On her tippy toes, belly bent over the edge of the sink, she reaches with all her little girl might and cranes her neck just to get a sip of water. She doesn’t sigh or complain.

This is the last hurdle before nap time and sometimes I find myself wanting to flush the toilet for her, to dispense the soap and roll her hands over one another to suds up, to put a neat little blob of toothpaste on her brush and circle it over the surface of her teeth, to lift her to the faucet and hold back her hair while she rinses her mouth…all to get to the goal, and fast.

But when I notice those tippy toes and all that effort done so lightheartedly, I slow myself to her pace and think of her in process. She’s stretching far, but not beyond her confidence, mastering this task even before her little frame has grown into it. The meeting of basic needs brings its own sense of accomplishment to the three-year-old mind, Maslow’s hierarchy re-arranged. The training isn’t a bother to her; it’s a joy, a little bit of self-actualization.

She has me rethinking my definition of the goal. I’ve long felt myself responsible for pushing us toward nap time or meal time or bedtime. But when I take a closer look at all these things between our stopping places, these things that often feel like nothing more than tedious routine, I start seeing them as little goals in themselves…goals that we are meeting.

Small-scale or not, these are hard-won successes: a child who can pretty well brush her own teeth, wash her own hands, and get herself dressed. (She even cleaned up all of the play dough on her own before lunch today!) Focusing on the progress makes me feel more happy. It makes me feel less hurried. It makes me feel like I’m getting somewhere even while I’m standing still.

I see the results of patience, the discipline of empowering a little person to do something and then standing back and watching her do it happily in her own time and her own way, even if it means a little soap splattered on the drywall, toothpaste oozing from the closed lid and waiting a few minutes longer until we reach nap time, the thing I once thought was the goal.

When we get down and look at things from the angle of our children, we see that these incremental steps of learning are the stuff of life. When we wish the tediousness away, we are little by little wishing life away, just like writer Gretchen Rubin used to do when she had to take her daughter to school via the city bus.

My daughter will get faster at these simple tasks. She will soon flip the light switch off from instinct instead of from command. But for now in the learning, this is the stuff of our life and this is my work.

When I see how hard she strains to be a little more independent and how very little she grumbles in doing so, I grow in empathy toward her. I start looking for more ways to walk alongside her in her development rather than prodding her fast toward her pillow.

I see her as a cheerful learner and that makes me want to be a cheerful teacher.

{Take a moment to observe your children or the other individuals you are serving today. In what ways are they putting their heart into their own tasks? How does that affect your heart for the task of tending to them?}

This post is part of my year-long theme for 2013, “A Cheerful Giver.” See my introduction about naming the year here.

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