“You need to smile. Mommy, you need to smile. Smile at me.”
This is something I have been hearing more and more of around the house. I know it can be annoying as a woman to be told you need to smile more, but these statements from my three year old son are really telling to me.
I am fascinated by how much my son is noticing how other people feel! He has been recognizing his feelings for some time now. We explored feeling sad heavily back when we were in the process of moving. It was hard for Ben to be away from his daddy for so long. Plus I was super busy with getting everything ready to move and taking care of his sisters, who were only six months old. He wasn’t having a ton of focused attention, and frankly not a lot of fun times. He felt the stress of the situation and was able to verbally tell me he was sad. We spent a lot of time talking about feeling sad, and how sometimes that happens. Then we would think of ways to feel better.
Since then Ben has been making a lot of strides in explaining how he feels. He is great at identifying when he feels happy, sad, frustrated, angry, and scared. We talk about how he feels, why he feels that way, and I try to focus on sitting with those feelings. Of course sitting in general is tough when you are a three year old boy. We take a moment to explore how he is feeling. We also talk about what are okay ways to express those feelings. We can use words to explain how we feel. We can ask for a hug if we are sad. We can hit a pillow if we are angry. That sort of thing. Generally our conversations end with Ben saying he feels better, which works for right now.
But lately, Ben has been taking his focus outward. When Ali or Sammy cry Ben will tell me that they are unhappy. It is so cute to hear him say, “Uh oh, a sister is sad.” I don’t want him to think that making his sisters happy is his job, but I am impressed that he is noticing their feelings! Even more so, he is noticing my feelings. Like all moms I don’t want to take my negative feelings out on my kids. I do think it is good for them to see me having real emotions though. I don’t overreact in front of them (at least I try not to), but I do express my feelings. Ben has started to see when I am unhappy or frustrated. He will run up to me and tell me to ‘take a step back and ask for help’ when I am frustrated. (Thank you Daniel Tiger.) He has also started to see when I am unhappy about something, and reminds me to smile.
Over time, like really over time as in many years, I hope he learns that it is okay to feel however you feel. I don’t want him to feel pressured to be happy all the time. I think that is unrealistic and frankly a lot of pressure. It is okay to not be happy. But I love that when he sees someone unhappy he wants to make them feel better. It is a big step to recognize feelings in others, and to try to do something in response to it. This is how empathy is grown. And we can all use a little empathy in life.
This article from Scholastic has an easy to understand break down of where kids are in terms of developing empathy by age.