How I frightened my 3-year-old

Happy Wednesday!

I’ve been enjoying diving into the world of Fred Rogers recently.
I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, the documentary about Mr. Rogers’ life and work, helping children confront the problems of childhood – and feel valued – through his television show, Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.

When the movie started I noticed it was rated PG-13.
Why, I wondered, would a documentary about the guy who created Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood be a PG-13 movie?

It was not long before I discovered why.

I was thinking of this show as “for kids,” and therefore dismissed it as being light. Or unserious.

But it was the exact opposite.
In the first week that the show aired, in 1967, Mr. Rogers and crew dealt with the topic of war, extremely apropos as the country was steeped in the Vietnam conflict at the time.
The show incorporated guns, paratroopers, the closing of borders, and many other concepts that children might be hearing about in their lives, as their parents watched the news or talked about it.

So we see King Friday, decreeing that he was closing the borders of Make Believe, and that he would exert total control, and that he was “against change.” We see Henrietta Pussycat and X the Owl discussing guns. X says “there’s nothing to worry about until they start shooting!”

Interspersed with scenes like these, the documentary placed footage of real war. Footage of what young children might catch in the news, and almost certainly heard the grown-ups in their own homes discussing.

It is downright chilling.
It made total sense that it would be PG-13!

Why would Mr. Rogers DO this?
The answer, loud and clear from this documentary was: so he could help children understand what was going on around them.

The genius of Fred Rogers was his ability to put himself in the position of a young child, see through their eyes, think on their level.

In one unforgettable scene, Daniel Striped Tiger asks a trusted adult, Lady Aberlin: “am I a mistake?”

She does not tell him (as a well-meaning parent might) “Don’t worry about that. Don’t even THINK about that.”

Instead, she helps him come to terms with those fears.

The show was absolute genius. Watching this documentary I truly understood why children loved Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood so much.

Watching it, I also realized something that could be very frightening to children, then and now:
The unpredictability of others’ behavior.

Especially if the unpredictability came from a trusted adult.

As a preschool teacher and frequent We Turned Out Okay guest Tricia Tomaso said in our Episode 300 Extravaganza,
“It’s scary when adults behave unpredictably.”


Because in a child’s world, reality isn’t real in the way that we think of it.
In their world anything can happen. Young children live in a magical reality, and while that can be fun and pleasantly surprising, it can also be frightening.

So if a formerly steady adults does something unpredictable – shouts, say, or begins crying hysterically – it rocks a child’s world.

What can we do about that?

Unfortunately, it’s not quite as simple as simply not behaving unpredictably.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it was?

Instead, it’s on us parents to understand that we can not always be counted upon to be predictable. Sometimes, our behavior will not jibe with our children’s need for this predictability.
It’s just a fact of life.

I recommend:

First, when we behave unpredictably, we rectify the situation as soon as possible.
Then, we work hard to mitigate future unpredictability.

In Positive Discipline Ninja Tactics, I wrote about my son’s third birthday – a time where I behaved unpredictably and frightened him.

Here’s what I say in the book:
” I waited till Max was asleep the night before his third birthday and set up his room so that when he woke up, it was all decorated with streamers and little paper cutouts that I’d made.
Looking at him sleeping so soundly, knowing that at the time he woke up he would be three, made my heart sing.

I went to bed that night loving my little boy so much – looking at his angelic face as he slept, I felt so lucky to be his mom, to have his delightful little soul in my life.

Here comes the tough part of the story for me: Max woke up earlier than usual on his third birthday, came into my room and wanted to communicate his joy about how his room had been transformed… “Mommy! Mommy! Come – mommy! Mommy!”
It’s hard to write this. I made him leave me! Verbally, I pushed him away… and not nicely either.
Confused and sad, Max backed out of my bedroom; I angrily forced my way back into sleep as my husband Ben got up to hug our new-three-year-old.

When I woke up an hour or so later, guilt washed over me. I could hear Ben and Max together downstairs, eating breakfast; it was all I could do to get up and join them.

I thought to myself, what kind of a mother sets up all that fun stuff, and then gets mad when her child wants to share with her?”

Me, that’s who.

I vowed that I would not ever do that to him again.

I vowed that his next birthday, and every single birthday after that, would be better.

And, that’s what’s happened.

For both Max and his younger brother Jay, the lesson I learned on Max’s third birthday has carried us forward into a joyful parent-child bond. As much as possible since then I’ve tried to be their predictable, trusted Mom.

It’s only now, as I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor, that I realized the part about predictability. And how necessary that truly is.

Recently Nora, a mom with whom I work closely as her parent coach, wrote into our Facebook group to share the following:
“Karen, the story about your little guy’s third birthday has stuck with me so much. On the eve of my little man’s 4th birthday, I am feeling truly lucky and truly blessed to be his Mom. His birthday weekend has been just us doing things he loves- so simple and sweet and just right.
I was writing out his birthday card and found myself writing a list of positive attributes, which turned into an ABC list. It came so easily, I had to google ideas for a just couple tricky letters, but I had so many good things to say to him. The “snazzy” will especially crack him up, because he loves that word from a current favorite storybook.”

Nora continues:

“I’ve loved this kid with every fiber of my being since the day he was born, but owe an enormous thanks to you for helping me fall back IN LOVE with my kid.”

She’s having these wonderful and positive feelings, at least in part, because she is being a predictable adult for her young child.

There is real power in predictability. In understanding that, when adults behave unpredictably, it’s scary.

Our children never behave at their best when they are frightened.

So next time you fall into the unpredictability trap, try and check yourself.

Repeat to yourself:
1. I recognize that my behavior just then was unpredictable and frightening.

2. I forgive myself.

3. I will make it right with my child.

4. I will redouble my efforts to only behave with predictability.

Then you will know you are on the right track.
Thanks for reading!

(Here is the link to this post)
Keep reading below for What’s up on the podcast/In the Facebook group/in NPC…
Wishing you a wonderful parenting week!

What’s up on the podcast this week:
The second in our series on How to not let school screw up your kids, focusing in on how to foster intellectual and emotional independence.
Click the link below to listen!
What’s up in the We Turned Out Okay Facebook group this week:
This week’s Magic Words for Parents (a series I’ve been doing Mondays since 2018) is all about 1 Key Way to raise independent children. Come check it out.
Click here to join the Facebook group (or jump into the group if you are already a member)!


What’s up in the Ninja Parenting Community:
During this week’s Live Members-Only Call, taking place tomorrow (Thursday) evening, I share my personal experience with postpartum depression, and take member questions! NPC members, click the link below to view and ask your question:

(If you’re not a member yet, but want to become one, click here.)


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