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She almost wasn’t born … twice.

For most of my life, I was fairly certain I didn’t want children.  I grew up in a dysfunctional household and my father regularly told me I was the cause of his unhappy marriage.  It was a tough message to hear, but as a kid it’s hard not to take such messages to heart.

So when I fell in love with my husband, I was scared.  I told him I didn’t want kids.

Not only did I change my mind after witnessing the birth of my nephew, it turned out having kids wasn’t going to be easy.  Our daughter is a miracle.  After she was born I learned there was an 80% chance I’d miscarry.

To say she’s changed my life is an understatement.

So in honor of Thanksgiving, I thought I’d share just a few of the things she’s taught me about the wonders of life.

Never say “I can’t.”  Say instead, “I haven’t yet.”

My daughter is the product of two over-achievers with perfectionist tendencies.  Watching her take on challenges like buttoning her jacket or learning to read is frustratingly familiar.  She’s bright, but she gives up too easily.  She says “I can’t do this” too often.

But watching my daughter helped me see I could choose to rise to the challenge (which is what catalyzed my Everyday Courage challenges).  Now when I try to pitch a media outlet for an interview and don’t hear back, I don’t think “I’m not good enough.”  I say, “There must be more I need to learn.”

Life is about learning, not just succeeding.

Know when to say “no”

When it comes to my daughter, if I say I’m going to do something or be somewhere, I deliver (unless I am the victim of some unfortunate, unforeseen event).  To do this successfully, I’m very careful about what I commit to.

When it comes to my work, however, I get easily excited and say yes far too often.  And that puts me in a lose-lose situation: either I deliver but am exhausted and stressed out, or I flake out and lose a lot of credibility and good will.

Obviously, this is a bit of wisdom I’m still learning.  Commitment is more about saying “no” than “yes.”

Be brave enough to tell the truth

As a career coach, this lesson is really embarassing.

You see, when we moved to London, my daughter started school instead of attending daycare, which meant  instead of having eight or nine hours to do my work, I only had five or six.  And sometimes, when I really wanted to finish a blog post or plan out my interview wish list, I’d plop her in front of a video and say, “Mommy has to work.”

One day, she called me on it.

She said (and I am not making this up): “Mommy, it’s important you love your work.”  Even at four, she understood the negative connotation of what one “has” to do.

And I realized exactly how wrong my behavior was–not for putting her in front of a video, but for not being honest enough to tell her the truth: right now, I’m choosing to work over spending time with you.

It’s not just possible to love your family and your work, I happen to think it’s healthy.  How else is she supposed to learn how to design an amazing career of her own?

Everyone has a superpower

One of our favorite topics on the walk to school is superpowers.  She claims her superpower is recognizing letters of the alphabet or counting backwards from ten (both things she’s very proud of at the moment).

The funny thing is, she’s blind to her real superpowers.

She takes for granted how she can start drawing a table, and mid-picture, turn it into a whale.  Or that she beats me by a landslide at the memory game (even when I’m trying to win).

It’s a blind spot that for most people never goes away–a big part of the reason people are so afraid to change or reach for a powerful goal.  The problem isn’t that we’re all burdened by a sense of humility, but we’re oblivious to how amazing we truly are.

Maybe we all need to see ourselves through the eyes of a four-year-old to remember.

Question: What life lessons are you thankful for this year?

The whale that used to be a table–can you tell?

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45 Responses to Life Lessons From My 4-year-old

  1. When one door closes another one opens.
    This phrase, this lesson has come up again recently. It has taught me throughout the years to never be disheartened again if a project or intention goes awry. There’s not just one solution but many. I am truly thankful for this truth, this fact of life.

    • Great addition, Felicia, and it’s one I take comfort in as well. I think the key is to not take those closing doors personally, while making the opening of doors very personal. Know what I mean?

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm
    • Chapin
    • Said...

    Wonderful post. I would say my life lesson that I’m thankful for (and still working on) is to truly tap in to what will make you most happy. Identifying the life qualities you’re looking for instead of the career path or material possessions. Because once you do that, you can let everything else go and focus on what’s important. Which, I’ve heard, can be freeing! Thanks again for the post.

    • Yes, I think that’s the thing most of the luminaries (myself included) are struggling with. And probably the answer is that there’s no answer. That is, happiness is always an elusive target, and the best we can do is enjoy the chase. What do you think?

        • On
        • November 23, 2011 at 7:54 pm
        • Chapin
        • Said...

