The other week my four year old applied his learning in a manner that was most unexpected and unfavorable. A few days before my mortification at his swimming lesson, I decided to teach my four year old son about boundaries, in particular about other adults crossing “touching” boundaries with him. I told him he needed to tell me right away if anybody crossed those boundaries. I told him that even mummy and daddy can’t cross those boundaries. He was silent and seemed to be digesting the information. I decided he was perhaps too young and we left it at that. A few days later, I realized, unexpectedly, that he had indeed processed what I was saying.
L was at a birthday party on Sunday afternoon enjoying running around and trampolining. When the birthday cake came out, he ran to me with a bunch of broccoli and said “I’m eating my healthy food so I can have the unhealthy food after” he beamed, pointing at the birthday cake. All was going smoothly. When it was time to leave, L was visibly exhausted. I know now I made a mistake and deserved what followed next. L’s evening swimming lesson (finally we were able to switch to a morning!) had always been an issue, but this day in particular was difficult because L was not merely recalcitrant but actively resistant. I pushed him because I decided he had missed too many lessons already. I used my authoritative voice and demanded he get in the pool and splash. When the stick approach failed to work I resorted to bribing. I told L we could watch rocket launches and rover landings after dinner. I told him we could eat pizza for dinner. My efforts were fruitless. Still, I pushed on, and in a pugnacious manner, took him to his class. Once L was in his swimmers, begrudgingly holding his goggles, I held his hand and had to push his (naked) shoulder to lead him to the pool. He abruptly stopped, turned and shouted “Mummy, I don’t like when you touch me like that when I’m naked!”
I stood, arrested and mortified. I thought of having to explain to the police or to child services what exactly my son could have meant. As I was pondering my pernicious predicament, my son, assessing my defeated expression, erupted in a victorious smile and surreptitiously said “I am not going in that pool.” My embarrassment fueled into fury. “Oh yes you are” I said with an admittedly unmotherly tone and pushed him all the way to his lesson. Later that night I explained to my son that his accusation could have resulted in his mother being taken away. When he looked avidly distressed and was on the cusp of a cry, I toned it down and realized that my entire instruction on this topic, was ill advised. Back to the drawing board…
M is learning about “love” and that there are different types of love. M and L adore the film “Wall-E” and in that film Wall-E and Eva fall in love. M has some slim understanding of “romantic love” but he knows that Wall-E and Eva have a love like mummy and daddy and not like mummy and M, for instance. M adores making up songs about Wall-E including his hit, “Wall-E goes crunch, crunch, crunch!”
My favourite song by M was a song he composed about his brother a few weeks ago. M was inspired when L did not share a treat I gave them after lunch- chocolate milk. I bought one for them to share, to minimize the amount they would have. L went first and embarked on his own Greater Anatolian Project of a certain upper riparian state. L decided to divert all the resources to himself, leaving only a trifle for his brother, along with some of L’s introduced pollutants. M was highly dissatisfied. After a moment of meltdown, M managed to calm himself down with his breathing exercises and was inspired. Soon we heard M debut his new song. “I drank it all, I left none for my brother, oh, I drank it all, I left none for M! I drank it all, I left none for my brother, oh, I drank it all, I left none for M!” L was displeased but my husband and I were convulsing with laughter. M felt victorious.
M loves to jam with his dad and play guitar. He also loves to draw and paint. The other day I was immensely impressed with his abstract expressionist piece which was in my gestural style. I proudly showed some friends, and some of them thought it was mine (which led me to wonder whether my son was indeed an artistic prodigy or conversely whether this said more about my own abilities). I adore M’s paintings and intended to frame this one in particular, pride of place (“straight to the pool room!” it would be, had we had one), but before I could, M reminded me to do so. “Mama, please put my painting up” he asked. “I made it for you” he reminded me, learning early, it would seem, how to utilize guilt to his advantage.
