You sit there late one night holding a crying newborn in your arms, exhausted from endless nights with out sleep, and you think, “It can’t get much harder than this.” But as my son nears his third birthday I’m starting to realize that was the easy part.
Babies just need to be feed, changed, bathed and put to sleep. It’s months of doing the same predictable things everyday, on a fairly regular schedule. These are the same things parents have been doing all around the world for 5000 years. The answers to most problems that occur when your child is an infant can be found in a book, on the internet, or through advice from friends, family or doctors. If you put a baby down on the floor they will still be in that same spot five minutes later. They don’t talk back to you, they don’t give you their opinion on matters. Their emotional needs are easily met with cuddles, hugs and kisses. Just your presence in a room or the sound of your voice makes them feel secure.
One day this cute little blob starts to crawl, but it’s alright because the play yard or ExerSaucer will contain them. Before you know it your crawler is standing up, holding on to things and cruising around the house. It’s amazing how quickly they can move and how they manage to figure out how to navigate and entire home by only holding onto things no higher a foot. Before they can even walk they will learn that cruising doesn’t just have to be done at floor level. They will learn to climb. My son could have climbed a 12 foot ladder at 10 months. This is when the play yard, Exersaucer and soon the crib no longer will contain your child. Now you must watch their every move for fear you will find them underneath a toppled TV. Then they learn to walk. Now all bets are off. Forget keeping them from climbing book shelves, you have to make sure they don’t walk out the front door and down the street to the park by themselves.
Somewhere between the crawling and the walking your little baby, who used to make the sweetest cooing sounds, starts to talk. At first you are amazed at each new word. You may even keep a running tally of how many words are in their vocabulary. You will coach them to say this or that new word for Grandma. But then suddenly they discover that this silly new skill they’ve learned is a useful tool for communicating their wants. What’s one of the first words every kid learns? No! They will put it to good use too, testing you to see what happens when they refuse your request. They will learn to ask for food and candy and to watch Blues Clues. They will tell you that they don’t think you are right when you inform then that it is bedtime. Suddenly the control that you thought you had over your offspring has all but disappeared. They will begin to use complete sentences to clearly explain their dissatisfaction with your actions. My son was so compliant until about his second birthday when a definite independence and stubborn streak began to erupt in his personality. I will never forget the day he truly talked back to me for the first time. I scolded him for jumping on the furniture. He stopped, stood up straight, faced me head on and said in an belligerent tone with a smirk on his face, “Don’t talk to me like that!” I was so shocked I didn’t even react for a few seconds. Had I just heard that? My sweet little boy was sassing me?
When your child starts to assert himself, tries to get his own way, starts to get into mischief, this is when the discipline and the teaching begins, the years of you as a parent molding your son or daughter into someone who will contribute productively to society someday. These are also years of you teaching them how to stay out of trouble and harms way. This is when it gets hard. And what you think is difficult at three is nothing compared to what you will be trying to shield them from at 13 and 16 and 18. Emotional needs become more complex as you must give them self-esteem, punish them in a way that still lets them know they are loved, teach them compassion and empathy, show them how to face head on fears and conquer them.
There are not answers for this in a book or on the internet, though people have tried to write them down. Advice from trusted friends and family may be of some help, but the truth is each child, even in the same family, is different and the only answers will be found through trial and error and with a great deal of patience and love.
I don’t know that as parent it will ever get easier. I imagine a Saturday afternoon years from now when I hold my grown son in my arms in a church foyer. He is tall and handsome in his tux. His lovely new wife is at his side. Standing there hugging him tightly my mind races back in time, “I thought it was so hard when you were a baby and didn’t sleep. I thought it was so hard when I had to send you off on the first day of kindergarten. I thought it was so hard when I let you take the car out by yourself for the first time. But this, letting you go to live your life, this is hard.”