        It’s really helped me to focus on those bigger picture qualities that I would like in my life. I’m experiencing a shift in priorities and goals because of it. And, I guess that really is what is important – working toward the things that you believe will make you happy, not necessarily just achieving your goal.

        • Yes, I think that’s true Chapin. It’s the priorities that matter, much more so than the goal.

    • I know exactly what you mean. I face a new challenge, one that just won’t leave me alone. I’m opening this door myself.

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 12:36 pm
    • Ritu
    • Said...

    Children are so humbling. I always think it’s interesting that we grow older and supposedly wiser, yet often times we have to look at the wisdom we had when we were children.

    Thankfully, I have a couple of ’em to keep me in check, and keep giving me “wisdom”:)

    • LOL. Yes, that’s a great way of putting it.

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 12:55 pm
    • Raj
    • Said...

    I guess she is pretty clever for a four year old… I am sure she’ll grow up and make her parents proud – All the best :)

    • Yep, she’s already making her parents proud, even if she doesn’t let me win at the memory game. LOL

  2. My granddaughter is 4. What a heavenly age…but then they all are, in their own way.

    I’m so glad to hear she beats you at Memory. Ellie pounds me in the game, fair and square. I thought it was part of aging but you’re lots younger than I am, so I feel better.

    I smiled that the over-achieving mom thinks her daughter gives up too easily. In that type of thing being a grandmother is so much easier/more relaxing than being the mom.

    There’s a good article in this issue of Scientific American Mind – The Death of Preschool. Interesting.

    happy thanksgiving. I am grateful for having met you.

    • Yes, all the ages are heavenly in their own way. I’ve adored each one as she’s grown, thinking it would be hard to keep getting better, but it does.

      And I do realize the humor of the interplay between overachieving mom and daughter. Interestingly, it has been our overachiever lifestyles that support the ides in the Scientific American article. We are actually paying a lot of money to send her to a preschool that is NOT outcome oriented, but encourages children to be curious, playful, and risk-takers, among other things. Like any mom, I want her to avoid my mistakes, but of course that just leads to others. You can’t grow up without making mistakes (literally!).

      Happy Thanksgiving to you too, Cherry!

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 2:41 pm
    • barbara
    • Said...

    Kids can be so grounding, and not just because they are closer to the ground.;)

    I am thankful for truly believing the most important things in life aren’t things that can be wrapped.

    Thanks Jen! Have a great Holiday!

    • I’m laughing so hard right now, Barbara, at your “not just because they’re closer to the ground” comment!

      Absolutely. My family is my greatest gift. While I certainly honor them on Thanksgiving, I hope I communicate how appreciative I am every day of the year!

      Happy holidays to you too, my friend!

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 2:42 pm
    • Kate Farris
    • Said...

    You are so great Jen. I love this post!! It warms my heart and reminds me of lessons I learn from my son every day! I am quickly realizing the challenges of being a grad student a devoted mom at the same time.

    • Kate! How good to see you here. Yes, the balancing act is hard, and maybe the best lesson is that we never get it right, we just do the best we can, day in and day out. Hang in there and enjoy it. So good to see you and happy holidays!

  3. What a wonderful, heartwarming post. I wasn’t lucky enough to have a miracle, but I have two fantastic step kids. They’ve taught me that they can recognise when I’ve had a day that’s been just a bit too hard or a client that’s been one step over the line…and they simply come up to me and request a hug. They don’t have to tell me I need it, they just do it. It’s wonderful and they’re very special.

    • Of course, it’s quite right to say that all kids are miracles, no matter how they found their way into our lives. Talk about a heartwarming ritual of offering the hug before one needs to ask for it. I probably coax my little one for hugs too often, but you’re right, kids have a sixth sense of when they are truly needed.

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 3:32 pm
    • Tammy
    • Said...

    Jen, what a lovely post; one we can all relate to at some point in our lives. The biggest life lesson I’ve learned was also taught to me my daughter. I made an incredible effort to always be strong; strong for her, for me, for her dad, for my mom. Tears were always hidden, so were fears and sadness. You get the picture. When my father died almost 4 years ago I was everything but strong. I buckled under the sorrow and think I didn’t stop crying for 6 weeks. My daughter was strong for me, never shed a tear. Until about 3 months after his death when the weight of her moms sorrows along with her own took her down. She later told me that she was so frightened when she saw me so sad, so scared and so vulnerable; not something she had ever seen before. She didn’t understand it and she found that she couldn’t do it herself. That is the moment that I learned that not showing your kids the truth about you and about how life affects you was a huge mistake. We are still working it all out, the both of us. Isn’t it funny how often we hurt those we try so very hard to protect; all in the name of love. Great post.