L has been pondering about life, the universe and everything, though not in that order. The other week he asked me if we would all die. I told him yes. He asked me when we would die. I said we never know when we will expire and that’s why we have to enjoy every moment of the gift of life. I also told him that it’s usually when we are much older and that he needn’t worry about it. L seemed satisfied with this response. Later, he asked me, “why do we die? Why are we alive?” I digested his question as he examined me. I first told him I was immensely pleased that he was ruminating over these important metaphysical issues and that I hoped he would continue to do so. I next told him that for all of humanity, we have wondered why we exist, wondered what is life and what is death and apart from some nebulous understanding that that the two are intertwined, that we have come up with some theories, which some people call “religion” but that nobody knows the answer. I next told him that death gave meaning to life. Life’s inherent vulnerability and seeming termination made it more precious. In this way, death gives meaning to life. As to what the meaning is, nobody yet knows (and even religions admit that, because to have faith is to acknowledge that you don’t know, but believe). I divulged to L that I suspected that not knowing the meaning of life was perhaps the point. “Maybe each of us has to create our own meaning, our own ‘why’” I told him. L enveloped himself in his thoughts after that, digesting this perspective.
This winter we went to Tahoe and it was the first time the boys would remember snow. They gasped at houses enveloped by snow and had an insatiable appetite for it - figuratively and literally. At first M had trepidation as he walked on the snow, but slowly, and through eating it, he developed comfort with his surroundings and began to stomp across the snow. L became an avid sledder. We made a snowman with our friends, with tiny branches for arms, cherry tomatoes for eyes, a carrot for a nose and used sultanas to trace a smile. We had snowball fights. We even got caught in a snowstorm. M was too young to remember Tahoe in the summer, but L was aghast to see how the environment changed. This was a great lead-in to seasons, which he had previously only abstractly perceived. When we arrived and went to get snow gear for the boys, we were choosing boots and a jacket with L when we heard M’s unmistakable cry penetrate across the shop. My husband and I looked at each other in cold panic. M came running up to us, accusing us through cries. “You left me!” he screamed. “You left me alone! You never do that again! That’s dangerous!” Indeed in our panicked rush to obtain gear, we thought that M was behind us as we were trying L’s boots and jacket on, but he had found the company of a blue elephant, named her Ellie after her eponymous ancestry, and had dragged Ellie back to us in order to unleash a well-deserved tirade on our parental slight. We vehemently apologized to M and he nodded his forgiveness, if deciding to end on an admonishing note “You never do that again.”
We moved recently and the move was as distressing as exciting for the boys. At first the boys understood that moving meant we would move away from their school, their baka and their friends and they were aghast and ready to stand against us, even as they understood it was a pyrrhic victory. We sat them down and patiently explained that we were moving nearby and that nothing else would change. They would go to the same school, they would be as close to their friends, and even closer to baka. Yet, they were distressed. When we started to pack away their books and toys, L and M, began to cry. “We don’t want our stuff taken away!” L cried. I explained that we were packing up all our things to move them to our new home. Everything, including us, was moving. L and M were relieved. “We thought the new place wouldn’t have our stuff!” L exclaimed. I realized this was a major slight on my part for not having impressed this sufficiently on them. After that, the move was smooth.
In order to aid the boys in calming their bodies, I am utilizing Kimochis. Every day we take out the Kimochis and discuss the feelings we experienced that day. L, being nearly two years older than M, has benefited from this exercise more. It has aided L in articulating his feelings, but also in being more comfortable in expressing his feelings. For instance, the other day, L picked up a “sad” Kimochi and said that a boy hit him in school that day. I asked why he thought that happened. “I think he wanted to stay at the park.” I asked L why that boy would have hit him for that reason. “I think he was just angry.” I told L that sometimes when we are angry, it is hard to control what we do and that we sometimes hurt people without meaning to. L agreed. He said that the boy was later sorry. I picked up the “grateful” Kimochi and said that I was “grateful” that I could speak with L about his feelings and that L controlled his body, as difficult as that was, to not hit anybody else. I then picked up the “proud” Kimochi and said I was very “proud” of him. L then put down the “sad” Kimochi and informed me he wasn’t sad anymore. Instead, he picked up the “loved” and “happy” Kimochis and told me he now felt loved and happy. I encourage everyone to use Kimochis or some other similar device to help children understand, articulate and think about their feelings. Being able to appreciate what we are feeling is an enormous aid in development – whether we are kids or learning about this as adults. Assessing our feelings uses a different neural path and this distance allows us to gain control over our feelings. If we are assessing our anger or disappointment, we can take a more neutral stance and understand the root causes behind it. It allows our brains to switch from feeling frustrated, for instance, to thinking about being frustrated, and in that manner both to acknowledge the feeling we are experiencing as well as dissipating its force simply through changing the chemical-neural cocktail that we sip.