Tuesday, March 31, 2015

“Can’t”: The Worst Four-Letter Word You Can Use Around Your Kids*

*Although I don’t condone the use of f*** around them either, which isn't to say that I'm not often tempted.

The tenacity of toddlers never ceases to amaze me.

I took the boys to the playground today, and Trystan was in a particularly fearless mood, swinging from the monkey bars without me standing nearby to catch him, sprinting up the slides, tip-toeing down the ladders. (I've told him, repeatedly, that the playground has the same rules as the board game: UP the ladders, DOWN the slides. He’s not one to stick to convention.) At one point, he even had the nerve to approach an adorable curly-haired little girl and initiate a little play-date of sorts. I mean, the kid’s got swag.

Ed Sheeran's Lego House ain't got shit
on this Mega Bloks tower.

After about fifteen minutes of this playground bravado, he decided he wanted to take things a step further (literally) and traverse The Stairway of Death. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, I mention it here, about halfway through the post. Essentially, it is a treacherously steep staircase, constructed on the local playground premises, presumably to keep moms on their toes and off their iPhones, since it follows The Universal Toddler Law of  x10 = y, where x is the likelihood of death a given situation presents, and y is its corresponding level of appeal. I suppose you could also refer to it as The Stairway to Heaven, depending on how dark your sense of humor is.

Trystan is well aware of my feelings toward TSoD. I've pretty much brainwashed him with warnings about it. Whenever we’re near the thing, he looks at me; points his typically-toddleresque, dirt-encrusted fingernail at it; and parrots “Doo deep! Doo deep!” (Too steep! Too steep!)

Today, however, on this ballsiest of mid-mornings, he decided nothing was “doo deep” for his bad-ass, three-foot self.

There is more than one path that leads to the top of TSoD (doesn't that sound philosophical?). Besides the obvious one (scaling it like a rock climber), you can also take a less-lethal staircase, followed by a benevolently-inclined ramp that winds around to the top. Trystan took this amiable route, looked down at the challenge before him, and gingerly lifted his Planes light-up sneaker, allowing it to hover over the top step. He then proceeded to look at me expectantly—a mischievous, challenging glint in his perfectly-hazel eyes—and waited for the words he knew I was about to spew in his direction.

“Trystan, you can’t walk down that. It’s too steep.”

I moved to stop him, but he started whining and stomping his feet in that comical, quintessentially tantrumming-toddler fashion. So I backed away but told him, again, “Honey, you can’t use those stairs."

He just grinned that impish little grin of his and slowly began making his way down. Instead of fighting him on it, I stood at the bottom, waiting to catch his tumbling little toddler body. I thought that maybe if he fell once, he’d be more inclined (pun intended) to heed my warnings in the future. And when that little toddler body did, inevitably, tumble into my arms, it began shaking with—what I presumed to be—frightened sobs.

But it turns out, I was wrong. He wasn't afraid; he was disappointed. He had set his mind on walking down that staircase and failed. I'd barely had the chance to console him before he was sprinting his way back to the top of the staircase—tears still fresh on his cheeks—and once again embarking on the perilous journey down.

This time, he made it without so much as a stumble.

This time, once he'd reached the bottom, his eyes didn't glisten with tears; they glistened with pride.

As I embraced him and congratulated him on his achievement, I felt his little heart beating rapidly against my own, still racing with the exhilaration and adrenaline of his feat. It dawned on me that my “can’t” had almost cost him that moment: That sense of accomplishment. That look of pride. That exuberant grin. That exhilarated little heart and that elated hug.

Why are adults so eager to put limits on what kids “can” do?

