The lessons of parenting young children often come too late. You do the best you can with the first kid, ushering him or her through the early stages of childhood, by instinct and expert advice, with varying degrees of success. It’s a thrilling time, but also an exhausting one, when perspective is elusive. And then, somewhere in the middle of it, you have another baby. You can’t quite apply to the new child, though, what you’ve learned from raising the older one, mainly because you aren’t sure at that point what it is you’ve learned or whether you’ve learned anything at all.
That’s my story, at least. I made mistakes with my first son that I didn’t seem to correct with my second. With 26 months between them, I hadn’t yet emerged far enough from the morass of “small children” to see the wreckage clearly. By “mistakes” I don’t mean that I parented them “wrongly” in any objective sense. I am measuring myself only by the practical standard of the kind of children I was intending to raise: children who are confident, respectful, polite, well-adjusted and independent.
These are the five things I learned to this end by the time my second set of kids, a pair of twins, came along five and a half years later…
1. Caution breeds caution. My first child was a timid creature. Slow to walk, slow to climb, for years he wasn’t sure of his body or what it could do. I used to follow him around the playground, arms outstretched, as he tottered from one rung of the ladder to the next. If I could be his human safety net, I thought, he would blossom into a trapeze artist. Except he never wanted to take the leap, literally or metaphorically. His nervousness made me nervous and we spun, together, in a vicious circle: I stopped encouraging him to push past the boundary of his comfort zone, because his discomfort made me uncomfortable. He was then loathe to try something new as a result.
I don’t force my younger kids to scale heights they are scared of or walk headlong into situations that threaten them, but I don’t acquiesce to their tendency to avoid them, either. This means peeling pudgy hands from the top of the slide, despite the protests, and giving that small—but necessary—push. And then seeing their faces alight with glee and pride at the bottom, as they race back up to do it again.
2. A sense of entitlement starts earlier than you think. When it comes to toddlerhood, there are battles and there is the war, but the two are not as clearly defined as we might like. Often we pick our battles, only to realize later on that we aren’t even sure what it is we were “fighting” for in the first place. For me, now, the war of the toddler years is about establishing patterns of respectful behavior. It is true that toddlers are irrational and erratic and as bossy as can be and these characteristics are, in some sense, “just a phase.” But this is not to say that we should weather the storm of the terrible twos and threes with a pint-sized captain at the helm.
Patience and goodwill are one thing, submission is quite another. From the time he could utter a word (“more!”), my firstborn was making demands. I catered to his whims, because it was easier but also because I thought I was supporting him in the quest to find his voice. What this ended up teaching him, however, is that his voice is more important than everybody else’s. Whether a child has a sense of entitlement or not can reduce to the simple distinction between a question and a declaration. I am helping my twins learn, at the impressionable age of two, that most of the things they “want” are not theirs by right. They are, instead, things that need to be asked for. And the answer will not always be “yes.”
3. Manners don’t teach themselves. I didn’t push manners on my first two children. I had a view that gratitude and appreciation should stem from some well of personal epiphany and that to use words like “please” and “thank you” by rote, before they acquired true meaning, would only make them empty. We live in Britain, the land of niceties, and I figured the way around the over-formality here was to let the child see for himself when such expressions were appropriate. To wait until he genuinely felt the feelings behind them.
Not only didn’t my kids pick up manners in a time scale I was comfortable with, but they sounded incredibly rude in the process. So from the moment my twins were old enough to talk, it was “juice please” or “no more, thank you” or “sorry I spilled” even though it was an accident. In the beginning, the words are prompted. But over time they build bridges to the emotions and act as a continual reminder that kindness and reciprocity are the cornerstones of human interaction. And let’s be honest: kids ask so much of us, and they make so many mistakes, that doesn’t it feel exponentially better to meet those requests and misjudgments when they come with a “please” or “sorry” attached?
4. Mom is not the be all and end all. This is obvious if you work outside the home or have commitments that take you away from your young children. It is far less obvious if you are the one nuzzling up to them for every feed and whispering every soft lullaby before they close their eyes for the night. My first two babies were dependent on me for the vast majority of their basic needs—even Dad played a very second fiddle. This was partly because they were breastfed, but it was partly because I construed motherhood as a zero-sum endeavor. Being a stay-at-home mom made me feel like I was in for a penny, in for a pound. That I was somehow morally bound to be the primary caregiver in a way that pushed everybody else to the edges.
I’ll admit it felt good to be needed completely. But being needed in that way leaves little space for the person so needed. When the twins arrived, letting go of the reins was inevitable. We were lucky to have hired help from early on and they were able to bond meaningfully with people other than their mother in a way my older sons never were. What I didn’t count on was how blissful it is to have another human being that can put the baby to bed or give the toddler the consoling cuddle. What I didn’t realize was how healthy it feels to be able to walk out the door by myself, with nobody in tears.
5. Being a parent doesn’t mean being a constant audience. “Watch me, Mom!” A constant refrain out of the mouth of son number one, who at eight is still reluctant to play by himself. I can’t blame him: I spent the first years of his life watching him. Watching him, entertaining him, cheering him on and then watching him some more. I was fascinated by his development, every milestone he hit was like a display of fireworks, impossible to peel my eyes from. I didn’t carve out enough time for him do things on his own or to do nothing at all. I propped him up with toys and gadgets and mother-led activities, as if boredom or loneliness would work some irreparable damage. He wanted me there, that was my rationale, of course he did. If I wasn’t a witness to his feats, it was like they hadn’t happened.
Alas, life is not a stream of continuous validation and being comfortable in your own company is a gift. My younger children are left to their own devices a lot more, when I am “busy” or otherwise engaged, sometimes simply when I think it is good for them. Their presence in the world has shown me the magic of what happens when their older brothers are left to their own devices too, both of whom taught themselves how to ride a bicycle without so much as a wink from me. Having four kids means you can’t be an intensive audience to each of their lives. But it also means they have each other to do some of the watching for you.
A version of this post first appeared on Brain, Child Magazine