Learning how to make Mistakes

Liam is a very cautious, meticulous child. Bright, but very sensitive. He’s, probably as a result, incredibly hard on himself. He internalizes everything. This has some interesting effects. For instance, Liam is not very good with change. Most kids aren’t of course, but with Liam, a sudden change in plans seems to mean, to him, that he did something wrong, it’s his fault. Suddenly decide to go to Costco before Safeway, rather than the other way around as originally discussed? Out will come the big, trembling lower lip, the downcast eyes, the fidgety fingers. It’s taken me a long time (really, until just recently) to realize that the reason for why he gets upset like this when faced with an unexpected change is that Liam believes he has made a mistake and is likely castigating himself, causing him to be so upset. It has been hard to piece out because Liam would never want to tell us what he was so upset about – in part, I believe, because he would then be upset about how he was over-reacting, so was now upset about being upset.

The clue, for me, came just recently when I finally got him to tell me that he was sorry that he didn’t put his shoes on when I asked him to. In his mind, apparently, the reason I was going to Costco before Safeway was because he took too long to put on his shoes, so for some reason that meant Safeway had to be after Costco (he likes Safeway because often shopping there entails him getting a treat, like a piece of a KitKat bar). So I turned off the radio and explained to him that the reason I was going to Costco first was that we needed to buy groceries from Safeway that had to remain cold – milk & ice cream, and that if we went to Safeway first, they might melt, but if we did it the other way around, they wouldn’t.  Then I explained about how cold things left in the car warm up, and getting warm is what causes the ice cream to melt. And I told him that it didn’t matter that he took a few minutes to put his shoes on – it wasn’t why we were doing things differently.

It may come as a surprise to many, but Liam has never had a tantrum. He’s never yelled “NO!” at us, or fallen down screaming and writhing. It just has never happened. I suspect this is because he internalizes things. Probably much like myself as a child (Leah might say as an adult), he doesn’t really understand how to properly experience anger, and often experiences anger as sadness or a weird longing for comfort (here I’m obviously projecting based on my memories of me as a child). And ends up blaming himself for whatever he should have been angry at.

At Daycare, most of the teachers tell us what a wonderful child Liam is – so friendly, never getting into trouble – but he cries a fair bit, and doesn’t deal well with criticism. This is true – because he’s incredibly hard on himself. When he makes a mistake, it’s the end of the world for him, and the standard “don’t worry about it” response that we as adults use to indicate that it’s not a big deal simply doesn’t work for Liam. I had suggested a couple of weeks ago to one of his teachers than when he gets upset because he’s done something wrong to, rather than say “it’s ok Liam”, to say “It’s not a big deal, we all make little mistakes. Do you remember when…” and tell Liam of when they made a mistake, and make light of that. Liam does really well when there’s an explanation for something, a solid reason for things. Today, a teacher at his school let me know that this seemed to have helped. Additionally, letting Liam help when other kids make mistakes – ask him what the other kid did wrong and whether he thought it was a big mistake or a little mistake was having nice results – Liam was starting to “try” things that he might get wrong. He was beginning to risk making mistakes. The very upset Liam when he was called out it was still there, but slowly but surely, Liam is starting to take some risks that might not work out for him. We laughed at the idea that a teacher at Daycare was teaching my son how to “act out”, but that’s essentially what we’re doing.

I suspect, much like the little clone of me that he often appears to be, that socially-expected reactions will be a challenge for a long time for him. Fortunately, Liam doesn’t appear to suffer from the same shyness that I did, and is quite popular at school – when I drop Liam off, kids make a point of coming up to him to say “hi”, and we hear from his teachers that virtually all the kids like playing with him, and invite him to play with them throughout the day. Hopefully he’ll be learn ways of not taking everything quite so personally. Or, if not that, learn some productive ways of processing that self-directed anger.

Parenting is hard.