There's a playground near Jake's nursery. We go there at least twice a week. He loves the swings and the maze, but one thing he's found tricky for a long time is the slide there. It's very high and part of a jungle gym thing that's actually designed for older children. You have to climb over a steeply curved metal bridge to get to the slide and it can get slippery. The first few times he tried it, maybe a year ago, he got over the bridge by himself no problem. Then he'd get to the slide, look down and decide he didn't want to go down it. He did that a few times and then he went for a long period of simply ignoring it. Then one day he decided to go down the slide. He enjoyed it. So he went to try it again and slipped while going up the bridge and then for some reason, went down the slide too fast and tumbled over when he reached the bottom. It upset him and for a very long time, he wouldn't go back on it. He'd go up the stairs and he'd even go over the bridge - always asking for my hand to help him - but he'd look at the slide and decide no.
Yesterday, in the middle of playing chase with me, he ran over to the slide. He got over the bridge without my help and then he went down the slide without tumbling over. He was delighted. He did it again. And again and again and again. At the top of the bridge the first time, he called to me, "Mummy! Look! I did it! I went over the bridge by myself!! Yesterday, I can't do it. But today, I can!!" I had tears in my eyes.
So many times, we'd watched smaller and younger children go up and down without any help, without any fear but I never made him feel like he had to do it. I never pushed him. I knew he'd get there when he was ready. And he did. And that sense of accomplishment he felt, well that was priceless. He'll always have that feeling, knowing he was never pushed or coerced to get there. It totally belongs to him.
Now, imagine I've just been talking about potty training. Why shouldn't it the same? Why must pressures be applied for children to reach certain milestones quicker than others? Ok, some people might not think going down a big slide is a milestone, but for Jake it was a Big Deal. And I was so happy that I didn't push him or make him feel like a scaredy cat or a lesser child for taking longer than other, perhaps younger children, to get there.
A few weeks ago, the manager of the nursery Jake attends started putting pressure on us to start potty training him. The reason is, once they are 3, they get moved out of toddler room to pre-school and in pre-school, they don't have the staff ratio to do potty training. Jake is 2 years 9 months old. We have started introducing him to the potty already, but it's been in stops and starts. We've read books with him, we've asked him if he's wanted to use it and never pushed when he said no, which, despite a few successes early on, he has continued to do.
When the nursery asked me about this, I told them I didn't think he was ready but we could give it a try. It didn't go well. After being settled and happy at the nursery for a long time, Jake suddenly had the biggest, angriest tantrums I've ever seen him have. Even after they stopped and we told him we weren't going to make him use the potty, he has continued to feel upset about going to nursery. Today was the first day in about 2 weeks that he hasn't cried when I dropped him off.
When Paul & I tried to talk to the nursery manager about it, and about what would happen if he wasn't potty trained by their cut-off point, she became very defensive and kept telling us that it would be for Jake's own good to start potty training him properly now, because otherwise, he'd be "delayed in his development." Even though it is quite normal and not at all bizarre to find 3 year olds (especially boys) who are not yet fully potty trained. She didn't even want to hear that possibly Jake's experiences around constipation / hospitalisation / being poked and prodded and examined by countless strangers might be contributing to his feelings about potty training. Luckily, not all nurseries take this inflexible approach. But it's been an upsetting experience, not least because I feel anxious about the process myself. But I'm not willing to push my anxieties onto Jake.
I'm doing an Eastern Therapeutic Writing e-course at the moment. This week, one of the exercises is to write about an experience that is still unfolding, the outcome of which is unknown. We were asked to make two columns - one listing all the things that are known about the experience and the other, the things that are unknown. I decided to do this about Jake's potty training. In doing this, I realised something about Jake. Some things he picks up really quickly - anything to do with language for example. And using the computer. And reading people's moods. But physical things have always taken him longer. He didn't start walking till he was 16 months old. He didn't really cruise. He just crawled loads and stood up, and then, when he was ready, took his first steps. He didn't really go through a shaky toddly stage where he walked with us holding his hands. He pretty much mastered walking within a couple of weeks. He's also always been cautious about physical things - from climbing stairs to going on slides. And now, potty training. His temperament seems to be that he'll test things out a bit and then bide his time until he feels confident.
Reflecting on all this, I realised that I've been thinking that soon, I'd be able to stop worrying so much about Jake. That potty training would be his next big milestone and then starting school and then things would be easier and I'd worry less. Now I see it isn't the case. Now I see that being a parent really is "to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body." (quoting Elizabeth Stone)
Even when he's older, we're probably going to come across all sorts of people and institutions that'll try to make him fit into their way of doing things. Sometimes, they may have a good reason for it. Other times, they may not. How are we going to deal with it? How is Jake?
At the playground today, I heard a father with his son. The boy was older than Jake, probably over 4 years old. The whole time they were there, the father didn't stop telling the boy off. Everything he did was wrong - he was running too fast, he shouldn't have pushed ahead of his little sister, because he was older, he had to be more careful, more responsible, he was holding his sister wrong, he should help his sister down the slide, he should let his sister go down the slide by herself. When the child tried to disagree or speak up for himself, the father said, "Even if you think you have a very very good reason for doing something, don't do it. Listen to me instead. My reason is usually better." Even if you believe that, and even if in many cases, it may be true - is drilling that into the kid's head really going to help him? How is he going to learn from his own mistakes? How is he going to learn to trust himself?
Some people might think I'm overthinking things, overanalysing, making them more difficult than they need to be, or that I'm taking the soft approach to parenting, and mollycoddling Jake. But we can cause so much harm by acting without thinking, even if we have the best intentions. Do we even understand where our motivations come from, our need to do things in a certain way? Do we understand why we sometimes need people to do things the way we want them to, rather than letting them be themselves?
This has now become long and rambly. I'm not even sure how to end it nice and neatly. So I'll just leave it there.