What Littles Need

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I’m sitting outside, playing fetch with my one-year old and accepting gifts of small rocks and weeds that I’m supposed to pretend to eat. It’s cold, but if I sit outside with them for a half-hour now, they’ll be happier all evening. I don’t know why, but it’s kind of like The Second Law of Thermodynamics – you don’t question it, you just follow it.

The point is that I know.

I’ve watched these kids for a while now, and so I know when they function best, when they’re likely to struggle, and how much we can do in a day before I’m just begging for a meltdown. I don’t always get it right, but the more I watch, the closer I pay attention, the more often I know what they need.

The thing that makes it so hard, the thing that means I always have to keep watching, is the fact that what they need is always different. Sure, different kids have different patterns. They need and want different things, they’re motivated differently, and what they need can change by the minute. It’s hard, and if I zone for just a few minutes, I can lose my attunement with them and them I don’t know what they need anymore.

This is one of those things that makes parenting so hard, that makes competent, intelligent, adjusted adults feel like they’re completely baffled by a small child. Things change. Patterns exist, but they change so often that it can be hard to tell if finding the pattern is more useful or frustrating.

I suspect that our frustration and sometimes-bafflement when it comes to what our kids need is ok. They’re resilient little creatures, and they need to learn, over time, how to articulate their needs and deal with frustration when those can’t be met in the ways they’d like, just as we do. But they need us to listen. They need us to hear them, to try to respond, to be present enough that we get it right some of the time.

That kind of presence is hard, though, especially when we’re trying so hard and it doesn’t seem to make a difference. It’s easy to pull away, to lose ourselves in work or a good book or the Internet.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think that every waking moment spent with kids has to be about them. I do think, though, that we need to pay attention. Our kids need us to open ourselves enough that there is space for their needs, a place for them to take up residence inside of us. They need to know that they won’t be left out in the cold, even when we don’t know what they need or we can’t meet that need.

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