From time to time I jot down something my five-year-old daughter Sally says to me, and the thoughts it leads to on my part, intending to share them here on the blog. But there’s so much to blog about, and these words and thoughts are often shorter and don’t seem to justify an entire blog post. So today I’m collecting a few of them together for your enjoyment and edification.
Sally is finally old enough to buckle her own seatbelt. After years of having to buckle two children in every time we go somewhere, this has been a welcome relief. But it does mean I often have to double check and make sure she actually buckles it. One time last week I glanced back as I prepared to pull out onto the road and noticed that her seatbelt was not buckled.
“Sally, buckle your seatbelt!” I exclaimed over my shoulder. “I don’t want you dying in a car crash!”
“Then just drive carefully!” was Sally’s matter-of-fact response.
I paused and explained to Sally that even if I drove carefully, I might still get into an accident (they’re called “accidents” because they’re “accidental,” after all), and that even if my driving was flawless I couldn’t guarantee that other drivers would drive carefully as well. But Sally’s response got me thinking.
Often times young children make decisions and take risks that seem rational given their knowledge and understanding of the world. To us their actions may look thoughtless or dangerous, and in some cases these actions involve disobedience. But that disobedience frequently hinges not on rebellion or malice but on not understanding why they should obey the rule or dictate or request involved. Sally chose not to buckle her seatbelt because she felt it wasn’t necessary if I would just drive carefully. Why should I require her to be in a harness when I could just drive carefully, after all?
I’ve heard parents who advocate spanking and strict discipline point to how annoying it is to have to explain their reasons to a child in order to win that child’s obedience. WIth spanking and strict discipline, they say, you can get immediate obedience without having to worry about explanations. After all, you know best what’s good for them. Well yes, parents often do know what’s good for their children—such as buckling their seatbelts—but how are children supposed to learn what’s good for them and start practicing it without those explanations?
If a parent bypasses the explanation step (which yes, can be annoying sometimes) and focuses instead on immediate obedience, they are bypassing any real learning taking place for the good of their own convenience.
“Mom, go get me a drink, I’m thirsty!” We were sitting in the living room.
“Wow, you’re quite a little slave driver!” I responded with a laugh.
“Well, then you shouldn’t have made me,” Sally said.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“Because I’m so bossy,” Sally replied with a smile. “You shouldn’t have made me if you didn’t want a so bossy kid!” And with that she fell over laughing.
Now obviously, being bossy isn’t genetic, or at the very least isn’t something that can’t be tempered with a bit of kindness. But Sally has a point—and she knows it. I signed onto this parenting business voluntarily when I chose to carry Sally to term and parent her. This is why it would be wrong of me to be upset with having to change two-year-old Bobby’s diapers, or annoyed at having to answer Sally’s many questions. When I chose to carry Sally and Bobby to term and parent them, I signed up for this.
To use an analogy, it would be wrong for someone to get a dog and then complain about having to feed it every day, complain about having to take it on walks, and complain about having to dispose of its waste. When someone chooses to get a dog, they are signing onto all of those things. It’s a package deal. You can’t have the fun parts of having a dog—the cuddles, the companionship—without those other things as well. The same is true of children—when you choose to have children, you are signing on to caring for and raising them.
Now of course, this doesn’t mean parents shouldn’t ever talk about how hard parenting is, or swap “war stories” with other parents. I’m in a local moms facebook group, and I very much understand that letting it out and looking for emotional support is sometimes necessary. But in the end, these hard things—the sleepless nights, the poop, the occasional toddler meltdowns—are things we signed up for voluntarily. And occasionally that’s something we need to be reminded of.
This last story is slightly different. When I was growing up, swear words were limited to “shoot” and “oh my goodness.” Even “what the heck” was strictly off limits. Sally has a much wider vocabulary available to her. We have taught her two principles. First, there are no bad words, there are only words. What matters is what you do with your words (i.e., you should not use your words to hurt others). Second, different houses (and contexts) have different rules when it comes to language, and when you are in different houses (or contexts) you need to follow those rules.
While driving to visit my parents’ home, I routinely field questions like this: “Mom, is grandma okay with ‘what the heck’?” No Sally, no she is not. When we’re at my parents’ house, Sally usually successfully avoids any offending words or phrases, but sometimes almost slips and then catches herself: “What the . . . fun!” Then she’ll look at me for affirmation that she covered for herself adequately. My parents usually won’t say anything, and if one of my siblings notices I’ll just explain that we have different rules at our house.
One thing I find really fascinating is listening to Sally try to figure out how to use these words for herself. I’ve long known that children pick up English gradually and can get things hilariously wrong or out of order in the learning process. What I didn’t realize was that this is true for this kind of language as well. Sometimes Sally’s use is nothing short of hilarious:
“Can I just get my gummies, for the heck of lord?!”
“Please, please, for the lord of god, make me lemonade!”
Sometimes I can’t help but chuckle at her expressions.
Sally constantly amazes me with her desire to learn and her occasional fumblings as she works to grasp how things work and the rules we live by in our society. In many ways, the early years of childhood are like attempting to acclimate to a foreign country, starting from scratch (children don’t get guidebooks!). They have to learn the language, but they also have to learn the customs. Sometimes they mess up, often completely on accident. Sometimes all they need is more instruction on the culture they’f found themselves in. But most of all, what they need is love, patience, and understanding. It’s not easy, being five—or two.