Monday, May 16, 2011

Weekly Column: Little Lessons Take Big Effort

There are a million requirements of being a parent that never crossed my mind before having children.  Lessons kids have to learn, taught by parents who have no idea how to teach them.
 I don’t mean the big things; I always anticipated that as a mother, I’d be responsible for teaching my children manners and kindness and responsibility.  No, I mean tiny things.
How to wipe your own backside.  How to blow your nose, instead of sniffing until your head is entirely clogged.  When to stop eating a slice of watermelon.  What to do if you get stuck between the couch and the end table.
All the opportunities for teachable lessons provided by a normal day are both hilarious and frustrating.   Hilarious because you never know what golden phrases you might utter in the name of hygiene.  Frustrating because sometimes it’s just impossible to explain the logistics of a completely simple concept. 
One area we’re having considerable difficulty with – an area I’d never have given half a moment’s thought to before becoming a mom – happens daily: teeth brushing.  We’re okay with the cleaning part, it’s what needs to happen next that trips us up.  Spitting.
Go on; think about it.  Try to describe the way to move your mouth, tongue, and lips, in order to spit out a mouthful of foamy toothpaste.  And do it so that it makes sense to a three-year-old. 
Possible?  Not so much.
 “Okay, now just lean over and say pbbbbblllffffftttt into the sink,” we might say.  In response, our daughter carefully swallows the mouthful of toothpaste foam, and blows giant raspberries into thin air with her lips.  Of course, nothing comes out.  We try again next time, with similar results. 
We use as many ways as we can imagine to make this everyday task become common practice.  We model correct spitting technique while she watches, giggling.  We let her big sister (to whom we can’t remember teaching this in the first place) demonstrate proper procedure.  We tell her to spit it out like when she gets a yucky bite of food. 
At last, we stumble across a winner.  Having her look directly down into the sink, we brush her teeth while her mouth hangs open, letting the foam ooze out messily.  She feels it falling, and suddenly she gets it.  She lets half of the rest fall out of its own gravitational will, and spits out the other half.  Her chin is covered in dribble, but her eyes are filled with pride.
And this, we realize, is how we get by.  This is how we navigate the dozens of odd lessons that need teaching each day.  We try a few things, learn some necessary bits of information ourselves, tweak our approaches, and try again.  Almost none of the myriad, immemorial things we teach our kids are lessons that need to be drilled home in a single episode.  Not these tiny things, anyway. 
Much like our children, the lessons themselves are tiny but important.  So we keep on plugging away, teaching ways for our kids to be independent.  Ways for them to take care of themselves.  Whether that comes from learning how to spit out toothpaste or how to choose a weather-appropriate outfit, it comes with much trial and error.
And it comes with satisfyingly simple payoffs, no matter how small the lesson may be.


  1. Love this! You always share the perfect window into a mom's life! :)

  2. Yes! Spitting, nose-blowing, and bottom-wiping. Why are they so hard to teach? We've got one out of three down. I won't tell you which one. (You're welcome.) =>

  3. It is so hard to teach. Then add additional explanations when one child has semantic pragmatic disorder. Abstract language is sometimes very difficult for Anthony, I find myself SHOWING and telling at the same time (all the time) ...

    But the payoff, they get it. It is worth it.


  4. So good and so true! We are right there now with the spitting. Thankfully, we are still a ways off from the bottom wiping (yuck!) and have only partially mastered the nose blowing. Thanks for the tip about drooling in the sink. I will try that next time and see if it clicks. It's all trial and error!

  5. Good for you! I haven't made the effort yet - so far I've just bought natural toothpaste (hoping it's not too harmful) and let him swallow.


Hmm...And how did that make you FEEL?