Things I Wish I Knew When I Was Four (That I Now Teach My Four Year Old)

by Tim Arendse on January 20


Crash. The tower my daughter and I had spent 10 minutes building hit the floor, blocks scattering across the carpet. I cringed. Isabelle smiled. I managed a meek “Why would you do that?” while Isabelle yelled out an exaggerated “Oh no!”

The reasons she did it were pretty obvious:

1) It’s fun.
2) She’s learning about physics.

While I contemplated giving up on a clean house, buying a snow shovel, and pushing all the toys into a corner every night, my daughter was practicing one of the most powerful human skills available to her: observation.

Ironically, it’s one of the first skills she will be robbed of.

Think about it. Observation has little place outside of a laboratory or a marketer’s A/B test. Observation means running dozens of experiments, letting problems persist while you gather information, and, be still my beating heart, making big messes.

There’s no place for observation in the classroom. There’s a curriculum to teach!

There’s no place for observation in the workplace (unless that’s explicitly your job). We have deadlines!

There’s no place for observation in real life. There are responsibilities to fulfill!

Like the value of observation, there are a lot things I wish I knew when I was four, that I now teach my four year old daughter.

What if we have parenting wrong?

I find the self-improvement industry ironic. Hundreds of books are released each year, helping adults unravel their problems and become more effective people. Sometimes we’re searching for happiness, other times trying to manifest our desires. Oftentimes, the authors use the behavior of children as reference points for how we should be acting.

So I ask the question . . . why aren’t we teaching our kids this stuff? Or even better, why aren’t we doing more to help them retain those qualities?

My four-year old daughter doesn’t stare out the rain-swept window, contemplating various routes to happiness. She doesn’t even question her moods. They’re just natural states of being for her.

While I’m teaching her how to draw shapes and count numbers, she’s teaching me that I’m mostly wrong. As one of the two primary influencers in her life, she doesn’t need me to teach her what a square looks like. She needs me to teach her the things no one else will.

I wish I knew that some struggle was normal

Even at a young age, I was a perfectionist. I remember drawing a bald eagle, with no reference picture, with the intentions of giving the picture to my mom. Everything was going well until it came to coloring. As I was coloring its black wings, my hand began to smudge the lead across the white page.

In my mind, the drawing was ruined. My dad asked me, “So, does this mean you’re not going to give it to her?” I pretended it wasn’t that big of a deal, that I was going to give it to her anyway, and threw it in the garbage can when he wasn’t looking. Anything less than perfection was not going to do.

This pattern developed into my teenage mantra of “If you suck, you quit.” Why bother if you weren’t any good? People were born with talent and if you had it, lucky you.

I never knew how important struggle was until I read Daniel Coyer’s The Talent Code. The central argument of the book is that skills that get used result in those neurons becoming wrapped in living tissue called myelin. Myelin makes us better, but only when we’re stressing those skills.

To use a metaphor, building a skill is a lot like building weight on your favorite weight-lifting exercise. If you want to progress, you have to keep going slightly beyond your ability.

What I teach my daughter

Five days a week, I get up at 5:30AM to write. My daughter usually pounds down the stairs by 5:45AM. Every day, I make sure to remind her why I’m doing this: I want to get better and mild struggle is the only way.

I wish I had a variety of role models

At 32 years old, I have role models. Sounds a bit silly, right? Role models are for kids. At least that’s what I thought, until I realized people younger than me were becoming massively successful. That’s about the time I started paying attention.

I remember early in my childhood, we did an exercise in class where we had to identify positive role models. I picked my dad, the neighbor, Homer Simpson . . . whoever had influence on my life bore the important mantle of “role model.”

As an adult, I finally understand how to use the concept effectively.

Your role models are your guiding lights. They’re the people you pay attention to for inspiration, ideas on what’s working, and even support (try contacting the people you admire. You’d be surprised how often they respond).

If I see someone succeeding where I want to succeed, I pay attention. I scribble notes. I experiment with their ideas. I thrust upon them the mantle of “Tim’s role model.”

What I teach my daughter

Admittedly, my kids are a bit young for the concept I describe here. Instead, I teach them to watch the other kids around them. I teach them to watch what I’m doing, and that if you pay attention, you can learn a lot from other people.

When the time comes, I’ll help them pick positive role models based on their interests. For now, I take advantage of teachable moments. If I see someone else doing something right, I point it out to them.

I wish I knew how to say “no”

There are entire books written teaching adults how to say “no” to things.

As a parent (and probably a teacher), hearing a child say no is annoying. Parents and teachers usually have an agenda. We’re going from A to B and we need cooperation. We’re tired and we want to relax. We’ve got a curriculum to follow.

The word “no” from a child throws a wrench in our plans. We teach them to obey. Then we try to teach adults how to say no. It’s ass-backwards!

Saying “no” is one of the most important skills you can have as an adult. If we don’t know how to say no, we start saying yes to everything.

When we don’t say “no,” we run the risk of becoming people-pleasers, afraid to offend anyone.

We lose our natural assertiveness.

