Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Two Kinds of "Strong"


For those of you with children, do your kids have a "lovey"? You know, that comfort object that must go everywhere your child goes for years on end making it impossible to keep clean?? If you have ever had a child that had a comfort object or if YOU were that child (totally raising my hand over here) then you KNOW how precious that item is...especially at bedtime.

This past Sunday we were getting the kids ready for bed when the unthinkable happened: our oldest son, Gabriel, could not find his beloved Babydoll (yes, a baby doll aptly named "Babydoll") anywhere. Gabriel is almost 4 years old and I kid you not, this had literally NEVER happened since we gave him that precious doll at 18 months old.

Gabriel, 18 mos old with his new doll that basically became a family member

Immediately my husband and I went into "keep the toddler calm" mode while simultaneously starting to dread the potential fallout of such a scenario. We calmly looked through the house, retracing every step since we had returned home from an evening Mass while racking our brains for what we were missing. Long story short, Gabriel definitely had Babydoll at church, he definitely had him as we left the church, and I distinctly remembered handing him the doll after buckling him into his car seat. Yet, the doll was nowhere to be found in the car OR the house and we did not remember seeing him carry it inside.

It was a puzzle for sure, but most importantly we had to figure out how to talk Gabriel through what was probably a terrifying prospect: going to bed without his comfort object.

Like all "wise" parents, we purchased a duplicate babydoll long ago, but we did this far too late in the game for it to make much of a difference. Gabriel refers to the dolls as his "old babydoll" and "new babydoll" and does not at all hold the other doll in any more regard than he does his other various stuffed toys. This means that whenever his beloved Babydoll "needs a bath" we have our work cut out for us as we attempt to temporarily substitute the back-up doll for the real deal.

Many toddlers in this scenario would be extremely upset - angry even. Our sweet Gabriel was undoubtedly upset, but he completely bypassed anger or frustration and went straight to on-the-verge-of-tears and shaky-voice sadness, completely breaking my heart in the process. I remember asking him if he felt sad, him nodding yes, and collapsing into my arms for a big hug.

Thankfully, the bedtime story that Gabriel picked out was Tomie dePaola's Strega Nona and the Twins, which gave me the bright idea to explain that the new babydoll is actually Babydoll's twin. I distracted Gabriel with some light-hearted imaginary play about them being twins, we read the story, dressed the "new" doll in a special outfit, and Gabriel went to sleep peacefully.

All in all, I think my husband and I handled the entire scenario pretty well - but you can imagine how much it did NOT feel like a coincidence that the first thing I read the next morning was this article, which discusses basically the same scenario from our previous night! Go ahead, click over. I'll give you a minute to get caught up....

After reading the article I still felt like Michael and I had done a pretty good job, but I realized that I hadn't said too much of anything to Gabriel about the emotions he surely felt beyond briefly acknowledging his sadness.

The article helped me realize that I really wanted Gabriel to understand how proud I was of him for how he handled the situation -- and that while we have talked a lot about physical strength, this was a prime opportunity to teach him about other kinds of strength.

So, the first thing I did when I entered Gabriel's room was to greet him, plop him down in my lap, and begin telling him how strong he is becoming. At this point he had his old Babydoll back in his arms (another story for another time), but I rehashed that he must have felt sad and missed Babydoll when he went to bed, etc. etc. Then, I asked him if he knew that there were 2 kinds of strength - and of course, he said no because I had never blatantly explained this to him before.

I went on to inform him that other than how strong our bodies are on the outside, there is another kind of strength - which is how strong we are on the inside. I threw out various scenarios about how someone that is strong on the inside is able to calm down when they are angry, is able to say sorry when they make mistakes, can forgive people when they apologize for their mistakes, or can learn to be calm even if they feel really sad. I told him that when he felt sad about not having Babydoll but was able to fall asleep at bedtime anyway he was being very strong and I was proud of him. Of course I reminded him that everyone gets angry or sad sometimes, but told him that learning how to be strong on the inside and knowing what to do when we feel angry or sad is really important - and that I was so proud of him for growing stronger on the inside (I know, I repeat myself with toddlers a LOT - but they don't get quite as sick of hearing things said over and over again in different ways as us adults do). ;)

All of this probably sounds super cheesy, but I'm sure to my 3.5 year old who listened attentively as I spoke those words while hugging him in my lap it was anything but.

Both of my sweet, strong boys (and -surprise!- Babydoll)

Honestly, this felt like one of my better moments as a parent but I'm not sharing this to feel good about myself. Rather, I think it's important for us parents to remember that we have immense power in either dismissing or rightfully addressing our children's emotions - and that they may not learn some things unless we explicitly spell it out for them. My son literally had no idea that there is a type of strength beyond lifting/moving/carrying heavy things until I told him.

I'm sure there are lots of parents that have already explained this concept of both outer and inner strength to their 3 year-olds, but even though we talk a good deal with our kids about emotions this was one topic that had not yet been blatantly discussed. I'm thankful that the article I read helped me recognize this and address it at a time that made sense to Gabriel, which I think is something we're all striving to do for our children. So, if you haven't heard about the train analogy that can change how you see your crying child, consider this a (hopefully) helpful reminder from me to you. It helped me have a beautiful conversation with my son, so here's hoping it speaks to someone else out there as well!

"God is our refuge and strength,
a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change,
though the mountains shake in the heart of the sea;
though its waters roar and foam,
though the mountains tremble with its tumult."
Psalm 46:1-3

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