Last week my oldest son’s school gave the pre-K kids a day off from the grueling grind of blocks and share circles. Keith, 4, is a huge train fan, and so he asked to spend the afternoon with me at Grand Central Station’s train show.
Boarding the subway, he saw three scruffy men looking like they were auditioning for “Scary Guy.” They’d created a sort of conversation nook of subway seats on the R train. So, naturally, Keith made a beeline to sit right in the middle of them.
He immediately told them where we were going, just in case they wanted to kidnap him. But as he talked, they softened their postures to lean in and give this 4-year-old their attention. “Kids today are smarter than us dads ever were,” one said. “We should all just listen to them.”
So I did. For a week, I stopped trying to always lecture Keith and his younger brother Jason, almost 2 years old, and just listen. If I hadn’t, I would have missed the six lessons these little gurus have been trying to teach me all along.
1. The Law of Now
There are no people on earth more “present” than toddlers. I think Carrie Fisher was talking about my kids when she said, “Instant gratification takes too long.”
But they’re also taking account of their surroundings and appreciating life in a sort of hyper-mindfulness. “Hello, sun,” Keith said this weekend, “thank you for shining on me.” It reminded me of a day this summer when Keith and I were rushing to get somewhere that seemed very important at the time. I’d finally gotten him out of our building when he stopped at the rosebush out front. He wanted to smell the roses.
“You have no idea what a cliché this is,” I told him in a know-it-all voice. But I joined him. And I thanked him. And then I Instagrammed it. (I didn’t say I was the Buddha.)
2. The Law of New Friends
Only intrepid kids brave the playground on winter mornings, and my kids are always in search of other kids to play with. This week Keith yelled across a frozen jungle gym, “Girl, do you want to play?” They raced around for an hour, laughing as they formed a unified boycott of hats and gloves. When I asked Keith what the other kid’s name is, he shrugged and replied, “I don’t know. My friend.”
For many years I worked at a company that was murder on new hires. It was a high-pressure job, and the office culture eventually became so negative that most staffers didn’t try to befriend — or even talk to! — newcomers. Why, when they would likely give in and quit within a few months? Keith would have gone up to those new people and sought out commonalities and suggest shared experiences.
This applies to our social circles, too, where many of us have had a “No new friends” rule post-college. I’ve found that following my son’s lead and being open to new friendships with his peers’ parents has been really fun.
3. The Law of “Bye. See you.”
I always know where I stand with my youngest. As he nears his second birthday, Jason is holding tight to every newfound bit of independence. And when he doesn’t want to do something, like have a diaper change, he looks me in the eye and says, “Bye. See you.” It’s not some form of infant sarcasm or shade, it’s just a direct “Nope. Not interested.”
How many times do we say yes to things we don’t really want to do or put up with people we don’t really like anymore? Next time you have someone ask you to do something you know will be a drag, think of my Jason and say, “Bye. See you.”
4. The Law of Forgiveness
Keith can get white-hot mad at me when I tell him "no." And this week I saw Jason also getting a knitted brow when I told him, “No, you cannot smash your guitar against the grandfather clock.”
I’m a dad who thinks my sons are basically the best things to happen to the world since Star Wars. So when it comes to imposing limits, I have to ignore flickers of “Yikes, don’t hate me. I’m cool, I swear. Let’s just hang.” In the moment, I forget not just their need for order but their ability to forgive and move on.
Me? I spent my younger years as a Taylor Swift type, keeping a dusty ledger of grievances with plenty of checks in the “Dead to me” column. There’s no time for that when you’re a dad. You see everyone as a grown-up version of the child that some parent worried over. And as long as they’re not bugging my kids, I’m too sleep-deprived to hold a decent grudge anyway.
5. The Law of “Help Me”
We’ve been having a communication breakthrough with my youngest as he’s realized how to ask for help. It comes out more like “Hep” as he points at a couch he wanted to climb or Play-Doh jar he wants opened. But it’s benefited both of us. I have less guessing to do as a parent, and he feels heard and understood.
I rarely ask for help. Not in some dramatic “I am afraid to show weakness” way. Most times I am just so in my own head that it doesn’t occur to me to ask. So instead I huff and puff in the kitchen, as if E! cameras are capturing my struggle to make the boys’ lunches. And if the camera pans to my husband drinking coffee as I toil, and my imagined viewers tweet their disapproval, then maybe he should examine that.
Or I could just ask for help and be a normal person without giving off the decidedly unsexy and extremely unpopular pheromone, “harried.”
6. The Law of Trying
My boys are still learning new things every day. Keith tried out ice skating at a birthday party yesterday, and Jason is desperate to put his shoes on himself. Neither went well. The main thing is, as I always tell them, that they try. They fall down, they get frustrated with Velcro laces, and sometimes they cry. But they try.
This week I talked someone into applying for a new job. She is smart, capable, and used to being good at what she does, even if it’s no longer fulfilling. She doesn’t have to try anymore and she was afraid to step out of her comfort zone. When she told me she sent in her résumé, I crowned myself as the new Oprah.
But as I give myself an OWN-sized hug, I need to be accountable for the times that I’ve shrunk from the question “What if I fail?” That’s one I’m still working on. Maybe I’ll get it when Keith is in kindergarten.