My three-year-old ate a literal pile of octopus tentacles at the rehearsal dinner for my brother’s wedding this past weekend.
Two days later I was thanking him for trying a bite of plain white bread.
I was not being sarcastic. My son has a knack for not eating, so this gratitude about the bread was genuine. He just has too much else going on to be bothered to eat most of the time. It’s a real problem.
The octopus was different. The octopus was intriguing to him as a cephlophile (yes, my son wants to devour what he loves). It just wasn’t difficult for him to chow down on those suckers (pun intended). Accordingly, I didn’t have anything to say about it. Instead, I focused on flagging down the servers to get my kid more tentacles. It was a nice change from my usual gustatory role of offering encouragements like, “I noticed that wasn’t easy for you to stop playing and take a bite, and I’m proud of you for doing it anyway.”
I think a large part of good parenting is about noticing our children’s small victories like these. It occurs to me that, even now as an adult, I would enjoy receiving that kind of encouragement more or less all of the time. Of course, it’s not realistic for another adult to provide me with this level of consistent cheerleading. For one, let’s be honest, no one would enjoy spending that much time with me. For another, a lot of the process of being an adult involves some variation of learning how to look like you know what you’re doing even when you don’t. As a result, other adults don’t usually fully appreciate what things are relatively easy for us (say, eating octopus) versus which are more difficult (like eating white bread).
So what to do? Well, the good news is that when we cultivate that attentive and kind voice for our children, there is spillover. That voice gets in our heads and oozes out at interesting moments.
This is part of why it’s so important to notice the kinds of words we fill our days with. The words we say, the words we hear, the words we see, and the words we write — they all matter. Many social scientists contend that language doesn’t just reflect our reality: language shapes our reality. Linguists call it linguistic relativity. Cognitive behavioral psychologists assert that our (often wordy) thoughts shape our behaviors and emotions. But you don’t need science to tell you about how language affects us; you know it from your own life.
So, whether we have kids or not, maybe we should all try being attentive and kind when we speak to ourselves. Maybe we should try noticing what is hard for us and expressing gratitude when we do it anyway. Maybe we should try being proud of ourselves for doing things that aren’t easy the way a mother is a proud of her three-year-old for trying a bite of broccoli (or, you know, a slice of white bread).