Every morning, pretty much like clockwork, I hear the pitter patter of a three-year-old’s footsteps. Usually running, sometimes stomping, always louder than you’d expect for someone who weighs in at sub-featherweight status of 33ish pounds. That stomping is the first indication my son is awake.
The second indication is harder to ignore; it involves little boy underwear being flung in your face. He has half of the getting dressed thing down… he can get his pajamas off, and he will pick out a shirt and a pair of underwear (he basically refuses to wear pants at home), but he usually needs help putting his shirt and underwear on.
Not too long ago, underwear-in-face was my alarm clock. I’ll tell you, it’s an interesting way to wake up. Not quite like the gentle alarm tones I set for myself on my iPhone. Now that I get up well before him, he brings the underwear downstairs, scouts out where I’m hiding out, and holds his arm out with clothes in hand. No words. Very transactional. You know what I need, you’ve got the skills, just do it Daddy.
Did I mention he refuses to wear pants?
When we first potty-trained him about a year ago, the strategy was a full immersion, rip the bandaid off approach where you do the full potty training thing in a single weekend. The method entails the following: hype up for days in advance the graduation to “big boy underwear.” The morning of that fateful weekend, you wake up and immediately put him in his big boy underwear, and then watch him like a hawk until there is the slightest indication of a potty dance or an accident, then race him to the toilet and get whatever you possibly can in the toilet. Rinse, repeat.
We went through about ten pairs of underwear in an hour before a realization set in, followed by panic… we were horribly short on backup underwear. The method had called for having 20-30 pairs on hand for just this reason, but my wife made a judgment call that 12 would be enough. Big miscalculation.
We placed an emergency call for reinforcements, begging grandma and grandpa to make an immediate underwear run. Manning the home front was a two person job at least. One person had to have eyes on our son at all time, the other person was hand-washing underwear and drying them with a hair dryer because we didn’t have the time to wait for a full laundry cycle. There was an accident every five minutes.
It was chaos. It was also a sport… stay focused, watch for the slightest move… hand to crotch, legs bending awkwardly in, pee-pee dance… then see how fast you could tackle him linebacker-style and swoop him to the toilet. Amazingly enough, the method worked. He was getting the hang of it by the afternoon, the accidents were subsiding. That whole weekend we kept him in underwear so we could see if he was wet.
At the time I remembered thinking, “He looks really cute in his big boy underwear. He looks so grown up!” Going from diaper to underwear is one of those step-changes that immediately ages your child before your very eyes.
A year later, he still doesn’t wear pants around the house. He just doesn’t like pants. He’d be happy to do it even when other people are over. Big boy underwear… well, not so cute any more. Pants though, now those are so friggin’ cute.
In this digital age of cameras on your phone, we’ve amassed a year’s worth of pictures and videos of our son around the house. All of these milestones… learning to read, learning numbers, learning to write, creating his first drawing, all of them pants-less. I assume it will go down in family history as the year of no pants.
A few mornings ago, my son came downstairs and stood in the doorway of the room I was sitting in. He was buck naked, and just standing there leisurely, and struck up a conversation with me about the solar system. (He’s been into planets a lot recently.) Just chillin’, leaning against the door frame, buck-ass naked, telling me about Netpune’s moons. And I couldn’t help but watch the whole thing and think to myself, man, there’s a lot you can learn from a three-year-old. And not just about Neptune’s moons.
What I appreciate so much about him is that genuine authenticity. He is so utterly himself. He could not be any more himself if he tried. (And that’s just it, trying is what stands in the way…)
In the wild and wooly adult world, we have cultivated self-awareness and self-consciousness to the point where we are so often modulating ourselves based on our situation, who we’re around, or how we think we should be in a given situation. Sometimes it’s calculated, sometimes it’s just awkward self-protection… like fake laughing, or pretending to be a certain way.
And everyone knows how it feels. There’s effort there, and it’s also uncomfortable. It just doesn’t feel natural. We feel it in our bodies. We’re literally hooked up for inauthenticity to feel bad.
But young kids, they’re still so new at the self-conscious thing. So they forget to be self-conscious most of the time. And it’s beautiful. And hilarious. It’s like watching a little boy or little girl dancing. They are just free, doing their thing, no qualms about whether or not they are doing it well or what others are thinking. Every now and then you might see them catch a glimpse of someone looking at them and they get shy or their demeanor changes. Boom, magic gone. Most of the time that isn’t there, and they are just themselves, and it’s great.
Like this picture of my son… it’s 7am and he’s like, Hey, I’ll just sit here pants-less eating this slab of egg with my bare hands while wearing my favorite crown. Life is good.
There is nothing more freeing than being totally yourself, is there? I mean it’s the stuff of our best friendships… we can be who we are with those people. They won’t judge us. Deep down, that’s what we crave in all our human relationships. We want to be accepted and loved for who we are. It doesn’t feel good to fake it for approval.
