As a parent, it’s impossible not to worry about my son. Is he learning age-appropriate skills and meeting developmental milestones? Will he have my height – or lack thereof? Will his ear tubes ever fall out?! He’s four years old, so my current concerns revolve around preschool and kindergarten readiness. Is he supposed to be able to count to one hundred? Should he already be reading? What about writing?
If we focus only on the skills our kids are mastering, we may forget what they’ve already learned and also what they’ve taught us. While trying to teach our kids the ABCs, how to use the toilet, and clean up their toys, it’s easy to overlook that our kids are also teaching us how to be parents.
Here are some of the skills that my son and I have taught each other over the past four years. And believe me, we both have so much more to learn.
I remember a time when my son’s crying meant he wanted either a bottle, a burp, or a new diaper. I was eager for when he could actually use words to tell me what he needed. Now I can barely get a word in when he’s telling me about his daycare adventures. But being able to actually talk and ask questions of each other means we both have developed the ability to better articulate our thoughts and actions. While it sometimes seems like we’re constantly playing a game of twenty questions, he has taught me to use words he understands without talking down to him while explaining concepts and ideas in a way that makes sense. Words not only help us communicate, but also help us connect. My son recently spent several weeks away with family and returned using Tagalog words his nana taught him, promoting both his language development and his connection to family and his Filipino background.
I didn’t think the drastic mood swings started until the teenage years, but I was so wrong! My son can go from giggly and silly play to full-blown tantrum in just a few seconds. And his feelings and emotions are always to the max. In the past, men and boys weren’t supposed to show emotions; it was a sign of weakness or seen as less masculine. Now, we understand that expressing emotions is both necessary and beneficial to everyone’s mental health. My son and I practice showing emotions by making different faces for each other: sad, mad, happy, surprised, confused, and, his favorite, silly. Sometimes when he’s upset, my son will run to another room and return five minutes later as if nothing happened. I’ve starting doing the same thing when I’m frustrated or stressed – accepting my emotions, removing myself from the situation, and taking a few deep breaths. We’ve taught each other that all emotions are valid and accepted, as well as found ways to manage and regulate them with appropriate behavior.
At my son’s three-year wellness visit, his pediatrician told us that this was the year for patience, repetition, and unconditional love. Truer words have never been spoken! As my son develops new skills and language, I’m constantly reminding myself to give him the time to find his words or work through a problem. Watching the cogs slowly turn as he thinks up a solution can be both frustrating and rewarding. He’s also learned that I’m not always immediately available to play with him on the floor, read his favorite book for the hundredth time, or listen to his imaginative stories. When I’m busy or talking to a friend or my wife, he’ll place his hand on my arm when he has something to say. I acknowledge him by placing my hand on his, letting him know that I’ll give him my undivided attention shortly. This simple strategy helps us acknowledge each other and practice our patience. (Full disclosure: This strategy is borrowed from a popular TV show featuring a blue dog and her family. Yes, it’s Bluey.)
Sometimes I miss cuddling with a tiny baby, watching him peacefully sleep in my arms. Other times, I’m amazed by what my son is able to do on his own – climbing playground rock walls, clearing his plate and cup from the table after dinner, changing out of his pajamas and getting dressed for school. From early on, my son has been content with solo playtime, using his imagination to create elaborate adventures with dinosaur figurines or build towering buildings and rocket ships with magnetic tiles. I always encourage independent playtime because it allows my son to become more self-reliant while I also get a chance to drink a hot cup of coffee instead of reheating it four or five times. And as his independence grows, so does mine. No longer tracking when he had his last bottle, remembering when he last used the bathroom, or rocking him to sleep every night, I’ve not only gained more time for myself and self-care, but I also better appreciate our family time together.
Being a Good Human
Although they say not to label your child good or bad, I don’t have a more succinct way to describe the most important lesson we’ve learned besides using the phrase, becoming a good human. I try to use words like kind, friendly, empathetic, or polite when teaching this to my son, but that inevitably leads to a never-ending loop of questions asking what certain words mean when defining these abstract concepts. Sometimes it’s easier to just give examples, like pet the dog gently, ask for permission to play with another child’s toy, check if someone is okay if they get a boo-boo, wave or say hello to people in public, give high fives or fist bumps to friends and family. The best way to teach this lesson is to be a role model and exemplify these traits myself, showing my son the type of person I hope he becomes. And by doing so, he in turn is teaching me to be a better human as well.
My son has yet to master how to tie his shoes, read, or use an inside voice, but he has learned so much in the past four years. It’s amazing watching a baby grow into an independent, curious, and compassionate little human. And while he develops new skills and learns new things every day, he also teaches me how to be a better dad. I’m no expert in childhood development, but it has been a pleasure to share some of the life lessons my son and I have taught each other, knowing we both have a lot of learning left to do.