He was just two. Toddling about in tiny shoes, saying “titty-tat!” with his sweet, high-pitched voice. Tired of diapers, and cloth ones at that, I responded eagerly to my friend who was determined to potty train her same aged son in one weekend. “Yes!” I’d do it, too. We’d be in it together. It’d be grrrrreat.
As a therapist I had enough experience modifying behaviors in young children to believe that given good teaching, shaping behaviors was almost always possible. I was pretty confident.
I tried. For weeks, I tried. He wore nothing but underwear, I cleaned up accident after accident. My friend’s son did great. He was nearly accident free within a few days. This spurned me on. I was so ridiculously determined that I carried his portable training potty with us in our car. You see, he was scared of the big toilets. Automatic flushing ones were terrifying. So, why not carry a toilet with us?
This really should have been a signal to me. When you’re carrying a toilet around in your trunk, that just might be a sign. I should’ve raised a white flag of surrender. Waved the toilet paper in the air and trusted he would come around on his own time. But there was more at play.
I didn’t realize I had gone too far until I found myself getting angry at him. I wasn’t voicing it (I only had one kid still- so much more emotional capacity back then!), but I was feeling it. Deeply frustrated, increasingly mad. Eventually it hit me. This was all because of pride. I was committed to the process because of how I perceived it would reflect on me as a parent, not because it felt like the right thing to do for my child.
I was worried this would make me look like I wasn’t a good teacher. Like I somehow wasn’t an on-top-of-it mother or my son wasn’t smart enough. We were flawed because he wasn’t potty trained at two. Oh my.
That potty training attempt was my first taste of the desire to push my child faster than he was ready emotionally because subconsciously I put my pride on the line. I’ve since encountered it with childcare drop-offs, riding a balance bike, tree climbing, running down hills, swimming, riding a pedal bike, teaching him to read, wanting him to participate in a choir, wanting him to want to play sports and attend soccer camp. At least monthly, I am reminded that this is not my journey.
There is a narrow divide between encouraging, trusting in their resilience, drawing upon their bravery and pushing them too quickly, forcing them into activities, putting our own hopes, fears and expectations on them. Tuning into why I’m upset something isn’t happening keeps me on the right side of the divide.
A few times I have handled letting go of expectations well, though usually after hitting my head against the wall for weeks. The first was when he learned to ride a pedal bike. Christmas morning, weeks prior to his fourth birthday, he woke up to a bike with a big red bow and no training wheels. He had developed great balance with his pedal-free bike, so even though he was young, this was what people encouraged us to do. We took him out that afternoon and he got the hang of it quickly! In our eyes, it was beautiful and couldn’t have gone better. But, he wouldn’t ride again for months.
We would ask and ask and ask. He’d say no. We didn’t want to put training wheels on because it felt like backsliding and we thought he’d come through again. Finally, we gave him room to voice his fears. While we were focused on how well he’d done, all he could recall was a fall that happened at the end of the day. He was scared to bike because he didn’t want to crash. I asked him, “Would you like to try training wheels on your bike to get used to pedaling and braking?” “Yes.” “How many times do you want to practice this way before we take them off again?” “Ten.” Alrighty, then!
After we listened to him, it was that easy. He practiced those new skills ten times and off went the training wheels. He was still very nervous, but found a lot of comfort in the stories Harry and I shared of our own bike falls. I told him about my latest tip over while at a stop sign on a steep Seattle hill in clip-in shoes. Harry told him about his mountain biking accidents. We shared how the falls often hurt, but we always felt like the fun of biking was worth the momentary pain. We normalized his experience- everyone falls, it hurts, most people think it’s worth it.
The same progression happened with swimming. He participated in group swimming lessons when he was four. The only skills I saw improve were techniques to make his classmates giggle while they waited at the wall. Last spring he told us he didn’t want to take swim lessons again, adding, “I will teach myself how to swim.” I believed him. I was also happy to not spend our money on honing his pooltime comedy routine.
Every time we went swimming, he made decent progress, taking little steps that would get him closer to swimming. Finally, after our vacation in June, during which he got more water exposure than usual, he would put his head under while plugging his nose and played lots of water games comfortably. He was probably a little too confident since he still couldn’t float. My concern about his false sense of confidence let me know it was time for more lessons.
A friend told me about private swimming lessons working well for her daughter with a similar disposition, and I thought that would be the best option. No surprise, he didn’t want to go. I told him, “I know you’re nervous, but we believe you are ready to learn more. You’re doing so well now and they’ll help you feel comfortable with the next steps so you can really swim. Pools will be so much more fun!” He wasn’t sold. “I know you still feel scared, but the teacher will listen and help you. They won’t make you do anything you don’t want to do.” Still not buying it. “We believe learning to swim is really important. It lets you have more fun but it also helps you be safer around water. We think it’s important that you’re safe around water. We will keep doing lessons until you are and you can take as long as you need.” Sold! This time he needed the understanding that this wasn’t negotiable but he had permission to go at his pace. He was not excited, but willing. By the end of the first lesson, he was swimming the crawl stroke with his face in the water.
It is difficult for me to determine when I’m taking too much control of his journey or when I need to exert more influence. Our history is teaching me that examining my own hopes and fears is a critical first step, along with listening to him and reflecting his emotions. Normalizing experiences and providing opportunity to practice has helped tremendously, too. But ultimately, it’s about trusting. Believing in his resilience, in his need for security, in his desire to learn. Month by month, I am learning to respect that his journey will often be different than my hopes for him, but if I stay on the right side of the divide, it’ll be just as interesting and rewarding.