I was raised by polite and thoughtful parents, and aside from when I was playing with my two younger sisters, I was a pretty polite and thoughtful kid. Regardless of whether or not I wanted to, I (usually) let my friends play with my favourite Barbie, eat the last cherry Starburst, and sleep in the more comfortable sleeping bag. I was fairly good at sharing, for the most part. Of course, if you ask my parents or my sisters (and even my friends) I’m sure they could list of countless times when I wasn’t as thoughtful as I like to remember myself to be.
No one is perfect, and though I have my moments, I do try to remember the things my parents taught me about thinking of others ahead of myself and keeping my selfish tendencies under control.
It is traits like this that I want so badly to instill in Little Miss. Generosity, kindness, thoughtfulness, selflessness, compassion…you know the list because you want your children to exemplify these traits as well. However, since becoming a mother I have found a strange dissonance between my ingrained tendencies to be giving and thoughtful, and my desires to teach Little Miss to have the same. Let me explain.
Last night we got together with some friends of ours whose daughter, who I’ll call Bug, is one day older than our Little Miss. While my friend made supper I was charged with watching the two girls, which is when the dissonance surfaced.
For some reason, everything Little Miss did was of the utmost interest to Bug. I chuckled to myself as I watched the two become all but glued together as they played on the living room floor. When Little Miss crawled to the Bumbo and climbed in it, Bug plopped down on the floor right next to her. When Little Miss picked up a toy to play with, Bug reached for it, too. When Little Miss walked around the kitchen, Bug walked around less than a foot behind her.
After a while the two settled on the living room floor and began to play. If Little Miss tried to take a toy that Bug was playing with, I gently pulled her hands away and explained that Bug was playing with that; they could take turns and there were plenty of toys for both of them.
At one point, Little Miss picked up a toy and Bug immediately reached for it, taking it out of Little Miss’ hands. Little Miss, used to things like this from childcare and then daycare, just watched Bug take the toy. In what felt like slow motion, I realized that I was just sitting there, knowing exactly what was happening, but doing nothing about it. After all, the toys did belong to Bug, and Little Miss didn’t seem too broken-hearted about having the toy taken from her, and this was just teaching her to swallow her human selfish nature and be generous, right?
As I sat there watching, I saw a filmstrip of scenes in my mind’s eye where I’d allowed other children to take toys from Little Miss or nudge her out of the way so they could use something she was using, and I’d simply let them because that was the considerate, generous, selfless thing to do.
The problem was not that I was being considerate, generous or selfless. The problem was that Little Miss had no idea what any of those words meant, and to her, I was saying, “These other children are more important than you, so they get to have the toys and use the things when they want to and you can wait until they’re done.” I was inadvertently telling my daughter that she was second-rate, all so I could avoid an infant scuffle in the play room and show the other mothers that I (and therefore my daughter) was a good person.
What an awful message to send my Little Miss! Instead of what I wanted to be teaching her, I was telling her I cared less for her than for the other children who weren’t even my own. A 12-month-old cannot grasp the concepts of thoughtfulness or generosity. They haven’t even quite gotten ahold of the “Mine!” concept yet. So the lesson I thought I was teaching was instead a hurtful message of misplaced love.
For the rest of the evening I made sure that neither girl took a toy from the other unless the first was done playing with it, regardless of whether Little Miss was taking it from Bug or vice versa. At first I felt a little selfish telling my friend’s daughter that she couldn’t have her own toy because my daughter was playing with it. But really, it’s only right. And I would hope any other mother would do the same if it were their child and Little Miss they were watching.
Unspoken messages are more important than we think to our children, no matter how old they are. Actions speak louder than words – we all know that old adage – and the last thing I want is my actions telling my daughter I love her second-best.