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How to grow: Written by a toddler

Updated: Apr 25, 2019

At 20 months old, Lucy’s most confident words are trash and shoes. She’s mastered some of the basics–mama, dada, hi, bye, yeah, no–but beyond the classics, trash and shoes are the primary concepts she communicates. She takes such pride in being able to talk that whenever she knows the right word, she yells it.

Lucy in a parking lot: “TRAAASH! TRAASSSHHHH!” And I’m praying that everyone knows she’s talking about litter.

We attend a toddler class called Gym Dandies. Last week I was talking to a mom friend by the window when her son, Lucy’s age, looked up from his snack, pointed outside, and said, “Excavator.”

And that’s when I learned what an excavator was.

“I’m sorry, what?” His vocabulary rattle me. My friend tried to reassure me with, “It’s a boy thing. He picked it up from his brother. I’m sure Lucy knows a lot of words that he doesn’t have yet.”

Does he know trash? I thought, but said nothing.

I try to squash these moments of parental panic before they get the better of me. It isn’t very long before Lucy starts to measure herself against her peers. While she’s blissfully unaware of the comparison game, I don’t want to play on her behalf.

I looked down at my daughter. She’d been walking around the room picking up balls and bringing them to me. I was holding four. “BAAAA!” She shouted as she handed me another, then ran to the obstacle course. I don’t want to brag (I do), but Lucy is the tiny American Ninja Warrior obstacle course champion of Gym Dandies. I know that when the time is right, she’ll learn excavator, too.

(I just learned it at 31, so…)

Watching a toddler’s development is fascinating. Sometimes Lucy just wakes up knowing new things. I thought she was sleeping, but she was actually learning how to use a fork, climb stairs, and make an elephant sound. Other milestones (walking and talking) have started slowly and dragged along for months.

The thing is, regardless of how quickly the new skills come, children have such a positive approach to personal growth. “Everything is a science experiment,” my father-in-law says as he watches his grandchildren study a cup, army scoot across the floor, or drink from the dog bowl. Their interactions with the world happen in observations, attempts, experiments, epiphanies, failures, mastery, growth.

At some point in our lives, we change positions. Childhood is for growing. Adulthood is for doing. It’s hard to create space for new talents and dreams when time is scarce, responsibilities loom, and risks cost more.

Or is that merely what we tell ourselves?

Lucy makes growing seem inevitable. Sure, she can’t say excavator today, but she will. Because…she just will. What if we could be so certain about ourselves?

Sure, I don’t own a business today, but I will. Because…I just will.

Watching her has taught me how to reframe my mentality about growth and how important it is to make it a priority. My growth empowers her to never stop exploring her own. Perhaps the greatest gift I can give her as a parent is this model of personal expansion: lifelong learning, lifelong experimenting, lifelong trying. Ironically enough, she is the one teaching me how to do it best.

Toddler Lesson #1: Find Joy in Practicing

I, like most grown-ups, get such satisfaction from being able to check off my list. But that’s not how Lucy operates and that’s not how I operated as a kid, either.

I possessed no such checklist when I was learning how to play the piano or bunt a softball. There was no Check! Piano learned. Check! Bunting accomplished. My joy came with getting better. As an adult, it is easy to fall into the mode of If I’m not accomplishing (earning, finishing, crossing-off) I am wasting time. If Lucy thought this way, she’d never learn anything. It’s all a process, and her focused little brain doesn’t stress like mine, quit like mine, or timeline like mine.

The other day she drank water from a cup. Big deal, everyone, because it was a real cup with no lid. She held its little handles with white knuckles and peered over the edge at the water. She very slowly tipped it up and took a drink, then smiled at me as if she’d just broken a world record. Confidence soaring, she lifted the cup again and tried to chug the rest of the water, soaking her face, shirt, and the kitchen floor.

Girlfriend will only drink out of that cup now, and she acts like every sip is a triumph. If the entire cup doesn’t spill while she’s drinking it, the remaining water sloshes out with the high five that comes after. We have to change her clothes every time she gets thirsty. She doesn’t do it so she can cross it off her development checklist (don’t worry–I did that for her); she does it because it’s just so fun to practice her new trick!

Gratitude for the simple opportunity to try again; that’s what I’m trying to live and breathe as I grow into the person I want to be.

Toddler Lesson #2: The Barrier Before the Breakthrough

“Finn is going through a regression,” a friend discloses as Finn hurls himself onto the ground in a tantrum. All the moms nod and murmur in knowing unison: “Mmmmmmm.” Regression is a word (like excavator) that I used rarely before becoming a parent. It’s a common parent theory that babies regress in sleeping, eating, or other behaviors right before they enter a huge developmental change–like learning how to walk. A baby who has been sleeping through the night for months starts waking up every hour. This continues for about two weeks, then normal sleep returns. The next day the baby can walk.

Right before Lucy learned how to walk, she went through a phase where she wouldn’t let me leave the room. It’s almost as if her physical and mental development were too much to handle. The overwhelm spiraled her into a whiny, clingy hot mess. For a few days, she stopped trying to walk all together and regressed entirely to crawling.

Then she walked.

Jen Sincero has a theory in You Are a Badass that mirrors baby regressions. It goes that as soon as a person jumps headfirst into pursuing her dream, taking a risk, and committing to take her life to the next level, the universe starts hurling crap at her.

Emotional breakdowns, unplanned expenses, broken ankles… all of the flying crap.

Whether you believe this is the way the universe behaves or not, the difference between toddlers and adults is that toddlers always emerge from their regressions with new knowledge. Adults often take flying crap as a sign to walk away.

I have learned from watching Lucy that it’s embedded in her baby instincts to practice self care when too much is too much. Like, no one can be constantly, one-hundred percent growing all the time without becoming depleted. It’s OK to treat yourself with an adult regression in the form of chardonnay and Netflix binging (oooohhhhh both!). You just don’t get to stay there forever. When Queer Eye is over, it’s time to get back to that goal of yours.

Toddler Lesson #3: We’re All Just Making it Up as We Go

This has become my mantra. People can speak with a lot of authority about how they climbed to success, but all of their wisdom came in hindsight. When they were at the bottom of the ladder hoping to climb it, they were just making it up, guessing, and trying.

That’s what Lucy does. She tries. When she can’t do something the way someone else does, she makes up a new way of doing it. No shame, no competition, no self doubt.

Primary example: if she can’t say the name of something, she calls it by the sound it makes.

Cow is MOOOOOOO! Food is mmmmmmm. Sleep is shhhhhhhhhh.

Excavator is vrrrroooooom.


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