What dog poop can teach us about relationships

Dog poop on the sidewalk: my 4-year-old spotted it. “Someone left that mess there. That’s not cool!” I said. “That’s not cool!” she agreed.

“It’s our responsibility to clean up our own messes,” I said. “Yeah!” she said.

“I always try to clean up my own messes,” she said.

“That’s wonderful,” I said.

And I had to stop for a second.

Now, you know full well that my daughter does not instantly clean up her messes. But I found this quite interesting: how willing I was to overlook that fact, and to say something encouraging.

She now skips down the sidewalk with the impression that she is someone who cleans up her own messes.

I definitely could have said, “Uh, no you don’t. What about all those papers you cut up that have been strewn about the living-room floor for the past three days?”

Then she might have felt a bit defeated or defensive or distanced from me. Or otherwise connected cleaning with slightly negative feelings.

But what made me stop for a second was: What if, instead of my daughter saying “I always try to clean up my own messes,” it had been my husband? Which response would I have given then? Probably not “That’s wonderful” (though I’ve greatly improved since these days).

Occasionally I think about the stark difference in the way I greet my daughter and my husband, too.

When my daughter gets home, I give her such grand enthusiasm: a big “Hellooo!” with a full-on hug and swoop up into the air for a snuggly kiss. For my husband, it’s a “Hey! How was work?”

Yes, I know, he’s not 4. He doesn’t have her infectious joy, and neither do I. It’d be kind of weird if we did. Etc.

But I bet these things would not hurt our marriage: More willingness to overlook minor infractions. More encouraging words. More acceptance. More I-really-like-you enthusiasm. More hugs.

After all, we’re all human. Not so much changes in our relationship needs. Actually, that’s been one interesting reaction to my book, Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science. It’s about raising kids under 5, but readers tell me the concepts also help them with older kids, partners, and other relationships. Makes sense!

Think about just one specific scenario where you could give your spouse (or yourself?) the “I’m 100% on your side” reaction you try to give your child. Let me know what you choose.

(Are you a perfectionist? Or an anxious parent? I have a survey for you.)

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