By Estelle Erasmus
When my daughter was two, we took a short family cruise. Our last night on board, I packed up our luggage and left it in front of our door to be picked up. By the time I realized I had stashed away all her diapers in our oversized suitcase, they’d already collected it.
“I can’t sleep without my pull-ups,” my newly potty trained toddler cried.
“You’re able to hold it in during the day, honey, maybe you can do it in the night, too,” I said.
“I can’t,” she wailed.
With my daughter listening closely, my husband and I investigated where we could get pull-ups. Unfortunately, the shops had closed for the evening.
As I placed a mound of towels in her crib, in a makeshift effort to avoid the flood that was coming—and not just from her eyes— I felt torn with guilt. I reassured my anxious child that she’d make it through the night dry, while my heart ached for her knowing she wouldn’t.
Then her small voice piped up.
“We have to go to the camp on the boat, mommy.”
“You’re not going to the day camp downstairs now. You’re going to bed.”
“No,” she insisted. “The camp has pull-ups. I saw them.”
Racing down three flights of stairs, I was grateful to see a cavalcade of little ones watching a movie. The understanding counselor responded to my plight by donating a few diapers. But the real gift was how my sweet baby had solved her own problem.
It started me thinking about the steps we had taken the first time we tried to toilet train her. First, I bought Once Upon a Potty, which I read to her, and then I got her a potty of her own that I let her decorate with stickers. Finally, I showed her the illustrations from the book to demonstrate exactly how it worked. My Princess sat on her “throne” and did nothing but look at picture books. After a few weeks of trying with no discernible results I was frustrated and gave up.
Shortly after, we attended a party, where the tiara-topped birthday girl in a tutu proudly pulled out her “seat” and filled it to the brim. I saw a light of recognition flash in my toddler’s eyes as she connected the deed with the device. After that, toilet training was a breeze. Just as important, I realized that my child does best when she can model her behavior after someone.
Soon after, I had the chance to help her when I noticed that she came on strong with new friends in the playground, following them around, or reaching out for her pal’s hand, then becoming upset if the girl pulled away.
One day after another incident that left her full of ire, I hugged my frustrated little one.
“Mommy’s going to help you. I’ll show you what to do.”
She hugged me back.
“Let’s pretend I’m your new friend,” I said. Go ahead and take my hand.”
When she did, I pulled it away from her.
“No, I don’t want to hold hands,” I told her in a child’s voice.
“But I want to, mommy,” she said.
“Don’t grab her hand again,” I said. “Just tell her, ‘it’s fine’, then walk away.”
After a few practice sessions—which had her screaming with laughter when I varied the pitches of my voice— she stopped acting desperate for friendship.
The summer she turned five, during a weekly play date three girls battled over who would wear the one sparkly gown for dress-up. It ended up my daughter’s prize, infuriating one of the girls who told the rest not to play with her.
Though we were both upset, I calmed down.
“Listen, sweetie, not everybody is going to get along, and not everybody is going to like you and that’s okay.”
She nodded with rapt attention, brushing back the tears brimming from her eyes.
“If it happens again, say, ‘It’s a free country. You don’t have to play with me and I don’t have to play with you’. Then find something else to do.”
We practiced for a week until she had the words and the attitude right. The next time someone tried to shun her, my girl was ready with the script we’d worked on. The result was minimal emotional collateral damage.
As she grows, I’ve noticed that her friends are exerting more influence on her, particularly when it comes to achievement.
For example, last summer, she was tasked with the deep-water challenge at camp in order to be allowed to paddle boat on the lake. The challenge was to hold her breath underwater for twenty seconds, float on her back for two minutes, and swim four laps without touching the sides of the pool. A few of her friends had already passed the test. At first she was fearful, but I pointed out that everybody starts at beginner levels for any challenge in life.
“Yesterday, your friend Ellen didn’t pass the test, but today she did. She worked hard to do that—it didn’t just come to her. You can pass, it, too. But you have to practice.”
“I will,” she said. And she did.
She came to show me her medal, when several weeks later she aced the test.
“I’m so proud of you, but more important, you should be proud of yourself,” I said.
“I am mom.”
My seven-year-old is eager for more challenges.
Right now, I’m teaching her how to cross the street with me as she carefully observes how I look to the right and the left, and watch for cars turning or backing up, before we start walking across.
“Mom, when I’m older, I’m going to cross the street by myself, and I’m not going to hold your hand at all,” she shares, flush with the power of her future.
If traffic were a metaphor for life, I would say that for now, we’ll practice together navigating the quiet streets of her childhood, in preparation for the busy thoroughfare of her teen years.
Because one day, instead of being steered by me, she’ll need to be the one doing all the driving.
Estelle Erasmus is a journalist and writing coach. She has been published in Brain, Child, The Washington Post On Parenting, parenting.com, Vox, Salon and more. You can read more of her work at: http://estelleserasmus.com