One day last week, Clara looked a little sad coming out of school. The kind of sad face most of us see from time to time – the one that makes you think “Please let this be because she didn’t like her sandwiches and not that she’s decided she hates school.”
I gave her a big hug and asked her what was wrong. “I don’t really want to talk about it,” she said. I suggested we chat in the car, and she nodded her agreement. Emmie took her hand and walked with her through the school gates, chatting about having seen her in assembly earlier – the novelty of both being in the same school hasn’t worn off.
In the car, I asked again if she wanted to tell me what was wrong. It turned out a school-friend had called her bossy. I hesitated before answering, wondering how best to handle it. I figured I should probably find out what the context was and take it from there.
“That’s not true – you’re not bossy at all,” said Emmie, interrupting my thoughts. Her words caught me, but even more so, her tone caught me. Sympathy, worry, reassurance and defensiveness all wrapped up together in her quietly concerned five-year-old voice.
Ah. That’s what I should have said. Instead of questioning it or looking for context or entertaining it at all. I could really learn a lesson from this wise little girl. And it’s not the first time she’s shown me how it should be done. A few weeks ago, I was rushing out to work, trying to find my keys, feeling the familiar bubble of rising stress. Everyone needed me and I needed my keys – it wasn’t a good equation.
Clara was calling for more Rice Krispies, Emmie was pouring and spilling a glass of milk, and Sam was eating a yogurt with his hands. I pulled on my suit jacket while checking the toy-box for keys, feeling more and more stressed as I watched the clock tick way past time-to-go. Suddenly Sam ran over and grabbed my leg. With yogurty handprints all over my trousers, no wipes to hand, and still no keys, I got cross. “Don’t do that! You’ve got yogurt all over me !” I said, which made him hold on tighter. Just as I was about to lose it completely, Emmie, watching nearby, spoke up. “Mum, he’s just trying to hug you. Don’t be cross with him.” And just like last week, it stopped me in my tracks. Of course she was right. And those quiet words were all it took to diffuse the stress. I hugged Sam back, then slowed down long enough to find some wipes, to find the keys, and to kiss everyone goodbye. Thank goodness for five-year-old wisdom.
Then a few nights ago, I got cross at bedtime (and yes, I realise I sound like a terrible mother but I’m focusing on some specific points here – mostly I fall somewhere between politically correct over-enthusiasm and mild impatience)
Nobody would go to sleep, I had tripped over a My Little Pony and there was a pile of laundry staring at me from the landing floor, daring me to try dodging past it for the third night in a row.
“Girls! I’ve had enough – no more talking, no more getting out of bed. I’m really fed up with this. We’re not going to do anything nice at the weekend if this keeps up – that’s it, now I mean it!” I said, in a shouted whisper, trying not to wake the toddler.
“Mum, when you talk like that to us, it doesn’t make us feel like doing what you say, it just makes us sad,” said Emmie, in a quiet voice. And like a pin to a balloon, she diffused my anger. Frustrated though I was, I could see that she was right.
I’d like to say that I’ve learnt my lesson and will get it right from now on, but of course I won’t. I’ll still get cross, I’ll still yell, I’ll still get stressed. I do plan to pay more attention to the five-year-old though – there’s a wise and empathetic head on those small shoulders.