Even when I don't think he is listening to me, he clearly is.
When Drake was younger I used to take him to Gymboree classes. Drake started at around 8 months, well before he could walk let alone climb, and we stopped shortly before Juliet was born when he was almost 3. They had all kinds of fun and neat equipment for the children to explore and as Drake attended through the years, I noticed how other children would start to get the concept of climbing whereas Drake never did.
At home when I heard stories from friends about having to switch to toddler beds quickly because their children were starting to try to climb out of their cribs, I always gave a sympathetic ear but admitted that I never had to deal with such an issue; my son was not a climber. And it was true. When we finally transitioned Drake out of a crib at a little over 3, it was simply because Mr. Chocolate felt like it was time. Drake never tried climbing out, which is why we waited and waited and finally made the choice on our own.
For a long time whenever I would take Drake to parks, I would watch him watch the other children tackle the apparatus. Climbing walls, slides, anything that wasn't a stairway up Drake avoided. Sometimes I would watch him approach a piece of equipment and hesitantly touch it or attempt to place his hands and feet on it, but if I ever moved closer to help him, he would stop and run away. I never discouraged his climbing, but I could see that Drake wasn't going to try to attempt anything on his own either. Over time it became ingrained in me. When we were at the park and I was chatting with some random parent, they would remark how little Johnny was about to fall off the jungle gym because he climbed too high. I would respond, "My son isn't a climber." When my friends would talk about their climbing kids at home, trying to mount banisters, fences, and cribs, I would say, "My son isn't a climber." I didn't think there was anything wrong with him not climbing; it was just that he wasn't a climber. I was stating a fact -- nothing more nothing less. Drake was not a climber.
Drake and I were sitting at breakfast together one morning at the kitchen table. He was babbling on in his usual silly and nonsensical manner while I was trying to eat my cereal, plan my day while half listening to him and watch Juliet playing in the other room. Then Drake said in his matter of fact preschool voice, "I'm not a good climber mommy." I immediately turned to him and said, "What?" To which he repeated, "I'm not a good climber." I told him, "You are a great climber. I saw you climb up to the clubhouse earlier and you did a great job." That seemed to satisfy him for the moment and soon he was prattling about something else. But throughout the day in random spurts he would repeat to me, "I'm not a good climber mommy." Sometime he would add in, "I'm a good artist but not a good climber."
In fact this past year Drake actually has taken some large strides in climbing. He was playing with some friends at the park and they showed him how to climb up a slide. With their help he managed to make it to the top, which he was ever so excited about. After that day he started to tackle more things -- the rock wall at home, the slides in other parks, even some trees. So when I heard my words come out of my little boy's mouth, I realized then how much he had been listening to me through these years, and how those words became part of how he saw himself. He felt like those words were his identity somehow, and because I said it it must be true. He even stated he was a good artist because that is something for which he has received regular praise. And while I never criticized or put down his climbing, I also never let him believe he could do it either when I said he simply wasn't a climber.
For me this was a valuable lesson in how I talk about my child as a whole. I hope I never forget this incident and remember that even when I am not necessarily putting anyone down, my words can still have a negative effect. While I know Drake and Juliet will never be amazing at everything in life, and that it's ok to fail at some things, I do want them to always believe that they can try. I don't want them to hear words and feel like it defines them as it did for Drake here.