Even Toddlers Can Be Trustworthy

Lessons in Parenthood: Week 6

Recently my husband Luka recorded a little play time session between Olivia and I. We were all at the table after dinner when Olivia was getting a good laugh out of trying to put my finger in her mouth. I really didn’t think it was funny that she was trying to bite me, but was trying to make light of it by making it a game. As she would pull my hand towards her mouth I would resist and say, “No! No! No!” while smiling and waving around my hand. She was laughing and getting a kick out of it until a certain point when she got a little serious and said, “MAMI! Don’t worry, I have to bite!” I paused for a moment. “Okay, I guess we’ll see where this goes,” I thought.

Sure enough, she put my finger in her mouth and tentatively bit down. I played along, but wasn’t making it much fun. My parenting mind was telling me that this wasn’t a good game for nurturing quality behavior. It was possible that Olivia didn’t understand that we were just playing. I didn’t want her to have so much fun doing this that she went around trying to play bite with other kids or worse, thought it was funny to bite others.

“I bite another finger?” she asked me. “Okay,” I replied, “but not too hard.” She gave me a little chomp that wasn’t painful, but was indeed too hard. “Ow! Olivia, that was too hard. See here? There’s a little mark from your tooth. You need to be more careful.” In hindsight, I still didn’t get it. Then Olivia said, “Now you bite me?” At this point, I really wanted this little game to be over. I wanted to distract her with something else so she would forget about this, but she was unusually sure about what she was doing. I, on the other hand, was hesitant.

My cognitive brain was overriding the intuitive brain.

However, I thought that maybe if I played along at this point we could then move on to something else. I took her little finger and gently gave it a tiny bite. The second I bit down she let out a shrill, “OW! OW! OWWW!” and laughed hysterically. I was terrified at first that I had actually hurt her and then in a split second was laughing myself to tears. She had played me! She really knew this whole time it was just a game.

That video that Luka took has been so much fun to watch. Olivia asks regularly to watch it. I still laugh watching it. And it serves as a good parenting reminder to myself.

Sometimes kids can’t explain to you what’s going on inside their minds. You just have to go along and see where it leads.

This wasn’t the first time Oliva knew what she was doing. Once we were in the grocery store and she wanted me to give her a roll of wrapping paper. “No, Olivia, we don’t need that. We’re not buying any wrapping paper today.” She didn’t throw a fit, she didn’t have a meltdown, she just persisted. Normally I never go back on my word. I feel that once you’ve said something you’ve got to back that up. However, she was so insistent that I looked at her and told her again that when we’re done shopping we put this back and then handed it over. As soon as I did she proceeded to use it as an iconic piece from one of her favorite movies: Mary Poppins’ umbrella. I was amazed. I stopped in my tracks in the middle of the store just to watch her pretend play with this roll of wrapping paper. She sang with it and used it to become Mary Poppins. She knew exactly what she was doing. She saw that wrapping paper and her imagination sparked. She didn’t see it as a roll of paper. It was a piece of magic. At the end of our shopping trip, we put the paper back and continued on our merry way. Olivia had totally satisfied her imagination.

Later that night I relayed the event to Luka. How many times does this happen? In Olivia’s mind she had a clear, reasonable idea and yet she couldn’t explain that to me. What if I had just pushed her along and absolutely refused to give in? I would have stifled her brilliant imagination. I wasn’t beating myself up about it, I was just genuinely astonished at her intelligence and thinking about how I could facilitate it in the future rather than suppress it. Olivia’s mind was so advanced that it surpassed her developmental ability to explain to me in logical terms what was going on inside. That’s when I should have let my intuitive brain take over. That’s when you’ve got to rely on that gut instinct. When “something” tells you that you should go ahead and trust this toddler because possibly you can learn from her.

Children, especially young children, suprise you in many ways. They can be so primal that you forget they are real thinking beings and then they can be so clever and smart that you forget they’re only children.

Maybe that’s one of the things that makes parenthood so challenging. There is no direct path. There is no guarantee. It a continuous ebb and flow of events and emotions. It’s a lot of guessing. Sometimes you make a decision and later come to find out it wasn’t the right one. Maybe you have to adjust. On the other hand, maybe the most challenging aspect is also the most rewarding. The lack of definiteness allows for us to always be creative. It allows us to learn from them. That is the most remarkable bit about parenthood. We learn from them as much (or more) as we hope they learn from us.