Be Gentle. He Is Still Learning.

The other morning, I was sitting on my couch. My 8-month-old was on my lap and my 4-year-old was cuddled in next to us. It’s one of my favorite parts of the day and it doesn’t get to happen every day.

These brothers are still pretty new to each other and they are still feeling each other out. The older one adores and resents his younger brother. The youngest one adores or ignores his big brother. Sometimes they adore each other at the same time, but often not.

The older brother was a little cranky on that morning and the younger one really wanted his brother to cuddle in closer. The more the younger one persisted and reached out, the more the older one squirmed and protested and complained. My interventions with my 4-year-old were not very effective and he remained cranky with his brother.

After a few minutes of this, the older one said, “no! I need space, brother!”. The younger one kept trying to reach out to his brother. In complete annoyance, the older one mildly swatted out at the baby.

I said to the oldest, “Be gentle. He is still learning.”

In my mind, everything stopped when I said those words out loud. Part of my brain registered that my 4-year-old did, indeed, settle down a bit and have more patience with his little brother. The youngest decided to keep cuddling me and give his brother a break.

Meanwhile, I was realizing the enormous message of my words.

It’s relatively easy to have patience with an infant as they are learning. They repeatedly drop a toy and we pick it up every time because we know it’s a learning game. Most of us don’t yell at our infants or get significantly impatient when they don’t move quickly enough, or learn quickly enough, or remember our directions well. They can spit up a dozen times, wake up throughout the night and cry and cry and cry. We usually do what we can to help them through it because this is what babies do and we realize the importance of our role in their lives. We know it’s temporary and we make our way through it with some degree of grace and gentleness.

But I have a different reaction to my 4-year-old. On an almost daily basis, I have moments of impatience, yelling, ignoring and frustration because he isn’t meeting my expectation of what should be getting done right then. I have an expectation that if I ask him to go to the bathroom, he should stop everything and do it immediately. Or that if I tuck him into bed, he should stay there and fall right to sleep. Or that he should pick up his toys when I ask him to the first time.

Sometimes, I am not gentle with him. I forget that he, too, is learning. His brain is not fully developed. His reaction times and processing times take much longer than my older, wiser, and more efficient brain. My state of mind for him often does not include “Be gentle. He is still learning.” Even though it absolutely should.

(It also occurred to me that I am also not gentle with my teenager, myself or my husband, but that’s probably it’s own blog.)

In the day-to-day grind of life, it is easy to forget the preciousness and fragility of our children’s spirits. The fundamental, deep-seeded, instinctual need they have for us to be patient and gentle and kind with them, even when we have to set a boundary or say no.

Our children are hard-wired to keep looking to us with adoration, waiting for us to remember to be gentle with them as they learn. They will give us chance after chance after chance.  Perhaps we can even occasionally remember to do the same for ourselves and each other. 

  • Katie Jessop, MA, LMHC is a blog contributor to Circle of Security International and has a clinical practice in Spokane, WA.