He had to go to the bathroom. All the signs were there, the uncomfortable fidgeting, grabbing between the legs, walking with knees bent together. But when I asked, “Do you need to go potty?”
He emphatically replied, “No!”
This was unusual behavior for one of my preschool kids, especially this one who is in my class for the second year. While the other kids played, I pulled him aside and asked him what was wrong. “I’m afraid of the potty,” he admitted. This was new.
“Why are you afraid of the potty?”
“I saw a Tron movie and there were black guys and blue guys and I saw one of the guys gets killed,” he answered, near tears.
“Can I put a dragon in time out?” I asked him. He nodded somberly (there’s a story behind that question, and if you haven’t read the Kids’ Quotes page on my website, you should). “Do you think I can put a bad guy in time out?” He nodded again. “No,” I said, and his eyes widened. “I don’t even let bad guys into preschool. No bad guys, no monsters, nothing scary at all. Preschool is a safe place, because I will always keep my kids safe.” His tears spilled over and he threw his arms around me. I hugged him back, and then asked if he was ready to go potty. He nodded.
“Don’t forget to shut the door,” he instructed, and I smiled and shut the door as I left to supervise the other children.
This happened in preschool today, and it got me thinking. Now I’ve never seen Tron or the Tron Legacy movie, but I doubt that one of the guys gets killed on the potty. Both of these movies are rated PG and we would assume then that they would be safe to show. I’m not sure at what point my young student associated the pixilated death of a program with dangers of bowel movement, but for him it was very real and very scary.
I’m glad he talked to me about it. I don’t know if how I handled it was the right way or the best way, but I did listen to him and try to understand his point of view. My first journal entries are when I was in about the first grade, seven years old. They’re really funny to me now to read, as I detailed the difficulties and dramas of elementary school life. But even as I giggle over passages like, “I have a crush on two boys. How does that even happen?” I remember how incredibly lonely I was as a child. Being six or seven inches taller than almost everyone else in your class is intimidating, and I wasn’t very socially savvy. Not having friends to sit with at lunch may feel less critical now, but I still remember the sting.
I saw the movie “Labyrinth,” with David Bowie when I was eight and although I love it now, back then it gave me nightmares for over a week. I was terrified that goblins were going to come and kidnap my sister. My older sister. Rationality didn’t have much to do with it. I ran screaming from the theater when my parents took me to see “E.T.” and was so traumatized that I don’t think I have even tried to watch that movie again, my love for Spielberg notwithstanding. And yet I think I watched “The Dark Crystal” when I was three or four and loved it. Maybe it was because there were no people in it so it seemed completely fantastic. Maybe I was too young to understand the danger. But either way, that movie put “being a muppeteer in a muppet movie” on my bucket list.
But one journal entry sticks out to me more than most. It was written in May of 1992 in terrible handwriting with a red pen that I remember being proud of owning. “Remember when you’re grown up to listen,” it says, “and what it feels like to be a kid. I’m trying to talk about the biggest things in my life and no one cares. When you get big you have big problems. When you’re a kid you have kid problems. But my problems are just as big to me as yours are to you. If I’m ever a mom, I’m going to listen when my kids talk and never laugh at them. Because sometimes getting laughed at hurts when you’re trying to be serious.”
I wish I could write a letter back to that self of mine. I have some things to apologize for, because I haven’t always listened and I have sometimes laughed. I try not to, because I do remember how much that bothered me. And I would tell young me that we were going to be okay, and we would be a mom and have big people problems but we wouldn’t be alone to face them. And that we were never alone to face them. Then I would give her a hug and tell her to stop worrying so much even though I knew she never would.
When our children come to us with problems it’s because they believe we care enough to help fix them. What they can’t understand is when we care enough to let them fix their own problems. But they will always remember if we listened to them or not. It’s hard when you know you’re right and you just wish they would accept that and move on because we have other things to do, but I was at lunch with a good friend of mine recently and she said she remembered thinking that she was going to tie her parents up and just make them listen.
Most of my kids’ favorite part of preschool is show and tell, when they’re the ones in center stage. They want to feel listened to and heard. I encourage other students to ask questions after each presentation and let the child answer, so they get the chance to pick who talks next. They each love the power trip. And we can’t listen to them every time, sometimes dinner is burning and our phones are ringing while someone is at the door. But we can say, “In ten minutes (or a half hour, or right before bedtime) we’ll talk, and I want to hear everything you have to say.” Then stick to it. We need to keep our promises, even when it’s inconvenient, because that’s how they learn to keep theirs.
When that boy’s mom came to pick him up, he and I told her together about his potty fears and the guy that got killed in Tron. It came out that he’d seen the movie at a friend’s house and had been too scared to talk about it afterwards. His mom listened, and asked him questions, and did not laugh at him. He went home happy and comforted, and I worried that I wasn’t listening to my kids enough. I’m still a worrier, even without my red pen. Maybe my future self will come and give me a hug and tell me it’s all right, they grew up to be wonderful men, and they knew they never had to face their problems alone.
I’ll have to add time travel to my bucket list.