    • Wow, that’s powerful! Thanks for sharing it. You’re right, sometimes the worst thing we can do is to try to protect too much. That’s definitely something I struggle with too. I’m so sorry for your loss, but glad it created a time for you and your daughter to learn and love each other more deeply.

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 4:09 pm
    • Bernard Hall
    • Said...

    Hi Jen,
    I subscribe to a large number of email lists. Your emails always make me smile – from the heart. And that makes all the difference – because I will always read them.
    Keep up the good work :)

    • Bernard,
      That is simply the kindest thing a reader can say. I’m going to post that up above my desk for the days when the evil gremlins whisper in my ear that I can’t write. Thank you so much!!

  4. Love the photo of you both in pink.

    This line resonated:

    “Right now, I’m choosing to work over spending time with you.”

    I am effectively (wordlessly) saying that a lot too to my kids.

    But I am not okay with it. I can never get over the guilt and I can’t justify why I’d want to spend more time working than with them anyway.

    Work will always be there. They won’t. So wondering if I’ve made the right decisions.

    Parenting is hard, when you add in the desire for a rewarding job it gets harder still and I can never kill guilt!

    Maybe I will rethink next year and choose less work, less money and more free time with my kids.

      • On
      • November 22, 2011 at 5:45 pm
      • barbara
      • Said...

      It’s always a tricky little dance, isn’t it? I have been there and done that, as you both know. What I know for sure is this… when I was happy in my job I was a happier mother. A happier mother is so much better than an exhausted (mentally and physically) mother, I believe.

      I wish I had been able to work from home more, as you both can, when they were younger. But, I understand that working from home blurs the lines. It’s all a trade-off isn’t it?

      Don’t beat yourselves up! You are teaching your children good lessons. Trust me. My kids have never told me they felt slighted because I worked a lot. And both of them have kids and working wives.

      • Annabel, I think Barbara has put into words my feelings: I am a better mother when I’m happy in my work. I enjoy parenting a lot, but my personality isn’t a good fit for the stay at home mom lifestyle. I need to act on big ideas that inspire change in the world. Right now, all my daughter wants to do is play–as she should. And so if I can get my fix of big ideas and acting on them through work, it means when she wants to play pretend or cards or whatever, I’m able to more easily let myself go there and enjoy it.

        So for me, I try to spend quality time with my family and my work everyday. Do I always get the balance right? Surely not. But I’m spending more quality time with my daughter now than I ever have before. She’s happy, and so am I. That’s a pretty good outcome I think. :)

        • Thanks Jen and Barb:) Of course I want to have it all too. Just going to try to make sure the work bit fits into school hours. It will be a challenge but less stressful than trying to work while my kids are in the house!

    • On
    • November 22, 2011 at 7:58 pm
    • Cara Stein
    • Said...

    She said (and I am not making this up): “Mommy, it’s important you love your work.” Even at four, she understood the negative connotation of what one “has” to do.

    That is awesome! <3 <3 <3

    I'm totally with you on "I can't" and needing to say "no," too. I keep thinking I need to grow up, but maybe it's the opposite. :)

    • I like that. Here’s to Peter Pan living! LOL

  5. Kids, in their innocence, are wonderful mirrors. I’m especially grateful for the lesson that my 3 (ages 2, 5 & 7) have taught me, one of which is to be especially aware of the way I’m being. I’ve caught myself a number of times acting in just the way that I reprimand them for being. Many times my 7 year old calls me on it by saying something like, “You’re not being very nice, Mommy.” It’s at that time I realize that I’m acting like a 6 yr. old with my 7 yr. old.

    I also use that heightened state of awareness to better understand the actions of others around me (they’re reacting to my way of being). Then I use these lessons back with my kids. When an older sibling is wondering why a younger sibling is acting a certain way (i.e. hitting or taking a toy), I’ll say, “It’s because you taught them to do that.” They’ll deny it, then, a short time later when they’re modelling the behavior they complained about, I’ll call them on it. It usually stops them in their tracks (and stops me when I do the same with myself).

    I’ve learned some other valuable lessons from my little ones that I wrote about a couple months ago. I, too, had my own perfectionism issue that is now a thing of the past. “Good enough” is a much happier way to live.

    Jen, thank you for reminding me of even more lessons that I’ve learned. Our children are blessings in so many ways. It’s up to us to be mindful of all the little gifts they offer to us every day.

