Before I was a mom and before I was a graduate student in developmental psychology, I was a daycare teacher. While I was never a full-time teacher, I stuck around each place just long enough to watch children learn and to learn from them.
Working with children is never easy. No matter how “good with kids” you are, you will feel frustrated, discouraged, and inadequate—daily, if not multiple times a day. There will be children who fight over toys constantly, who fail to listen to your instructions, or who talk back. Regardless of how many years of experience you have, how many parenting books you read, or how many developmental psychology classes you take, you will question your ability to be a good caretaker.
But amidst the difficulties, there will be joy. When you see an infant take their first steps, hear a toddler say, “Can I be next?” instead of “Mine!” or watch a group of children play pretend. And suddenly, all the difficult days and hard moments seem worth it.
Children are great imitators, and that’s a double-edged sword.
They will copy everything you say whether you meant for them to hear it or not. They will watch how you open and close drawers, how you turn on and off the lights, and how you treat other children in the classroom. They will learn many necessary skills, but they will also pick up on the things you thought they never saw.
I’ve seen toddlers help each other with their shoes, and I’ve seen a 2-year-old drive a toy car with the hand-over-hand steering method, but I’ve also seen a 4-year-old scream terrible things at his teachers and friends.
One thing that never fails to amaze me is a child’s empathy. Children are incredibly capable of feeling what others are feeling, perhaps because they are still learning to distinguish their own emotions from others’. I’ve seen a child lie down next to a friend who was crying hysterically on the floor as if to say “I’m with you. It’s OK.”
I wonder how we lost this empathetic side of us.
Why is it that we lose the willingness to reach out to others and say “I feel what you feel”? Perhaps we find this too big a risk to take—to be vulnerable enough to lie down next to a sobbing friend and experience their pain.
Children also readily offer forgiveness. Granted, the reasons they got upset at others may not seem entirely logical, but I’m still in awe of how quickly they forgive. A child who was pushed by a friend will go back and play with them in a matter of seconds. The children who fought over a doll will sit next to each other at breakfast and chat about whether they like the cereal. And the 4-year-old who poured milk on you and yelled, “I don’t like you!” because you told her not to play with her food will climb into your lap five minutes later asking for a naptime story.
Time and time again, I’ve seen children go back to the friends and teachers who upset them and interact as if nothing had happened. Is this just because they forget quickly? Or is it because they truly believe they can always start over and things will be OK?
There is beauty in watching children model forgiveness because there almost seems to be no trace of hurt left. We probably shouldn’t forgive everyone and everything without thought, but I know there are plenty of times when I’ve held onto hurt for way too long.
And I owe it to toddlers for showing me a different way.
Somewhere in my distant memory is a short scene: I’ve fallen down on the playground, and I’m crying. A teacher comes over and holds me, and I feel better. This memory is likely fabricated based on the many times my mom has told me this story. But I have no doubt this happened, probably countless times.
I don’t know who that teacher was, and I don’t know how hurt I was from the fall, but I do know I was comforted by someone who cared for me. Sometimes I wonder whether I’m a part of a child’s distant memory. I might not be. And that’s not what I want.
What I want—what I hope and pray for—is that in my inevitably flawed being, that I did something right.
That in the many mistakes I know I made, some part of my interaction with these children modeled to them a loving relationship. That when I gave them backrubs during naptime, when I hugged them after they got hurt, or when I held their hand as they crossed the street, I was showing them what they deserved to have—someone to care for them, to comfort them, and to protect them.
What toddlers have taught me is that they are worth the time we invest in them, the quality education we strive to provide them, and the unconditional love we show them. Because we were once toddlers, and there were people in our lives who worked hard to provide all those things for us so we could be who we are today.