment, I immediately wanted to pick up him and his brother and march right out the door and back to my home where we could be our safe little family once again and I could control every interaction my boys experience.
At that moment, I suddenly became aware that my son has hit a new phase in his social development. My little baby boy is turning into a real live person with his own personality, his own quirks, and his own reality. He is finally aware of the fact that other people exist and he doesn’t always fit in. I watched him awkwardly try to make sense of his world today, and it was so painful. I just wanted to rescue him, or at the very least, explain his odd behavior to everyone in the room.
One of my goals is to never let embarrassment be the guiding force in my parenting. If my children’s behavior is unacceptable, that’s one thing, but I don’t want to cheat them out of a real lesson just so I can save face. Initially, I was embarrassed, but I also realized that this is the first time that my son’s behavior will result in others judging him, not just me.
When he didn’t sleep, I wondered if people thought I didn’t know what I was doing. When he cried as a 2-year-old because he wanted a toy, I worried people would think I spoiled him. Today, I worried what people thought of him, and over the course of our afternoon, whether he would be received by these other children or leave feeling sad and dejected. My heart broke for him as I looked on, and I realized that, alone, is a drastically new phase for us.
New phases bring freedom, but they also bring risks. When he started to walk and get around on his own, that was a huge relief, but it was also scary because he could fall at any moment. When he started to eat real food, and I didn’t have to lug bottles and formula to restaurants, that was so freeing, but also nerve-racking because he could choke.
My toddler is now venturing out into the world of other people. He won’t need me to constantly be his source of entertainment. But with that comes the risk that he might get hurt — not physically but emotionally, by others who don’t like him or who don’t understand him. And he may hurt others with his words or laughs or giggles. Adversity is key to children learning resilience, I know this, but I realized today that I will have to watch from a distance and let him experience hardship on his own. I can’t think of anything more difficult!
I wanted to swoop in today, but I didn’t. I wanted to remove my son and save him and myself from the anxiety we were both experiencing. Instead, I let him figure it out. I watched him get more comfortable over the next hour or so. I watched him play a little with the older boys and then go off and play by himself.
By the end of our picnic, the older boys were giving my son a piggyback ride and he asked if he could come back. I had to relinquish control to allow my son to find his way in the little social circle, and I’ll be doing that for a very long time. I guess this will be a journey for both of us as he learns to live his life, and I learn to let him live it.