    • Paige,
      One of the things I’m most proud of actually is telling my daughter, “Mommy shouldn’t have acted like that. I’m sorry.” I think that’s the best lesson I can teach her, and it certainly is a good lesson for me. She told me just yesterday “Mommy, I love you always, even when you’re cranky.” I nearly fell over laughing. I told her I felt the same way. :)

  6. Great post my friend and thank you for your transparency. The wonderful life lesson of the gift of your daughter and all the lessons she has taught you already. I have a 29 year old daughter now and she taught me in the last year that it can be dangerous to be in love with memory of someone. So let go and am truly living in the moment now.

    Children are GIFTS and my 27 year old son and my 29 year old daughter have taught me so many life lessons for I am who I am due to them being in part for them being in my lfe.

    In gratitude,

    • Nancy,
      Ah, loving a memory and learning to let go. That’s a great lesson to add to the list. I agree, children are the greatest gifts of all. Thanks for sharing yours with us!

    • On
    • November 23, 2011 at 8:33 am
    • Farnoosh
    • Said...

    Please thank your little Ingrid for such great lessons. I think she is a phenomenal little thing and I am so happy that she came to your life, Jen. Have a great Thanksgiving in London and hope we meet again very soon!

    • Yes, Farnoosh, you are one of the few to see her in her “run through the rolling hula hoop” action! LOL. It was a great time, and thanks for comment. Always a pleasure to see you here.

  7. A lovely post, Jen! This year, I’m thankful for a lesson on the power of initiative. Thanks to you and other friends and mentors, I’ve learned how important it is to actively pursue your dreams…to take steps every day toward making them reality. It sounds fairly basic, but it’s been profound for me; I feel as though many of the best things about this year came to me because I took steps of ‘everyday courage’.

    Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours! :)

    • Yes, yes, yes for initiative as a life lesson. I agree, it sounds so basic, but is absolutely life altering. Very excited to see where life takes you this coming year. :)

    • On
    • November 24, 2011 at 7:51 am
    • Veehcirra
    • Said...

    It’s amazing your baby is brave enough to tell you the truth Jen, I long for those childhood years when I was so trusting and carefree and I literally followed my heart.
    The life lesson am grateful for is being honest with myself,I took the “wrong” course in campus rather was coerced into it,and now I find myself in a situation wondering if I should continue in down that path since campus is so expensive or follow my heart and risk disappointing everyone…it’s really tough being true to myself but am learning that when am honest without being hurtful I will be fine…it’s not easy though!
    Can I borrow your baby to be honest for me?

    • I would say only this: the truth is inside you. You just have to set it free. No one can do it for you. But once you do, you’ll feel instantly better. Disappointing everyone isn’t nearly as bad as disappointing yourself. Best wishes to you, and know that we are here to support you whatever you decide!!

    • On
    • November 26, 2011 at 8:21 am
    • Josephine Spilka
    • Said...

    So, my life lesson right now is the fact that love is limitless. To say that it is not possible to love your family and your work is to say your heart is too small to take in the infinite, limitless magic of our world. Everyday is a challenge to both loving and saying “no”, to being honest and open. I couldn’t live if I thought that it wasn’t possible to love both my family and my work, as they nourish each other through me, always showing me that I am more than I thought, more flexible, more expansive and more creative. And I am not saying it always feels good either, but to recognize that love is what drives us in any realm seems essential to being honest with our world.

    • I think the important thing to remember is that love IS limitless, but time isn’t. So that’s where the struggle really comes in, at least for me. And as Annabel Candy says in her comments, how much time with our families is “enough” or “okay”?

    • On
    • December 2, 2011 at 4:41 am
    • Grady Pruitt
    • Said...

    Children have a way of making us look at a lot of things differently. Sometimes, it’s a realization that we have from watching them. Other times, it’s the things they say. (And Art Linkletter is right… Kids do say the darnedest things!)

    I love the idea of “I haven’t done it yet.” That leaves open the possibility that you may someday. This is a great message to teach our kids and for us to live by.

    As for the kid calling you out… I haven’t had that yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it did!

    Fantastic post!

    • Grady,
      Yes, my daughter says things that just bowl me over with the apparent wisdom and insight. I wish she didn’t have to call me out from time to time, but I guess it’s only fair!

    • On
    • December 2, 2011 at 11:41 am
    • Mica
    • Said...

    I don’t plan on having children myself but I do appreciate the lessons they can teach us. The words “I can’t” are always far from my vocabulary!

    • Exactly. You don’t have to have children of your own to appreciate their gifts. :)