It is always interesting (and often amusing) to watch M learn how to navigate a new type of emotion as she gets older. Recently, M has been tasting the bittersweet flavor of regret.
From a three year old’s vantage point, there are some serious hard feelings when she’s discovered that the opportunity to take part in a craft at preschool is fleeting, and if she does not seize the moment, it will be lost in the glitter glue of time. Seeing the finished craft in her friends’ bins at the end of the day when I pick her up, she quickly realizes there is nothing in her bin to show me because she decided just four hours ago to get lost in the sand table instead. A flood of tears ensues. She has learned that there are unfortunate consequences to not getting dressed to play outside if she chooses instead to dawdle at the coloring table and play kitchen, despite several reminders from loving adults that the children will be playing outside for only 30 minutes and if she does not get dressed in time, she will miss the chance to make a snowman with them. While I am sure she enjoyed playing kitchen with the “indoor” friends, there was much distress when she decided at the very moment the “outside” friends were stumbling inside that, no, in fact she did want to make a snowman after all.
With regret, it usually comes down to a path taken or not taken. When you’re three, you want to travel them all because they all seem exciting and full of possibility. Yet it’s a hard lesson to learn that it’s virtually impossible to stop time and space to accomplish everything at once. So you start to learn about regret if you ultimately find you didn’t end up as happy with the path chosen. Or at least it seems that way when stopping for a moment to realize the consequences of the choices made.
The first emotions experienced by all of us are large and general. Happiness. Sadness. They are also usually controlled by the things that others do (tickling, cuddling, feeding) or don’t do (forgetting to change a diaper, leaving the room momentarily) for us.
Then comes frustration, disappointment and sometimes, anger. At a very young age, these are usually brought about by things that one cannot control, and they are not always dependent on someone else being involved (physical or developmental limits, having to take turns, being told no by an adult).
But regret seems like an extraordinarily adult emotion to me. And yet I see that M is already starting to experience these types of nuanced grown-up emotions. Emotions that make us human and separate us from other living beings because they are often rooted in conscious (and maybe unconscious) deliberate personal choice. The bittersweet feeling that she is experiencing through regret, I imagine, is largely because she is slowly realizing that it was her alone that controlled the outcome of the situation at hand (her and the limits of physics). No one else to blame for dawdling. No one else to blame for hunkering down with a pile of crayons and a fresh sheet of paper instead of cold wet snow. She is becoming aware that she is increasingly growing independent from her parents–whether she wants to or not–and more in control of her world than she probably wants to be.
As adults, we too experience regret, but we usually have a way of forging ahead even in the face of obvious wrong choices. “No regrets!” is a mantra for many, probably because it is understood that, at minimum, there will at least be a lesson learned or some serendipitous outcome that otherwise would not have been unearthed if the other “right” path was chosen. Perhaps too it is easier to cope with regret as adults because we realize–often well past the moment in time that a particular choice was made–that there are very few choices that are either truly heinous or cannot be unraveled in some slight way. And that it is futile to play Monday morning quarterback for those decisions that are ultimately irreversible.
We can also rationalize our decisions, especially over long periods of time as the lens of focus aimed at the net result becomes clearer, more defined. We are able to reason with ourselves that the choices we made were the right ones at that given moment in time, even if we later play the useless game of “what if”. I bet that the reasoning and rationalization that often informs regret will not take place for some time for young M. This is why her regret will continue to be reduced to tears for a while to come.
In the meantime, I will be there to find the silver linings and remind her that while she did not make a snowman that day, she got to stay dry and warm and have the play kitchen all to herself with her best preschool pal. It is hard not to smile to myself when I see her get visibly upset when she has realized she did not make the choice she later wished she had, not because I think it’s funny, but because it is the first glimmer of the independent and accountable adult she will one day become.
Copyright (c) 2011-2012 by Kristen M. Ploetz. All rights reserved.
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