This wasn't the first time that I’d been humbled by my kids’ unwavering determination. I once observed Ollie stabbing at his Cheerios with a fork during breakfast, and instinctively told him, “You can’t eat Cheerios with a fork, honey.” I didn't give his endeavor a second thought as I turned my back on him to resume doing the dishes. Shortly after, I felt a gentle tug on the back of my pajama pants and turned around to see him grinning up at me, his crooked little teeth jutting out beyond his lower lip, holding this up proudly, as if it were the Olympic torch, and he’d just carried it all the way from Greece:

I had to steal it from him to get a decent picture 
because he wouldn't stop slashing it through the 
air, as if it were a sword, forged in a plastic toddler 
bowl, ready to slice my closed-mindedness in half, 
to the tune of  its maker's defiant battle cry: 

Although it certainly comes with its frustrations (trying to brush their teeth comes to mind), I’m glad that my kids are so stubborn—that they don’t automatically accept an adult’s words as universal truth. Like Trystan on the staircase, Oliver refused to take my “can’t” to heart. He learned to be creative. He learned not to give up. He learned that Cheerios taste so much sweeter when they're eaten off the prongs of a kiddie fork.

We could learn a thing or two from our kids about the value of perseverance.

How many other “can’t”s have I committed as a parent? How many other times have I deprived myself or my children of a poignant moment, a beautiful memory, or a personal triumph by using that restrictive four-letter word? How many times could I—like my children—have found a way?

We can’t go outside right now because it’s raining.

So let’s run around barefoot and build a mudman. Let’s do the Hot Dog dance in the puddles. Let’s make mudcakes and hunt for worms and paint each other’s arms with dirty rainwater.

We can’t go for a walk; it’s bedtime.

Let’s say our prayers outside and marvel at the moon. Let’s make wishes on stars, chirp along with the crickets, and laugh at the fireflies winking at us through the darkness.

You can’t play that board game; it’s too complicated.

So let’s make up our own rules. Let’s make the game pieces talk to one another, stage a Candyland battle, and point out all of our favorite colors on the game board.

I can’t read to you until I finish cleaning the kitchen.

Why don’t I do the dishes in the morning, while you’re eating breakfast? I can splash you with dishwater and talk to you in my Skippyjon Jones voice—the one I used last night, while you were curled in my lap, shaking with giggles at my horrendous attempt at a Spanish-kitty accent.

I can’t sit with you all night until you fall asleep.

Why not? There will come a day when you don’t want me to anymore. I can spend the night reveling in the sounds of your gentle breathing, basking in the softness of your baby-skinned hand in mine, and drifting to sleep with my lips pressed gently against your forehead.

I can’t hold you right now.

Yes, I can. But I won’t be able to when you’re 18.

You can’t have those M&Ms; they’re Mama’s.

(Okay, maybe there's just no way around this one.)

There is something heartrendingly beautiful in a child’s belief that he can do anything. As adults, we become complacent. We stick to what we know, what is comfortable, what is easy, and what is safe. We shy away from things that we might fail, because we know how much failure can hurt. We allow that fear to staunch the flow of passion that is born of our hearts—to choke it off before it even has the chance to reach our heads and compel us to act. We settle.

I don’t want my children to settle.

I wish they could feel invincible forever. But we live in an often unforgiving world, a world where people are ready to spew out the word “can’t,” where people use the failures of others to justify their own, where it is the norm to allow the fear of disappointment to dictate our actions.

I hope that as they grow older, and other people scoff when they stumble, they maintain the resiliency that I see in them now. I hope that they remember all the times they proved Mama wrong, and how good it felt. I hope they keep braving steep stairways and garnering stray cheerios.

If there’s one thing I “can’t” do, it’s protect them from the cruelty of others.

But for now, I can teach them that it is better to try and be laughed at than to not try at all.

I can support them. 

I can encourage them to test their limits and push beyond the edges of their potential.

I can applaud their efforts, even when they're futile.

I can allow them to try and fail, and try again, and grow.

I can be there to watch them fork a cheerio.

I can be there to catch them when things are “doo deep.”

I’m not naive. I know that when you’re raising young children, your first priority is to keep them safe. There are times for “shouldn't.” There are times for “won’t.” There are definitely times for “I really don’t feel like it right now.”

But there is never a good time for “can’t.”

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