We become dishonest.

What I teach my daughter

Instead of teaching my daughter to say yes all the time, I teach her about when it’s important to cooperate. This includes holding hands in a parking lot, making an appointment on time, and eating dinner. When it comes to stuff where cooperation is less important, a no is just fine. I even teach her to say no to others.

This doesn’t mean I give into her every childish impulse. This means I’m aiming to raise an assertive young woman.

I wish I’d learned to love unconditionally

Conditional love basically means that if you do this for me, only then will I love you. I think kids are born loving unconditionally, but our value-driven society pounds it out of them.

Society ties our worth to what you can produce. It doesn’t love us unconditionally, and therefore, we learn to only love those who serve us. The problem is, this focus on production and usefulness doesn’t create a very conductive environment for learning, connecting, and building new things. In fact, it creates stress on a national level.

Teaching people to love unconditionally means letting go of what they can do for you. It releases people from invisible contracts (link), and in doing so, releases you as well. It’s just an all-round healthier way to live (need to refine this part).

What I teach my daughter

How do I teach my daughter to love unconditionally? You have to act it, explain it. If I tell her she’s the special snowflake and then treat everyone else like their value stems from what they can do for me, she’s going to learn conditional love.

How to accept a “no”

As a kid, hearing no was hard. It wasn’t that I was used to getting my way. I was just under the impression that a hard “no” meant that this person didn’t like me. At 32 years old, I still have this problem.

A no is a form of rejection. It carries a big punch.

Rejection hurts. I wish I’d actually understood what rejection meant. Rejection doesn’t necessarily mean that someone doesn’t like you. It could mean that they’re busy, they have something else on their minds, or whatever. The world doesn’t revolve around us.

For a child, rejection could be that they want to play with another child and the child says no. This is a good opportunity to explain what’s going on, and maybe give an example when your own child decided they didn’t want to play with another child. It’s as personal as you want to make it.

What I teach my daughter

Just as much as it’s okay (and important) for her to say no, it’s okay for other kids to say no.

Having two kids in the house gives ample opportunity for each to deal with the word no. This comes in all sorts of forms: requests to play, requests for toys, requests for treats, and so on.

What we tend to do as parents is promote sharing, whether the children like it or not. The result is one child feeling entitled (not accepting no) and the other child losing faith in their ability to say no.

Heather Shumaker’s It’s OK Not to Share is a great read on this subject.

How to observe

A few months ago, my wife and I noticed that my daughter had become very good at puzzles. We would take out six or so at a time, and she would finish them off at an impossible speed and ask for more. How did she go from struggling to fit pieces together to probably being a better puzzler than me (she occasionally builds them upside down; an all-white puzzle)?

One day, I sat beside her and watched. I’d taught her to look for the corner pieces, followed by the sides, making the middle fairly easy to fill in. Except she didn’t do any of that. She would pick up any old piece and just . . . look. Sometimes she’d hum or sing to herself. Occasionally, her hand would shoot out and she would grab the exact piece she needed. This happened over and over, until the puzzle was complete. She was observing.

Many people are uncomfortable with observing. Look at it a little too long and people think you don’t have the answer. They might think you’re lazy, unwilling to fix the problem. They might just think you’re dumb.

This is, of course, absurd. People who are afraid to take the time to observe make mistakes. They’re skittish. They become stressed out adults.

What I teach my daughter

Parents are usually quick to jump in when things go wrong. But this robs our kids of important learning experiences. Kids need to build their observation muscles, without constant interference. That constant interference is what creates the skittish stressed out adults we see today. If you’re not being interrupted by teachers and parents, you’re being interrupted by a boss or (hate to say it) your kids.


My wife and I get a handful of years to be the main influencers in our children’s lives. That influence is going to steadily decline as they grow up.

I’m going to take some time to teach my kids the things I wish I knew when I was four.

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Tim Arendse

When he’s not playing with his kids, Tim is finding new ways to make his life more efficient. He likes to draw inspiration from unlikely sources, like Minecraft, and is willing to explore almost any paradigm if he thinks there’s something to learn. He also hates bananas, loves candy, and holds strong opinions about the best brand of beer.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Ali January 25, 2016 at 7:54 pm

I absolutely love this post. Beautifully written with such strong and important points. You have a wonderful outlook.


Tim Arendse January 26, 2016 at 10:06 am

Thanks so much, Ali!


Michelle Connelly Walker January 25, 2016 at 8:51 pm

this was great read. I, myself have such a difficult time saying no as an adult. I think you hit many valid points 🙂


Chelsea February 1, 2016 at 11:25 am

This article is exactly what I needed right now. Thank you! I have been struggling to understand my daughter’s behavior and this really put all of it into perspective for me. I also really love the layout of your blog! Following 🙂


Andrea February 1, 2016 at 11:31 am

I love that you watch your daughter exploring the world. That was my favorite part of raising five kids–rediscovering the world through their eyes.
I also love that you take the responsibility for teaching your daughter important values. As a former elementary school teacher, I’m sorry to say most people don’t.


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