I remember the good ol’ days with my kids – the days when I knew the source of almost everything they said. It may sound crazy, but when your child is home with you all day, you tend to be familiar with the universe of her influences. If Avery started embracing a new saying or word, I could typically trace it back to a book she had read, an episode of Sesame Street, or something either my husband or I had said. And I can’t tell you the comfort that brings. Then, Avery started pre-school, and I could see the outside influences start to trickle in. She was only in part-time pre-school, so it was relatively easy to wrap my head around the new ideas flowing in, and the changes I saw her experience. With new influences, come a wealth of positive changes. School was able to offer Avery ideas, learning, and social lessons I could not offer her at home. In many, many ways, I saw her blossom. But, especially with her being my first child, I was not ready for some of the things that came home with her from school. For example, around the time of Halloween during her first year of pre-school, my four-year-old says to me casually over breakfast, “how do vampires clean their mouths up after they suck your blood?” Um. Like most things with my children, there is no easing me in. My tender, mother heart would have benefited from a gradual build-up to that question. Maybe on Monday a question about bats being nocturnal, perhaps on Tuesday a mention of whether werewolves really exist, and then maybe, maybe on Wednesday a murmur about the blood-sucking, nocturnal, un-dead. Unfortunately, that is not the way kids work. They constantly thrust us into our discomfort zones. One day it was kittens and peaches and candy, and the next day – BOOM – vampires. That question was the tip of the iceberg. Soon after, I had to discuss with her how I was not super-comfortable with the game she and her friends were constantly playing at recess, entitled “blood girls.”
Just as I was adjusting to the challenges presented by part-time school, Avery started kindergarten. Having my child at full-time school presents a plethora of new issues and situations I never envisioned I would be addressing with my six-year-old. Although I know I cannot shield Avery from the world, some of the questions she brings home make me sad. On a weekly basis, I am fielding inquiries such as “why did she call her stupid?” “why wouldn’t she let me play the game with them?” and “she told me I had to play with her or we weren’t friends anymore.” Those questions have me thinking wistfully of those happy, innocent vampire discussions. I have the blood-sucker questions covered, but the six-year-old girl questions are challenging. And these are questions from a kid who is having a great year and who goes to a great school with great kids and parents. She loves school, seems to be well-adjusted, etc. Right now, the social hurdles and slights seems to roll off of her without affecting her self-image, which I realize will not always be the case. But I am blown away at how much tiny girls know and how skillful they are at manipulating each other.
So my constant struggle and quest is what I can do to keep my little girl little. Like most parenting debates, I do not think there is a universal right approach or clear answer, and I think I could do more. But here are my best efforts.
One thing that has helped me wrap my head around what Avery experiences is to volunteer at her school. Because I have a younger child who is still at home most of the time, I cannot be present for every volunteer opportunity. But having some presence at my daughter’s school has been extremely illuminating about the dynamic between the kids. Although I do not relish playground and recess duty (screaming, tattling, crying, etc.), the playground is an education. It’s like watching wild animals in their natural habitat – those kids cut loose and let it all fly on the playground. Plus, at this age, they are very unfiltered versions of themselves. Thirty minutes on the playground – even one time a year – tells me all I need to know.
Another thing I try to do (and am not always successful) is to control who we are playing with outside of school and to get to know the parents. Knowing the children and the parents in Avery’s class is a key part of figuring out who is a good fit for Avery. As sweet as all the kids are, some children do not have healthy dynamics with one another, despite having kind personalities individually. I realize I won’t have as much influence over her friends as she gets older, but right now, as social dynamics are cementing, I have (almost) total authority over her social schedule – the frequency of playdates, with whom we play, etc. And to be honest, we limit playdates. First of all, where is the time? The kid is in school seven hours a day, and I want those precious, few hours! I am a hoarder of my children’s time. Secondly, as an admitted control freak, I am grasping at my small window of influence and trying to make the most of it. I do not want to dilute the little chance I have with frequent playdates. This is hard because my daughter is social, and I am social. I want her to have friends and enforce her relationships, so the fight is often with myself, not Avery. And we do have playdates, but I try to keep it at a reasonable level.
Lastly, and I think perhaps the most difficult, is to always edit and monitor myself and my own choices. My daughter has a heightened awareness of everything I say and do – she knows who my friends are and absorbs the dynamics of my own relationships and attitudes. One absolute rule we observe at our house is to never, never mention another parent or child in front of our kids unless it an objectively, entirely positive comment. This is hard because the time my husband and I have together is frequently shared with out kids, and I like to blow off steam with a nice, satisfying rant. But I have to keep the rants to post-bedtime. I am not a perfect person – I commit a myriad of sins – gossip, unfair judgments, and perhaps a biting sense of humor. But I want my daughter to be better than me. Hand-in-hand, we never discuss Avery’s teachers, anything her teachers have said to us about her, our opinions on her teachers in front of her.
With so many things in Avery’s life, I am my own worst enemy. My heart wants to keep her small and innocent. But watching your child grow and change is an exciting process, and sometimes I find myself hitting the gas pedal unnecessarily and accelerating her into things she’s not ready for because I am ready for them. This is all about me, isn’t it? As soon as she started to read, my head leaped ahead to all the great books we could share. Six is the right age to introduce Pride and Prejudice, right? Mr. Darcy is, after all, the aristocrat version of Prince Charming. As soon as she started showing interest in watching plays, I started imagining taking her to my very favorite performances and then realized stories of an ex-convict adopting the orphaned child of a dead prostitute might be confusing for my little one. Sometimes the best thing I can do for my child is to take my ego and my desires out of the equation. I have to remind myself that my goal is not my child’s popularity but my child’s security in herself and a deeply embedded sense of right and wrong. I have to remind myself that her success will be defined in its own unique way – not the way I envision it or the way I would find personally fulfilling or rewarding.
Parenting is such a fuzzy, unsure process, with more questions and unknowns than absolutes. For these reasons, please do not read this post as advice but rather as my best efforts in muddling through the land mines. But, I will leave you with one point about which I am certain: vampires wipe the blood off their mouths with handy wet-wipes secured conveniently in the pockets of their capes. This I know for sure.