When our daughter was 4, I gave her a timeout after yet another power struggle over bedtime. She was upset, but she resigned herself to a corner for the four minutes. Forgetting it was dark in her room, I pulled the door almost closed. She cried and said she was scared. "Be scared," I suggested, obviously in need of a timeout myself.
This was difficult for both of us. Katie rarely needed discipline, and when the four minutes were up, we hugged and talked. Since I'd snapped at her, we decided I should get a timeout, too. Her eyes lit up, a little order restored to her kid universe.
"Four minutes!" she announced with great relish. I congratulated myself on the creative parenting while she paused at the door. Her eyes were wet. "I won't close it," she said. "I don't want you to be scared."
I spent my time in the corner crying, too.
Those four minutes changed how I approached being a mother. I realized in a brand-new way how much I had to learn from my daughter, and I vowed to never again squander the opportunity. Here are five lessons I marked as she -- I mean I -- grew up.
1. Attitude Really Is Everything
As a toddler, Katie would gaze out our car window at a hill covered with snow and say, "It looks like we'll have a splendid day for sledding!" Splendid. Who talks like that? I aspired to. "It looks like it'll be a splendid day to do laundry!" Or, "It looks like a splendid day to finish the taxes!" I'm not only optimistic, but I'm spunkier than I used to be. It's impossible to be around someone that exuberant and stay cranky. As if on cue she'd say, "Pretty soon I'll be 4. Then 5, and in kindergarten! I'll have so much fun being those other numbers!"
2. Subtlety Trumps the Hard Sell
I'm not a very good salesperson, but I'm better than I used to be -- and I owe that to Katie. "Want to play with me, Mom?" she'd ask. Then she'd sweeten the deal: "Want to read Cosmo with me?" She didn't ask me straight out to look through a catalog with her. Instead, she said, "Kids like catalogs, and moms like playing with their children." She wove her wishes seamlessly into seemingly unrelated conversations. When she jumped out of bed one morning, she was apparently overcome with longing for my cinnamon roll. "Have any dreams?" I asked. "Indeed I did," I think she said. "What about?" I remember her answer well: "Cinnamon rolls!"
3. It's OK to Like Yourself
Katie has self-esteem to spare, but it's endearing. As a kid, she'd ask, "Want to talk about me? Want to talk about how beautiful I am?" Or, "Would you like to talk about me? I'll talk about me with you!"
4. It's OK to Challenge Authority
From the moment Katie could talk, she toyed with us. We'd tell her not to do something and she'd chirp, "Too late!" When we made a request, she'd consider the consequences: "What will happen if I don't?"
Once she strolled over to me and touched me on the arm and said solemnly, "I disobeyed Dad." Pause. "Two times." I can't remember what I said. Probably nothing. I probably just scooped her up as we dissolved into a giggle fit -- always and only the most important order of the day. As if to underscore that point, when I asked if she understood all the toys needed to be picked up before we went to the park, she barked, "Yes, sir!"
5. Gratitude Is Irresistible
Katie appreciated everything. I surprised her when she was little with new Barbie slippers, and she was so excited she marched over to her desk to write me a thank-you note. She loved to talk about the days when she was nursing, but worried I hadn't been rewarded for my time. "Did I say thank you?" she wondered.
So I shouldn't have been surprised when, after we got her settled at NYU for her freshman year of college, she had one question before she said goodbye: "How can I ever thank you for everything?"
"Are you kidding?" I wanted to say. "I'll never be able to thank you for what I've learned from you."
Instead I told her again how proud I am of the woman she is.
And then, "We're covered."