Navigating the Transitions

My son Jameson is two years old, and he’ll be three in another month, but it feels at times like he’s going on five or six. He says and does some of the most grown-up things I never would’ve imagined he’d be doing at this point in his young life. He quite frequently tells me, and I quote, “I don’t want the fan to oscillate, daddy.” His astute use of the word “oscillate” always astounds me. He pretends to call 9-1-1- with his mother, an ex-deputy sheriff, and tells her what his name is, which street he lives on, and what his emergency is—a useful skill any kid should know. And when he catches me mindlessly scrolling social media on my phone, he’ll stick his head in-between my face and my screen and ask me, “what are you looking for, daddy?” To which I never have an answer better than, “I really don’t know, son.” So I usually put my phone down and play with him. At times, I feel like I’m living with a tiny adult since he has so many philosophic questions, personal preferences, facial expressions, and daily agendas. 

At other times, however, I feel like I’m living with a tyrant who can’t be consoled, controlled, or catered to without someone (e.g. me, my wife, or our chihuahua) getting upset or hurt. God forbid we have to turn off Blippi (his favorite Youtuber—which is crazy he even has a favorite Youtuber at this point in his TV-watching career). Heaven forbid he has to wash his hands before dinner. And you wouldn’t believe the commotion that ensues if he has to clean up his room without any immediate help. He’s a toddler, so these things are to be expected. The problem with expectation, though, is that is often distorts our perception of reality. Just because I expect him to throw a fit doesn’t mean I should accept the fit as normal. In fact, I expect just the opposite; I expect, with our help of course, that he’ll learn to overcome his strong desire to talk back, raise his hand to smack someone or something when he’s frustrated, or throw his toys in a fit of rage. That expectation of change and growth is what led me to start looking for patterns in his behavior, patterns I could work with and around. 

Most of the time Jameson is a well-behaved kid. That’s why he’s organically gained the nickname Sweet Boy. He is genuinely a sweet boy that instructs even me to “be gentle, daddy” when I’m dressing his wounds or picking up small insects or objects. The times the tyrant, or the Warden as we also call him, shows up is when he must transition from one activity to the next. All the aforementioned instances of toddler-crazy were instances of transition— moments when he had to stop whatever he was doing and go do something else. He’s the Sweet Boy when he’s playing, eating, learning, reading, bathing, sleeping, but he’s the Warden when he has to go from any one of those activities to the next. It’s almost like he thinks that the beloved activity that he’s currently engaged in will be the last time he’ll ever get to engage in it, and our ripping him from it is an evil for which we must be punished. Or maybe he feels like the loss of the current activity is greater than the gain he’ll receive from the next. Whatever he thinks or however he feels, his aversion to transitioning from one thing to the next looks a lot like adults’ aversion to change. 

Change, especially change for the better, is stressful, uncomfortable, and hard. That’s why people who do change, or grow, deserve respect. They’ve adapted and overcome. Toddlers are simply learning, as we all must, to navigate the transitions of life. Jameson’s life right now consists primarily in the four walls our home, so his lessons in navigating the transitions come from brushing his teeth after breakfast before he plays, pausing his play for potty training, picking up his toys before nap time, getting washed up for dinner, and cleaning his room before bed— and all with a good attitude. They’re simple tasks, but the transitions between all of them are so important since they’ll determine how he navigates future transitions, like the ones in and out of school, puberty, relationships, loss, work, and more. In truth, the patience and perspective he develops (or doesn’t develop) with the small transitions now will determine the patience and perspective he has (or doesn’t have) with the big transitions later. 

To that effect, my wife and I have been working hard on his effort and attitude when it’s time for him to transition and change. He earns television time by taking afternoon naps, something he doesn’t always do. Of course, when he does earn some afternoon cartoons, turning off the TV can be cause for a huge meltdown. Natalie figured out though that if he gets a warning that “this is your last few minutes” or “it’s almost time to turn it off,” he’ll generally transition in peace. But isn’t that true with all of us? If we get a warning that change is coming, we may not want the change, but at least we can prepare for it. Adults appreciate a fair warning, and who’d of thought, toddlers appreciate warnings, too. The warning system now gets applied to everything. If he gets a heads-up that potty training, bath time, dinner, or even punishment is coming, he tends to transition with more fluidity and grace.