Usually though, we are our toughest critic. Even someone with high self-esteem usually has a whole bunch of parts of themselves they still don’t like. And often unconsciously, in wanting those parts of ourselves to change, we actually find ourselves feeling unworthy of unconditional acceptance. But if we can’t accept ourselves, it almost doesn’t matter if others do. We usually don’t even give them a chance to, because we’re hiding the parts of ourselves we don’t like or trying to change them.
I am a big fan of self-improvement, but in a certain way. I think there is real value and beauty in growing and developing as a human, even through effort or discipline. I don’t see complete authenticity and self-acceptance as at odds with growth and development. That’s one of the wonderful things Zen has taught me… so many people seem to think full acceptance or even surrender to something means you’ll lack the drive or the capacity to change things. It isn’t true, that comes from a very limited perspective.
In truth, there is a way of working on yourself that can be done in an accepting way. Of course, there’s also a way of coming at it from a place of resistance, self-judgment, and harshness. But one of the greatest discoveries is that it is possible to build toward a future while accepting the present moment.
What often goes unnoticed in self-improvement efforts, though, is our mistaken notion of how much is under our control. When we are not as we would like to be, we take that as a personal failing and tend to attach it to our identity. (I’m like this because of that.) That hurts. But just as we don’t grow our hair or beat our heart, there are aspects of our personality that are out of our reach from a change perspective, at least in a given moment. We don’t take credit for growing our hair because that would be ridiculous, but we take credit (or blame) for how we behave or our nature because we presume it’s all one hundred percent in our control.
The reality is that change, particularly the kind I’m talking about, is often gradual, sometimes even imperceptible, and sometimes it just isn’t in the cards. If I look back at how I’ve grown and changed over the years, there are certainly qualities I’ve developed. I credit many of them to Zen and meditation practice, and some have probably just come with the ripening that happens to all of us from getting older and the experiences we’re given in our rough and tumble lives.
But there are many parts of my personality that haven’t changed, including ones I’d love to see change. The issue is it’s flawed thinking. I’d love to be more relaxed, more outgoing, funnier… but if I’m honest, I’d also like to be more energetic, more comfortable being alone. I can’t go ten seconds before I start spotting all kinds of conflicting wishes. If I laid it all out and looked at it, I’m sure the picture would be some vision of perfection that is unattainable and that just plain doesn’t exist. I’d be setting myself up for failure and for feeling pretty bad about myself.
One of the benefits of raising a little guy is seeing how much of ourselves is truly inborn. I could give you a hundred examples, but I’ll use one that’s fresh in my mind.
My son is very sensitive… if someone says something to him too harshly, for example, he’ll sometimes run away crying. A couple nights ago I asked him to stop jumping off the couch onto a blanket because the blanket might slip on the hardwood and he might get hurt. He left emotionally hurt instead and went to his room. He is constantly putting himself in “timeout” so he doesn’t have to be confronted by his parents when he does something wrong. It’s as though he can’t handle the slightest bit of us being upset with him.
Last night, I was reading him a children’s book and on one of the pages it says that the Mommy monkey scolds her baby monkeys. When we got to that page, he covered his ears. He didn’t want me to even read that page.
Being sensitive is just part of his nature, it’s been noticeable from just about the beginning. It’s in his programming. It’s so easy for me to embrace that; he’s my son. But I remember being told growing up that I was really sensitive. I hated hearing that. I remember denying it. I remember wanting to change it. And I can tell you, it’s never really gone away. Maturing has certainly shifted it from how it manifested as a kid, but I’ll never be the same as many of my thick-skinned friends. I could waste a lot of energy trying to change it, or I could relax and be me (and practice Zen).
And often a weakness is a strength in another context. I’m very in tune with people’s emotions and I see my capacity for empathy as being linked to that sensitivity in some way. I’m not sure I could have one without the other in quite the same way.
So many people say, “I just want to be me.” But when it comes down to it, we all sacrifice that desire, often on a daily basis. People-pleasing slips in. Approval-seeking slips in. Fear of shame or discomfort or embarrassment slips in. The strange thing is, while we do it because we think we’ll feel better and more protected, it actually corrodes our confidence and we lose touch with the joy and freedom that comes with being completely authentic.
What’s fascinating about it is that “being yourself” tends to come easily to the very young as well as the old. In the young, self-consciousness just hasn’t fully developed yet. Self-consciousness is really more of a learned habit than anything, born out of a desire to protect yourself. But since it isn’t yet ingrained in the very young, it’s just absent most of the time.
In older people, it’s a different story. There, self-consciousness is worn down over time. After living years and years of caring what others think, eventually you start to realize it’s exhausting, it’s a losing battle, and you’re much happier when you give up caring. Enter old man pants…
Learning to “be you” through and through seems to be a lifelong journey. But there’s no doubt it’s a journey worth taking.
I am one hundred percent committed to this journey. But I have a ways to go. Right now, I am routinely being one-upped by my 3-year-old son. I can’t help but wish for his spontaneity and for the utter lack of self-consciousness he displays in most situations. I wish my attitude was, “F*ck it, I just don’t like pants.”
Maybe someday, maybe someday. And should that day come, I’ll try to balance it with some good old fashioned empathy and reserve the no pants thing for home.\
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