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Dustin LindenSmith

father | musician | writer

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max at 9 months

on relinquishing petty expectations during the toddler years

I'm not usually slow to anger over a number of things that my kids do. The triggers usually involve not listening to my instructions; doing something I’ve already clearly forbidden them to do (important things like not climbing onto the stove while I’m cooking, for example); or they might be making a mess (seemingly for its own sake). Depending on my mood and the amount of sleep I got the night before, my reaction to behaviour like this can be swift and not infrequently fierce. There’s quite a temper that lurks there, beneath. (I bet I could mitigate that with more strenuous physical exercise...)

I’ve noticed, however, that these angry reactions of mine appear to be brought on not by the behaviour itself of the kids, but rather by my own dashed expectations at that moment. When I round the corner to find Max squirting extra-moisturizing hand cream all over the coffee table, I think to myself, “Dammit! Why does he have to make such a mess all the time? And why doesn’t he listen when I tell him not to do that?!” And then I get mad, sometimes right at him with a raised voice, snatching away the lotion and yanking him away from the coffee table, telling him for the umpteenth time not to play with Mama’s lotion. (Or make-up, or jewelry, or her purse, or her freshly-folded laundry...)

Of course, the reason for my anger is that I keep expecting him to behave better than he’s actually capable of behaving. And when he repeatedly demonstrates for me that my expectations of him are too high for his tender age of 2, I remain angrily ignorant of this fact and keep getting mad at him for not listening to me. It’s a terrible, vicious circle that can only be broken by one person: the parent.

I took some stock of the things that drive me the most crazy about his behaviour. It sounds silly, but mostly it involved making messes. I realized that these events could mostly be avoided if I simply gave him more of my direct attention -- especially when he’s in the kitchen with me. He loves to help out and get involved and act like a grown-up, so if I could slow down some of my mundane kitchen tasks, I might be able to get him involved in some of those tasks instead of him trying to climb up the pantry shelves like a ladder. Maybe I could even teach him how to load the dishwasher!

I also gave some serious thought to how important it is for me not to have messes made in the house. Why is it that I’m holding myself to such high standards of cleanliness when I have two boys under 2 years old running around? Is it realistic or even sane to expect that I’ll be able to keep our house completely clean in that situation? And is it really such a big deal if someone dumps their milk onto the floor? It’s not that hard to clean up. And spilled milk comes with the territory anyway, doesn’t it? (Along with broken plates, hurled toys, and overflowing diapers removed by himself and carried dripping across the living room floor to proudly show you that he pooped?)

I’ve been experimenting with this for about a week, and I’ve noticed a bunch of things right off the bat. My mood in the mornings has drastically improved. It’s not perfect, but it’s much, much better. And I immediately noticed that I often have more patience for him when he does something bad. Furthermore, I’ve realized that these expectations I’ve been holding are just thoughts, and I can change my thoughts with a simple flick of a switch. Everyone can. I simply choose to think about something different, or I make a conscious choice to frame a certain experience in a more positive light instead. And it’s remarkable how much less stressful it is to get through your day like that. Suddenly, barely anything drives you crazy anymore.

Hopefully this isn’t just some sort of psychological calm before the storm or something, and that I’m not just pushing off some emotional tornado that will unleash itself in another week. This feels pretty natural though, and it has had immediate, positive effects on the rest of my family. Ironically, I’ve found that everyone’s behaviour around me improved when I improved my own.

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millennialhippy January 29th, 2009
I wish my own dad thought this much.

iamom January 29th, 2009
(laughing) Maybe so, but look how long it took for me! This only occurred to me a week ago!

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