Lessons from a Toddler

Medical school was harder than I thought it would be. It took me a while to realize that I didn’t have time for some of the outside interests I had kept up during my undergrad years. One by one these things burned away like dross in the refiner’s fire. By the end of the school year I had learned that there wasn’t time to read anything that wasn’t a medical textbook. I had to leave my laptop at home so that it wouldn’t distract me, and take my notes the old-fashoned way in a spiral bound notebook. At one point I had brought a guitar to my desk at school and would play it on study breaks, but eventually I realized that I couldn’t afford this diversion and I took it home.

2005-054Life was good at that time, but growing is always hard. Marisa and I had been married for 3 years and had already had 2 kids by the time I started medical school. That year I was learning some of the same lessons at home that I was learning at school — that I didn’t have time for all of the things I wanted to do for myself because there were more important things to be done. Feeding kids, changing poopy diapers, reading picture books, and getting to sleep at night took priority. But I wasn’t always quick to learn.

The summer between my first and second years provided a much-needed reprieve from the academic eating contest. I decided to spend some time reconnecting with my human side. My head was crammed full of anatomy and physiology, but my heart was full of music, and I set a goal to record a whole album of my songs.

nite out 2 I purchased a new microphone (which I couldn’t really afford), and when it arrived in the mail I was excited to try it out. Marisa took our two little kids outside so that it would be quiet in our 2-bedroom apartment, and I fired up the multitrack recording software on our computer. I was excited to start working on the first song!

But during the second take on the guitar my 2 year old suddenly walked in the front door. Marisa was talking to a neighbor, and he had gotten bored and wandered back inside to see what I was doing. “Oh, no!” I thought. “This is a good take, and he’s going to ruin it by making noise!” I ignored him and kept playing, hoping that he would stay quiet.

“Dad! Dad! What are you doing?”

“Nuts!” I thought. “How can I get anything done with this kid in here?”

“Dad, what is this?”

He reached up to touch the microphone, and I felt my anger boil over. I elbowed him away to protect my precious gear. “I’m trying to record in here and I need it QUIET!”

His eyes got big, then his little face twisted up and he began to cry.

The anger I had felt a moment before was suddenly replaced by shame and remorse. I set the guitar aside, stood up, and picked up my precious little boy. “I’m sorry,” I said, looking him in the eyes. Even though his crying stopped, I still felt convicted by the tears on his cheeks.

I looked at the guitar and microphone. How valuable were they, really, compared to this little boy? The microphone was supposed to record my guitar playing, but instead it had recorded my angry outburst and his cry. “Is my music more important than my son?” I asked myself. “Is this worth it, if it makes my children cry?”


Eventually I finished that recording, using evenings and weekends for the rest of the summer. (The song was one I have written about before.) I managed to finish two other songs over the next couple of years, thanks to Marisa’s help with the children. But this music project would prove to be too ambitious to accomplish during my medical training. More and more of my time was spent at the hospital, and every two years we added another baby to our family so that there was less free time at home. It took me nearly 15 years to finish the album.

But this lesson I learned, while recording the first measures of the first song, sank deeply into my heart and mind. I didn’t want to injure the tender feelings of my little ones by making them less important than my music. Probably I could have finished the album sooner, but it would have been watermarked with their innocent tears. Such a dear price to pay for an album, purchased with the neglect of my children!


Unfortunately I can’t say that I have always remembered this lesson. There have been other times when I didn’t give my children the attention they deserved. (“Mmmmm Hmmmm!” said my teenage daughter when she read this line.) But I keep learning and trying, and keep apologizing, and I think over time I have gotten better. The teachings of prophets have been very helpful in this effort.

The prophet Jacob in the Book of Mormon told the men of his people to repent of actions that were hurting their families:

“Ye have broken the hearts of your tender wives, and lost the confidence of your children, because of your bad examples before them; and the sobbings of their hearts ascend up to God against you”

“Wherefore, ye shall remember your children, how that ye have grieved their hearts because of the example that ye have set before them” (Jacob 2:35 and 3:10).

The Family: A Proclamation to the World declares that “Parents have a sacred duty to rear their children in love and righteousness” and that “mothers and fathers will be held accountable before God for the discharge of these obligations.” On that final day when I stand before God, I want to say to him that I learned the right lessons and changed my ways after that episode with my son.

David O. McKay, who served as President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 1951 to 1970, often taught, “No other success can compensate for failure in the home.” This is true. I have known doctors and other healthcare workers who neglected their family duties in favor of career goals, and I have observed that their professional accolades are a cold comfort in the face of fractured relationships.

The same observation applies to music. When we were newlyweds I used to listen to an album of John Denver’s greatest hits, and I was surprised at first when Marisa got angry at him. “If you love your wife so much, John, then why do you keep leaving her to play your stupid concerts everywhere? Why don’t you just stay home with her?!” She had a point. You can hear in his later songs that losing his wife left an empty place in his heart that could never be filled by record sales or the cheering of fans.


One day last fall as I was almost finished with the last song, I took my youngest son on a drive out to the high desert west of our house to take some pictures for the album sleeve. I put the camera on a tripod and set it on a 10 second timer. “I’m going to walk down the road and then come back,” I said to my boy. “Stay here by the camera and I’ll be right back.”

But he didn’t stay by the camera. Not wanting to be left behind, he followed me about 5 seconds later and ended up in the picture.


Okay, that didn’t work. What’s plan B?

I put him on the tailgate and placed the camera tripod right by him. “See this button? When you push it, it will take a picture.” I helped him push the button a few times.

“I took a picture!”

“Good job. Now I’m going to walk down the road a little bit, then walk back. I want you to take lots of pictures while I do it. Okay?”


This time it worked, and I got the pictures I wanted for the album. Both the front and the back cover were taken by my little 3 year old photographer.


Some things never change, like the innocent curiosity of little boys who just want to be with their dad. But I thank God that my heart and my priorities could change, that he could help me learn the lessons my toddler taught me at that first recording session so many years ago.

Alan B. Sanderson, MD is a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and is a practicing neurologist.

2 replies to “Lessons from a Toddler

  1. To set aside your other thoughts and turn to your child when your child needs attention has been one of my greatest challenges. It’s one we need to meet. I now have little grandchildren as well. I do it better now than I did when my own children were growing up. There is little use in dwelling on regrets for the past. We are here now and need to work on the now to improve the future. Good job in getting your son to take your picture. That’s where we need to be.


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