One of parenting’s great delights, along with baby giggles and toddler bedhead, are the words and phrases my kids mix up or use incorrectly. Unless it’s horribly inappropriate, I rarely correct these little mistakes; babies don’t keep, and they’ll figure it out eventually. In the meantime, hearing their innocent misspeaks makes me incredibly happy. (At the moment, I love that my two-year-old thinks caterpillars say, “ribbit,” and when we enter the caterpillar room at our local botanical gardens, he walks around croaking like a frog.)
Since my four-year-old, Ian, started preschool last fall, he’s picked up on the concept of tattling: When someone makes you angry, run to the nearest adult and list your grievances with a long face and a whining voice. Of course, he’s done this instinctively for a long time, but now it’s intentional. He has learned the threat of punishment after tattling just might deter the assailant (usually his younger brother) from following through on snatching the Hot Wheel car.
But Ian has it a little mixed up right now. When he means to say, “I’m telling on you,” he says, “I’m counting on you!”
In the kitchen the other day—during that miserable pre-dinner witching hour—he was furious with me because I refused his demands for an additional snack. He scowled, crossed his arms (who teaches him this stuff?) and in his best 4-year-old snarl said, “I am counting on you, Mama!” I couldn’t help but smile and pull him in for a hug.
At church a few weeks ago, we sat down a row or two behind a family that gave me a glimpse of what our family might look like in another 15-or-so years. The husband and wife—solidly middle-aged and going gray—and three children—two boys who appeared to be in their late teens or early 20s and a preteen daughter. They were lined up in the gray chairs: dad at the aisle, then mom, son, daughter, son. While we stood singing during worship, the dad pulled his vibrating phone out of his pocket and hustled out of the sanctuary to take a call. The wife kept turning to look back toward the door, wondering where he had gone. When he returned a couple minutes later, she put her hand on his elbow and asked, “What’s going on?” I watched him take a deep breath and purse his lips, steeling himself before he leaned in and whispered something in her ear. She stood up straight and stared at him for a moment, saying nothing. She then turned to her right and passed the news on down the line to her children.
Within a few moments, the daughter began to cry. One brother put his arm around her, she leaned into his side, and he rubbed her back in a circular motion as the tears fell. When he stopped a few minutes later, the other brother took over his post. Through the rest of the worship service, these two brothers alternated comforting their little sister in shifts, until the songs ended and everyone took their seats. I was struck by the display of compassion, by their gentle touch, by the way she leaned on them so fully and the way they allowed her to.
Because I’m raising two boys and their younger sister, I spend a lot of time thinking about these gender dynamics. I’m not interested in cultural stereotypes that paint girls as emotional and boys as strong, or girls as nurturers and boys as protectors. I think all my children can embody all those characteristics. I am not content to merely raise a strong daughter; I also want to raise compassionate and emotionally-intelligent sons. I look around at the world and I see people incapable of listening, empathizing, and expressing their emotions in ways that are both authentic and helpful. I am determined to do better by my boys.
Several years ago, when I was still pregnant with our first child, I watched an interaction between a mom and her preschooler. He was melting down because it was time for them to leave. She kneeled down, held his hands, and said, “It is ok to be angry. It is not ok to yell.” Since we entered the toddler stage, I have used that exact sentence or some variation of it almost every day. It’s such a simple phrase, but it’s versatile and helpful in an almost endless number of parenting scenarios.
It is ok to be sad. It is not ok to speak that way.
It is ok to be upset. It is not ok to hit.
It is ok to be silly. It is not ok to scream.
While I know all toddlers feel their emotions strongly, I also know that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, here. I have always had strong emotions, but I somehow learned to believe that it was bad to be sensitive, bad to cry, and unpleasant emotions should be stifled. I know better, now, and I don’t want my kids to grow up with the same misconceptions. Those two sentences, paired together, allow me to affirm my kids’ emotions, while also guiding them towards more appropriate behavior.
The reality is that if we are not comfortable with our own emotions, it’s very difficult to walk with others through their sad moments. I watched those boys—practically men—at church, and while I don’t know this family or how they operate, it was clear they were taught not to run away from sadness. Whether by words or example, those boys had learned that negative emotions are meant to be felt, and they knew to be there for their sister when she needed support.
I still haven’t corrected Ian’s mix-up; as far as I’m concerned, he can keep saying, “I’m counting on you,” forever, because it’s true. I want him to know that no matter how he feels–even if it’s hot anger directed at me–I will not run away. I am not scared of his big feelings, his disappointments, his anger, or his sadness. I believe a child most needs to lean on the love and compassion of a family when they are angry, disappointed, or scared. I know life’s twists and turns will ask us to count on one another, again and again.
Like those boys did for their sister in the middle of the sanctuary, and like I did for Ian in the kitchen that afternoon, I’ll keep pulling my boys close. I’ll tell them it’s ok to be sad, or angry, or hurt. I’ll try to model the compassion I desire in their character. I’ll remind them that no matter what, they can count on me, and I’ll teach them to be men who can be counted on.
Lindsey is a writer, reader, and mom who is slowly learning to trade perfectionism for freedom. A Florida-to-Michigan transplant, her faith and sense of purpose are shifting as she experiences seasons in the world and in her own life. Lindsey is also the co-founder of The Drafting Desk, a newsletter for anyone trying to pursue grace instead of perfection. You can find her on Instagram @lindseycornett.
For April 2018, we are hosting a whole series about Intentionally Cultivating Your Family Culture. Check out Episode #37 with guest Lora Cook and members of the Kindred Mom team, and check back to read more essays in the series as the month unfolds. If you missed it, check out our completed March series on Becoming a Resilient Mom!
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Check out the most recent episode of the Kindred Mom podcast, Episode 37 on Intentionally Cultivating Your Family Culture!