I recall reading — more than once, in more than one place — that when you are trying to express your position, especially about conflicts involving emotion, you should use “I” statements.
That is, you should talk about yourself, not the other person.
“I feel lonely when you go out every night,” not, “You always leave me alone.”
“I’m sad because things aren’t working out,” not “Why can’t you try harder?”
Even “I’m delighted when you take time to call me for no reason.” Although I don’t think “You’re so thoughtful!” would rub many people the wrong way.
It all seems so complicated, and often like it’s just a code for what people really want to say.
Maybe they need to go find their inner 2- year-olds, because Teresa offers us a barrage of “I” statements every day. She hears fireworks or thunder at night? “I scared.” She gets upset because she can’t have a piece of candy that would be a choking hazard? “I crying.” Even, sometimes when she is cuddled on my lap or flying high in a swing, “I happy.”
Part of it is simple language development; she now uses the pronoun “I” instead of her own name to refer to herself. But just adding the word “I” to the sentence shows that she knows she is different from the world around her. Just because she is scared doesn’t mean Mama is; just because she is crying doesn’t mean anyone else is. But when she says “I happy,” I am pretty happy myself.
Babies and toddlers, of course, are made to be self-centered. They are still completing the work of figuring out that they are not the center of the universe — let alone the whole universe — and accepting that other people might think the same thing or feel the same way they do. Most kids are just learning to deal with other people’s thoughts and feelings when they are between 2 and 3 years old, so Teresa seems right on schedule.
She also talks about other people and the way they are feeling. “Crying?” she’ll ask, when another child raises a ruckus about having to leave the park, and Mercer Mayer’s “I Was So Mad” is one of her favorite books.
Noticing other people and what they feel and what they need are the first steps to showing empathy, to loving neighbor as self, to treating them as they would want to be treated. If the name of the game is self-sacrificial love, first you have to understand the distinction between yourself and the rest of the world.
Teresa is on her way. Now she is even using the language of choice. When I asked her the other day why she pushed her high-chair tray onto the floor, she looked at me and said, “Bad choice.”
Later, when it came time for stories before bed, I asked which we should read first. She snuggled deeper into my lap and said, “You choose, Mama.”
Martin is assistant editor of the Catholic New World. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.