Practicing What We Preach
May 7th, 2010

Every Friday Nanny takes IEP to a local bookstore for story hour.  They get ready to leave, IEP drags the diaper bag to the front door, waves “bye bye” to the house, and they load up in the car for their morning adventures.  At the bookstore all the kids are treated to animal cookies and a bit of a sing-along before the story-telling begins. 

On one such outing the story had just begun, and IEP perched in Nanny’s lap on the floor.  Per her retelling, just a few pages into the book IEP started signing “more” and “please” tirelessly in rotation.  After several pages of his silent antics the reader paused the story, looked at Nanny, and asked, “Does he know sign language?”

“Yes.  He wants another cookie,” Nanny responded.  The story teller didn’t know quite what to make of such a blatant request, and went on with her reading. 

Similarly, about 400 times each day IEP says, “Mama? Mama?”  I typically respond by saying “Yes?” or “What?”  But lately I’ve added a new reply to the rotation.  I ask, “What do you need?”  Bothering over semantics with an 18-month-old may seem silly.  And I concede that it’s a subtle distinction, but it’s one that I believe matters.  My rationale is that as of recently, it’s a question he can answer. 

You see, IEP has added a new sign to his repertoire.  Words are coming slowly, but he picks up new signs quite readily.  His latest addition is “help.”  His little fists move up and down in his own modified version of the gesture, usually preceded by vigorous pointing at something.  He uses it when he wants a cup of milk or juice, but can’t open the ice box.  When he wants to ride his little toy car, but can’t pull it out from behind another toy.  When he wants to stand in our bay window and watch the street below, but can’t get up to it on his own.  His context is actually surprisingly good.

I tell you these stories not to brag about how brilliant my son is.  (He is brilliant, though.  Just like your kids…)  I tell you these stories because they illustrate something that we value in children, but yet eschew from our own lives as adults:  he makes his needs known. 

We spend so much time and energy trying to coax this kind of communication out of little kids.  We gesture.  We repeat.  We sign.  We point.  We offer this or that.  We implore them with every ounce of our patience to communicate their wants and needs with something more sophisticated than a tantrum.   At this tender age of toddler-hood we want nothing more than to hear the words, “Mommy, I want more pasta,” or “Mommy, I want to go up the stairs by myself.”  We don’t even care about please and thank you at this point (although we make IEP sign both).  Just to hear the words spoken in plain English would be music. 

Yet as adults we become reluctant to make our needs known.  Not the banal, logistical, everyday needs.  Not the “I need to get up early tomorrow” or “I need to run to the store” or “I need a drink” needs.  I’m talking about the things we need that make us feel vulnerable.  I’m talking about the things we need that we don’t like to admit.  I’m talking about the things we should not be ashamed to need, but sometimes are. 

I need a hug.  I need to talk this out.  I need some alone time.  I need to feel more appreciated. I need to laugh.  I need be able to say that I’m proud of myself.

These things – these needs – are so real to each of us.  They make the difference between connection and distance.  Speaking them aloud draws the line between confidence and fear.  Knowing that they are universal, no matter how little they are confessed, buoys us against tides that feel overwhelming much of the time. 

So why is it, then, that the behavior we encourage in our children we so often fail to exemplify ourselves?  We say we are fine when we are not.  We say we are fine when we are hurt, or bone tired, or lonely, or regretful, or ashamed.  We say we are fine because we don’t want to admit that we aren’t. 

We have needs.  So why on earth don’t we say so? 

Perhaps for many of us, it is the judgment of others that worries us.  But I suspect that it’s our own self-judgment that we fear even more.  There is something about our culture that values self-sufficiency to a fault.  We feel obligated to handle everything on our own.  We are reluctant to admit that we need help in any way.  And I can’t help but think that if we just fessed up, leaned on someone, and then returned the favor that we’d all be happier, less stressed, and more resilient in the face of our own needs, knowing that we are flanked by helpers.

The thing is, I imagine many of us are already flanked by helpers.  We just don’t realize it because we’ve never asked.

5 Responses to “Practicing What We Preach”

  1. Anne Says:

    Yes, how sad that we spend all that time as little ones learning to articulate our needs, and then begin stifle them when adulthood comes along. Although I have to admit, I tell my husband “I need a hug,” at least once a day:)

  2. Eva Says:

    Yes, asking for what we need. Assertiveness. Not giving in or keeping our thoughts to ourselves, but openly asking for help. This is definitely something I need to work on.

  3. TheKitchenWitch Says:

    I love this post! I have kids who say “Mama” constantly! I think I get so wrapped up in getting them what they need and trying to anticipate their future needs that I neglect to even register my own needs. It’s sad, but true. And then I get burned out and resentful, which is always a terrific way to deal with things.

    Thanks for the reminder to stop and think of myself sometimes.

  4. becca Says:

    Great post Gale. First of all, I’m so happy to read how great IEP is with signing and I’ve decided that tomorrow, I MUST start Luke on learning signs. As you may have read on my blog, he’s VERY slow on speaking (although apparently not behind on the “charts”) and I think it would help us all tremendously since he understands everything but can’t speak his needs. So, THANK YOU for that.

    And I agree about us not talking about our own needs enough. I’ve written before about the fact that we’re always telling our kids to “use their words” but I have such a hard time using mine. I’m afraid of the repercussions if I really say what’s on my mind. So I don’t. And then I regret it.

    Thank you for this reminder of how important using our words and expressing our needs really is.

  5. Ten Dollar Thoughts » Blog Archive » Mass Mailing Says:

    [...] new signs so quickly, since his words are coming more slowly.  We’re working hard to get him to express his needs as specifically as possible, and he does pretty well.  His 18-month check-up is coming up and [...]