Naturally, the warning system isn’t without its fault. Once he knows change is coming, he, like most full-grown humans, will often try to stall; he resists the change. This is especially true when it comes to sleep. He doesn’t want to give up all that a day holds so he can get some much-needed rest for the next day. Natalie typically puts Jameson down for an afternoon nap, and I’m the one the usually puts him down for bed at night. The routine is always the same: three books, prayers, a water-bottle check, a covers tuck, a kiss goodnight, lights out, sound machine on, and three songs while I rock in his rocking chair next to his bed. The excuses for not going to sleep, however, are always different: “Sit longer, daddy.” “More books, daddy.” “Pray for my books, daddy.” “I have an owie, daddy.” “Sing all the songs, daddy.” “I need more water, daddy.” “Cover Buddy (his stuffed dog), daddy.” “Where’s Wrinkles (his other stuffed dog), daddy?” “Lay on the floor, daddy.” “Pray for my binoculars, daddy.” “I don’t want to sleep.” “I’m cold.” “I’m hot.” “I don’t want that sound (on his sound machine).” “Where did the sun go, daddy?” “Where’s the moon, daddy?” —-all things he’s actually said in the last week alone.

That’s how I’ve become a really good salesman. I’ve always hated sales. I avoided every commission-based job that ever came my way. I figured if a person doesn’t want it, they don’t want it, so why force them? Kids will change a person’s personal philosophies, though—so now I’m the Zig Ziglar of selling my kid something I want or need him to do. After the routine and the excuses, I often have to sell him on all the value of going to sleep for the sake of tomorrow. He doesn’t want to let go of today, and I get that. There’s been a lot of days I didn’t want to say goodbye to, but once I understood the value of tomorrow, it made it a lot easier to move forward in spite of myself. I often tell my son that if he gets some good sleep, we can continue a particular game, or play with a particular toy again, or do that thing tomorrow that we didn’t get to do today—but only if he gets a good night of sleep. If and when he buys into the worth of waiting for tomorrow, he transitions into sleep with a little less fight. 

The warning system and the sales tactics help my son navigate the transitions a little better, but so does a lot of patience. He’s a sharp kid. He even knows when he doesn’t know a thing—which borders on wisdom. On a number of occasions, he’s responded to our questioning by saying, “I’m just a kid, I don’t know.” Like I said, he’s a sharp kid, but when his emotions are high, his thinking is muddled. This, too, is like the rest of us. Too much emotion is a fog that makes the transitions of life seem like the terminus. That’s why patience is key. It would be foolish to tell a full-grown individual, much less a toddler, to simply ignore or eliminate their emotions. Emotions, like fog, dissipate with time, and the natural changes of the environment. Thus, we often send Jameson to the corner when his emotional reaction to a transition is unacceptable. It gives him the time for his emotions to dissipate, and it gives him a brief change of environment so the object of his anger, me and his mom, are not in his face. After a few minutes alone time in the corner, he calms down and he’ll even occasionally tell us he’s “calmed down now.” After which we’ll call him to us, and he’ll come running with a smile, looking for a hug, and ready to do whatever it was that he didn’t want to transition into in the first place. 

Navigating the transitions of life is difficult, but it may be one of the primary functions of life. After all, the Greek philosopher Heraclitus famously said, Panta Rhei— everything changes or life is in flux. If the constant in life is flux or change, then being able to successfully (or unsuccessfully) navigate those transitions will, in a large part, determine the quality of one’s life. The expected and unexpected transitions in life will inevitably appear more navigable when a person, be it toddler or adult, has developed the patience, persistence, fortitude, and faith to see them through. It’s actually one of the things in life I feel like I was halfway good at: the ability to keep going in spite of life’s wild transition, turmoil, and change. Another great philosopher, Fred McFeely Rogers, more commonly known as the beloved Mr. Rogers, once spoke on this very subject: “Transitions are almost always signs of growth, but they can bring feelings of loss. To get somewhere new, we may have to leave somewhere else behind.” My toddler, like many of us, may often feel like he’s leaving something behind when he must leave the place he’s at to go to someplace new. 

My job, then, as a parent is to help him see that it’s not a loss to transition to something new; it’s growth. Navigating the transitions of life with courage, dignity, and grace is the fabric of character and the essence of maturity, and without question, I want my son to have both. I’ve learned in my few years as a parent, however, I can’t simply teaching him character and maturity; I must model it. Thus, when Jameson unexpectedly goes from being Sweet Boy to the dreaded Warden, I have to be better at navigating his transitions. After 38 years of life, I’m pretty good at navigating my own, but his aversion to transitioning can instantly cause me to be frustrated, irritated, and short.  I’ll even confess that Jameson, my almost-three-year-old, has even sent me to the corner a few times because I “said a bad word” or he “doesn’t want me to yell”—and I have willingly gone because, well, fair is fair. Apparently, the patience, persistence, fortitude, and faith that I thought I was halfway good at was just a lie I sold myself. Regardless, everyone in the Shinn household is constantly working to be better at successfully moving from one mental and emotional state to the next. It’s a process, as is life. As we work on that process, though, one thing is abundantly clear: life is lived more happily and heartily when one becomes skilled at navigating the transitions. 

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