My precocious, headstrong preschooler (or, as we like to say, “threenager”), Nava, has recently been asking for ketchup to accompany every morsel of food she eats. Not only does she require it on foods typically eaten with ketchup, like hot dogs and french fries, but also with more unusual examples – like cucumbers. (For fear of churning stomachs, I’ll spare you from her other concoctions.)
One evening at dinner, I brought her a plate with a hot dog and bun laced with her usual ketchup. Rather than showing appreciation or even indifference, she cried out in an exasperated voice, “I don’t want the ketchup! Eeew!”
I was shocked and frustrated by her reaction. Her needs and wants felt like a moving target. Since my whole family eats dinner together, I had other children to feed simultaneously. I remained calm as she asked (read: demanded) me to wipe the ketchup off, and – just to be certain there was not a trace left – to wash the hot dog. She also requested a fresh bun, because G-d forbid she should see any leftover ketchup markings.
I quickly performed damage control and in no time her hot dog was as good as new.
Dinner continued and as the meal progressed, I bet you can’t guess what she asked me for…
“Wait! What?” I thought. “After she made a stink about not wanting the ketchup?!?”
Apparently, she had wanted the ketchup only on her plate, not touching any of her food. (Because that would just be silly, right?) Yet, by the end of dinner, she was meekly asking if I could help her put ketchup on her second hot dog.
If that is not full circle, I don’t know what is.
Although at times I do get outwardly frustrated, this time I managed to remember that she is just a child with developing tastes. In fact, her behavior reminded me of an experience I had when I was pregnant…
I was at a restaurant, and I ordered minestrone soup. With my pregnancy-induced heightened tastebuds, the soup was the best I had ever eaten. I enjoyed it so much, in fact, that I insisted on having it the next night, as well. Yet, less than 24 hours later, I had a sip of the exact same soup and almost spit it out because it tasted so horrible to me. I even asked the chef if he had made a mistake, and he assured me that he had used the same recipe for the past eleven years.
This memory of my own vacillating taste buds helped me control my annoyance towards my daughter.
Parenting is a 24/7 job that tests our limits and patience like nothing else. Sometimes the lesson in moments like this is just that parenting can be frustrating. But there is a secondary lesson to be gleaned this time: When we do something wrong or annoying, we make all sorts of excuses. Judging ourselves in a favorable way comes naturally; it is extending benefit of the doubt to others that is a challenge.
On another occasion, I was going about my routine while my then nine-month-old was crawling and exploring on the floor. I walked towards the closet and saw a paper hanger cover and hanger from the dry cleaner’s lying sloppily in my baby’s path. I started to fume. I thought, “How could my husband just leave a dangerous hanger on the floor like that? Doesn’t he know our baby could get hurt?”
Then I realized that it was my dry-cleaning wrapper and hanger. I had left it there. Suddenly, every excuse came to mind: I was in a rush; I didn’t realize; I needed to attend to the crying baby, etc.
When it came to judging myself, I was extremely generous, but unfortunately I did not extend the same courtesy to my husband. One way to help ourselves judge others as we would ourselves is to think of the following quote from Rabbi Zalmen Mindell: “If I were you, I would be you.”
What he means is this: If I were your age – with your personality, experiences, life, and income – I would be doing exactly what you are doing right now. This type of benefit of the doubt helps tremendously.
Judging favorably is not about making up unrealistic excuses: “She is late because an elephant was crossing the street and blocking traffic.” It has to be believable. The best way to make it believable is to connect current events to something that once happened to us.
The next time that you are in a position where you have done something for which others could easily judge you, take mental notice of what your reason was. (For example: I left the dry cleaning hanger on the floor because the baby was crying and I had to run to her.) Then take that excuse, file it in your mind, and extend that excuse to someone else, almost like “paying it forward.”
This applies to even the most mundane of situations, such as a simple text. Suppose you intended to text someone back – you even wrote up the response, but didn’t have the chance to press send. Or perhaps you thought you sent it, but your finger missed the send button. Days later you realize the text never went through.
The next time someone doesn’t respond to you, remember your personal excuse from the previous experience. When you are late because of factors like traffic, a hard time picking out clothing, or a child needing something as you were on our way out, you should also file that reason and use it with regard to someone else. With those excuses in mind, it becomes easier to judge your friend with favor.
This type of dan lekaf zechut helps tremendously. It is the only way that I was able to to remain calm with my daughter during the ketchup episode. Because I remembered my own erratic tastebuds during the experience with the minestrone soup, I was able to judge her as I would myself.