How I made the biggest parenting mistake ever and lived to tell the tale

As soon as we recognized that Norah A. Babysaurus could comprehend the meaning of “no” and other words, we started teaching her rules.

Our greatest success was when she finally learned that she was allowed to sit on the bottom step of the staircase (which can’t be blocked by a gate) but she was not allowed to stand. It took one full day of mustering all the patience and energy we had to be firm, calm, and consistent in correcting her. When at last she ran over to the step and sat right down, once, twice, every single time,  it honestly felt like we’d won the Nobel Parenting Prize.

Then after a few weeks of almost perfect behavior on the staircase, she started standing again. Consistently. Running over to the step, climbing up, and turning around with a big smile and her arm out, saying, “Ah!” which, to us, sounded a lot like, “Ta da! I can do whatever I want!”

So we started over. As she persisted, it was hard not to get angry at her stubbornness. That smug little grin. That defiant wave. The frustration of her falling when we reached down to pick her up because she’d try to step off as soon as we got close. Over and over again.

Until one day, when I managed to resist being angry for long enough to pay attention. And this is what I realized:

She had climbed up because she wanted to practice stepping down. She wasn’t waving, she was reaching out. She wasn’t saying, “Hah! Look at me asserting my independence and derring-do!” Instead, she was trying to tell me, “Hey, Mama! I can do this, but I need a little help.” So I went to her, held out my hand and asked, “Would you like some help stepping down?” She happily took my hand for balance, carefully stepped down to the floor…and promptly sat down on the step.

I stayed and helped her practice stepping up and down a few more times, until she was ready to move on to something new. No yelling. No tantrums. No frustration. Just good, solid communication.

BOOM. That was the moment — when I realized that all of our frustration and anger was because we simply weren’t listening — I knew we had made the biggest parenting mistake we’ve ever made.

In fact, I replayed it in my mind every day. I don’t want to forget it, because I realize that it’s probably the biggest mistake we could ever possibly make. Trouble is, it’s also the easiest mistake to make.

(I should know. I communicate for a living. And also for a hobby. I also have a master’s degree in it. Which is why I’m hanging my head in the most shameful kind of shame.)

I immediately apologized for not listening sooner. She might not understand the words “I’m sorry,” but I did it anyway, just to get in the habit because one day she will understand. I want her to know that I am not perfect, but I am trying to be good. I want her to know what honest, two-way communication feels like and I don’t want her to settle for less. We hugged for a moment, then she ran off to find Big Ball, I reflected on a very valuable lesson, and everything was good again. As a matter of fact, everything was better.

Since then, Norah A. Babysaurus has started to “ask” for help before she climbs up. She’ll grab my hand and bring me over to the step, or rocking chair, or whatever she wants to try. She’ll make some small indication of what she needs me to do, and that’s what I do — no more, no less. I observe, I ask, I wait, and eventually she succeeds. And that. THAT. Knowing that she knows that we understand — that we want to understand — and that she trusts us to understand, even when she can’t express herself in a way that we’re used to: that is the best prize by far.

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