The most common phrase I heard before we had Sean was something like "babies don't come with an instruction manual" and after having two kids, I could not agree more. When Sean was first born Tom and I were both overwhelmed and overjoyed by the newness of our child. We had no idea why he wouldn't sleep well, why he was spitting up through his nose, why he cried so much. We tried heeding the advice of one friend who told us, "Babies cry. That's it. Babies cry." A simple, subtle yet straightforward instruction that no matter what we do as parents, babies are still going to cry.
Though our kids have come to us without an instruction manual, they seem to hit stages in their young lives where they begin to instruct us. Manual or not, they have many ideas of how things should proceed and how they should be treated.
For example, when Audrey is too loud in church, we will take her in the back or out to the lobby to allow her to be a baby and babble, yelp, or squawk. Sometimes her outbursts are charming: during one procession of golden banners, beautiful music and bells ringing, Audrey raised her hand in the air, pointing at the banners.
Audrey: BA - YA - BADA BAAA!
Which loosely translates into "look at that!"
However, sometimes her outbursts are not so charming. Sometimes she begins thrashing around, accidentally head butting me or Tom, and then one of us will carry her quickly to the back. During these times, Sean seizes his opportunity to get away from the pew and follow us. When he begins talking too loudly at the back of church, I will try to instruct him while gently asking him to be quiet.
me: Sean, people are praying. They are listening to the priest. Or they are just taking a quiet moment to breathe. We need to be quiet so other people can think and pray.
Sean: (loudly) Oookay.
Then as Audrey pipes up with something, Sean feels the need to instruct her.
Sean: Shhhh! Quiet, Audrey! We are in church!
Recently, I've found these little instructive moments turned around on me unexpectedly. One day I was looking for a sippy cup lid, and I couldn't find it anywhere. I searched the usual places, I inventoried all the kid plates/cups/silverware, and I dug through the bowels of the dishwasher. Nothing. Finally after moving from living room to dining room to kitchen three or four times, I threw in the towel.
me: (muttering to myself) Where is that lid? I just don't know what could have happened to it - I feel like it was here earlier this morning.
Sean: (sympathetically nodding at me) Maybe we could wait until Dada gets home and he can find it. He finds things.
The implication being that I do NOT find things. The implication being that I am incapable, inept, or just ignorant of the placement of things in the house. Sean was of course just trying to help. Later in the day I would find said sippy cup lid sitting on Sean's art table. The implication being that he TOOK the sippy cup lid, was playing with it, and then forgot that he'd removed it from the kitchen. Classic!
Similarly, there was a day when Sean asked if he could go play at our neighbors' house. These neighbors have kids who are roughly Sean and Audrey's ages and our kids play together all the time. On this particular day, though, there was a babysitter watching the kids, so I didn't want to add Sean to the babysitter's load. I told Sean, "no, you can't go over there right now." And he obliged. When Tom got home, he received an interesting observation about the difference between our parenting styles.
Sean: Dada, can I go over to Greta's backyard?
Sean: But Mom said no.
Tom: She did? Well I'm sure there's a reason Mom said no. Let's go discuss it with her.
Sean: Yeah but, Dada, Mom said no. Mom says no, and you usually say yes.
Or while looking at pictures from his grandparents' recent trip to Italy, Sean got bored. He didn't understand why so many pictures were minus people. At one point, he piped up with a direct instruction.
Sean: Grandpa, can we look at some pictures of me and Audrey?
There was common laughter amongst all of us adults, some mild placating of Sean, and then we instructed him to wait a couple more minutes while we finished looking at pictures. Shortly thereafter, Sean was displeased that we were still looking at beautiful pictures of Tuscany.
Sean: (to his grandparents) Isn't it time for you to go now?
Embarrassing and rude. That's what I felt like saying to him. Instead, as the adults, we quickly wrapped up looking at pictures and scurried the kids along to their bath. The grandparents, being biased with love towards Sean, were gracious and easy going about his comment.
One night I was rocking with Audrey and had her nearly asleep and laid down in her crib when she woke up long enough to poop. We then had to turn on the lights, change the diaper, thereby waking her up fully, and start the whole process of going to sleep all over again. It was a hot night, and walking/rocking with her was sweaty and uncomfortable. Audrey was restless, and she couldn't find a good spot to snuggle in while I was holding her. Finally I laid her down in her crib, rubbed her back a couple times, hoping she would conk out. Instead she picked up her dolly, gave her a few good hugs and then looked me right in the eye.
Audrey: (unflinching) Dada.
I spun on my heel, nearly laughing to myself at how ridiculous this moment felt. HA! My one year old is already finding ways to give me instructions! The usual moment of sadness or crying that would come from her because I've left the room never came. Instead, she was quiet. Perhaps she was going to sleep? I headed for the kitchen.
me: Tomas, Audrey has decided she wants you to put her to sleep.
Audrey: (from the other room, distantly, distinctly) Dada.
Ooooookay. As soon as Tom went in and picked her up, she nestled right into his chest and went to sleep. Her instruction was clear.
When Sean is sad to leave a playdate with friends or a social gathering at the neighbors, he will frequently clam-up about saying goodbye. Though I feel it comes off as rude, I believe in my heart that he just doesn't want the fun to come to an end. He believes if he holds out from saying goodby, he doesn't have to leave. And as much as I'd like to be compassionate, I want him to be respectful, kind, and appropriate in these situations. I want our kids to learn to be gracious and grateful to those we love. I want them to maintain their manners and look people directly in the eye when speaking. I instruct them to do so all the time, and we practice frequently, yet we still have these moments when manners go out the window: this gets under my skin. Why do we work 45 times a day on saying thank you if you can't put it to use in the outside world? Why do I harp on manners if in public it appears as though you're averse to being appreciative!?!
Granted, I'm over-dramatizing (which I'm wont to do), because mostly our kids are great. They have wonderful manners, and specifically when I'm not present, others who watch Sean tell me so. Many people comment on how grown up he seems, how articulate he is, how creative and fun he is to be with. Even as we work on saying goodbyes no matter how upset he is to leave, I still can see how our little instructions 38 times a day are beginning to make pathways in the brain that I hope will live on forever. Moreover I hope it's not just the simple manners spewed off by rote that stick with him. I hope it's an internal sense for gratitude. A recognition that human connection is what carries us along in this life, and the way to appreciate that is to let people know that we love and appreciate them back.
While at our neighbors' house for dinner the other night, one such moment occurred where I'd hoped the rote manners would kick in. There was a delicious spread of grilled food, fresh fruit, chips and dessert to come. Our every need was taken care of, and our comfort was high. Upon placing a plate of food in front of Sean, Tom and I echoed each other in our instruction.
me and Tom (as happens so frequently after almost 5 years of marriage): What do you say, Sean?
And his instruction back was distinct and clear.
Sean: I need a fork.