Learned behaviour

The Strange and Fearless Workings of the Childhood Mind

It’s no surprise that kids will follow, mimic and shadow the behaviours of those around and closest to them, be it siblings, classmates and peers, or perhaps most of all, their parents.  So, when our kids exhibit the behaviours and actions that they do, it more often than not makes me proud; but every now and again they will say or do something that makes me step back and question my own actions and wonder “Where the heck did that come from?”  Moreover, when it comes to the subject of their particularly strange little quirks, habits and peccadilloes, I have to wonder: “My goodness.  Is that what I look and sound like?”

On the note of what makes me proud and causes me to reflect back on my own childhood, and my entire life to this point for that matter, I revel in their bravery.  Our kids, well, most kids I’m sure, have a tendency to be less afraid than adults because they don’t fully understand the consequences of their actions.  While this quality allows them to develop, grow and explore freely, what’s challenging about this for a parent, is that their fearlessness equates to our crippling anxiety.

Traveling up the chairlift at the ski hill?  I am great with that when I’m on my own or with another adult.  Sitting next to a child who’s bustling curiosity urges them to lean forward and peak down over the edge of the seat while we’re halfway up the hill?  I never want to go skiing again.  Climbing the tallest tree in the park, reaching the highest of branches; you know, those weakest and most susceptible to bending and bowing under foot at the slightest mis-step?  That very activity sums up most of my childhood and it’s something I still personally enjoy to this very day.  Why is it, then, that when one of my children attempts that very same feat, I feel my blood pressure skyrocket?  These, and so many other activities are, after all, influenced by my own very actions and so who am I to tell them they can’t try it themselves?  And, no: me no longer climbing trees, taking chances, or abandoning my own bravery is not an option.

The difference, I think, is that,  in addition to the naïveté of consequences, they understand their abilities and their foot-hold far better than we do.  We might like to think we know better because we’re older and therefor “wiser” but the reality is that they are actually capable of assessing risk with a level of self-awareness that observers cannot appreciate; we should award them at least some level of credit for this.  See, my default as a parent in these situations is to look first and almost solely at the risk and consequence, while they are looking at the goal and reward, while at the same time strategically mapping out how to reach it. Regardless of whatever anxiety I might feel in the moment, however, I continue to encourage this level of exploration and do my best to stand back and let it happen, because the alternative option, the one where they don’t get to explore and test their limits, seems far more dire.  We still parent with an appropriate level of responsibility and safety of course, but, as someone far more astute than I has taught me: falling is learning*.

*Read as: my wonderful wife is full of wisdom and words far beyond me.

 

 

 

On the note of what has me scratching my head, on the other hand…let me start this section with a question:  do all kid’s behaviour resemble that of an American Red Squirrel, or is it just mine?

In a very literal sense, we are constantly finding stashes of pine cones in various places throughout our home – be it Tupperware containers filled to the brim in the back of our closet, pushed into the toes of our shoes, boots, slippers and loafers, crammed into the mail box, stashed under the bicycles helmets or hidden in every pocket of every article of clothing owned by a member of our household, there is nowhere these things don’t turn up. It’s not a seasonal thing either, this has been a year-round activity and, what began with only pine cones has slowly evolved into boughs of pine needles, dried leaves, acorns and rocks.  We have a forest growing in our living room and I have no idea where this motivation comes from.

Aside from foraging for tree droppings, their behaviour manifests much the same way in which I imagine all children choose to express themselves. Putting on plays, dance recitals, talent shows and stand-up comedy routines in our living room brings joy to our whole family and I especially enjoy when they call me, an innocent and unsuspecting audience member, up to the stage to participate!  I watch them convey their thoughts and feelings in a manner that is wholly reminiscent of how Alison and I communicate within our home; an observation that is all at once an endearing account of our relationship and a scathing reminder that they listen to absolutely everything we say, and pick up on all of our little habits and mannerisms, for better or for worse.

There is no better way to gain insight into oneself than to covertly listen in on your children’s imaginative play time.  Hearing them play house in the basement with their dolly’s provides introspection into how we communicate in our home and reminds me to be cognizant not just of the words I use but the tone in which they are spoken.  I am once again proud to say that I hear them speak with respect, kindness and care to one another as they take on the roles of the parents.  I like to believe that’s a direct reflection of how Alison and I treat one another and all of those around us.

What’s interesting, however, is that, as soon one of them transitions into the role of the baby or “kiddo”, they start to behave precisely in a way they know will push the buttons of the adult character.  They’ll re-enact the scenes from the night before when they refused to go to bed, repeatedly begged for ice cream, put their chewing gum on the hairbrush, used the toilet paper as a colouring book and then rolled it back up onto the dispenser or got caught watching The Sopranos on daddy’s iPhone.  Hearing how they coach each other through these scenarios is a direct reflection on how I approached it only 24-hours earlier, and it’s not always great having the tables turned.

In them I hear the same tone, inflection and choice words that I delivered their way, and from that I am learning.  I am learning that while I hear myself one way, to others it could be interpreted another.  I am learning that, while I am frustrated that they are begging for a snack at the same time I am preparing dinner, what I am not hearing is that they are legitimately hungry and have no concept of time.  I am learning the importance of stating my intentions upfront, to include them in processes, to attempt an engaging conversation instead of making statements, that there my be more effective ways that I could deliver my message and that I shouldn’t default to the thinking that they are asking me a question simply to be a point of frustration.  Their thoughts, questions and emotions are all as legitimate as my own, and they are deserving of my attention, care and respect.  Perhaps most importantly, however,  I am learning through their little re-enactment that they did, in fact, hear me when I said no more marshmallows…they just chose not to listen.

So, Mom and Dad, I am sorry for the anxiety that I only now realize I must have caused you growing up…but at the same time: thank you for not always stopping me from going for it.  I am stronger today as a result.  I am not afraid to take chances, push my limits or face a challenge.  It is clear that our girls see this quality in both Alison and I, and we will forever encourage that growth.

And to Alison: thank you for being a great partner and raising these two beautiful girls in a home full of love, fun and mutual respect.  The appreciation I have for who we are together and the home we’ve built cannot be summed up in a single paragraph; that will be another post, for another day.

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