“When you parent, it’s crucial you realize you aren’t raising a “mini me,” but a spirit throbbing with its own signature. For this reason, it’s important to separate who you are from who each of your children is. Children aren’t ours to possess or own in any way. When we know this in the depths of our soul, we tailor our raising of them to their needs, rather than molding them to fit our needs.”
― Shefali Tsabary, The Conscious Parent
I have to preface this whole situation by saying that I get enough homework by proxy through my daughters’ first grade experience to rival graduate school. Nope, can’t work on that writing to finish my thesis; I have to make sure that I’ve quizzed my kids on their mandatory “free” reading (which they would do anyway, but I wouldn’t have to quiz them AND they’re like three grade levels ahead- ENJOY READING, DAMMIT!), made sure they’ve done a bunch of spelling exercises, and some math sheets. They’re in first grade. Fine, it’s fine.
Seriously, though, if I was relaxing, reading a book (Ha! Like that would ever happen for fun- such a frivolous waste of time literacy is) and my husband abruptly came up to me and started demanding random-y plot points from the chapter, I’d be forced to…oh wait, my kids do that. Minus plot point inquiry. Which is why I don’t read. Except when I can sneak it. Like the bad habit that it is.
THUS ENDETH THE PROLOGUE
After school today, I helped my daughter, Baby A, begin this project for school, which admittedly is a little extra something and not really mandatory. However, in the spirit of exposing her to a fun little project with a little competition thrown in, I figured why not. So, it’s a diorama. You remember these things, right?
Actually, this is sort of a kick ass one, cooler than anything I remember ever doing. But you get the picture, right? Standard issue shoe box with the top arranged as the floor/ kickstand for the whole piece. That box top is KEY as it provides essential extra square footage that can be reappropriated and exploited by the likes of Love it or List It. In fact, this is an EXCELLENT example of our task, since in celebration of the spring season (I can’t say Easter because it’s a public school- or can I? I have no idea, but either way, we all know what the candy’s for) the kiddos are invited to make a story diorama of any book, tale, keynote speech—whatever– and (age appropriately) use Peeps. No monsters or mutilation, y’all. The flier did say “no monsters”; “y’all” is flavor.
So I set up the play room with the craft table as she decides she wants to start by painting the exterior of the box. That’s cool, although the one thing I hate about our bonus/ playroom is that there’s carpet in there and I have control issues (working on it!), what with the paint and the carpet. But whatever, it’s washable, which is more than I can say for the paint we used yesterday. (Yep- and it’s a new house with carpeting about 6 weeks old, so let’s just say the shine is off the proverbial apple). Now my other daughter, Baby B, wants to get involved and I’m kind of excited, you see, because this daughter has been whining, “I don’t want to enter any contest” and now, she’s at least going to engage in the gateway behavior that leads up to a bona fide entry into said competition so OK, sure, I say, totally casual-like. While I’m feeling jazzed about luring my daughter into a competitive opportunity, my daughter’s saying, “Just for fun, Momma. I’m just doing this for fun.”
Sure you are, I think. Sure you are. Because to me, you see, competing is fun. Winning is fun. Ergo, this activity is fun IF YOU ARE COMPETING.
Now before anyone starts thinking, “Damn, Tiger Mama, down gurl,” understand this is the child for whom dressing in the morning is a task for which she finds herself “Toooooooooo tiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrred.” So a little entry into a diorama contest in the school library is pretty low stakes way to encourage her to try something new. She might learn she’s good at it, I explain to her, although if she doesn’t ever “play the game” she’ll never have the opportunity to know what she’s capable of.
At six, my daughter feigns little interest. She is resolved.
And so they have some fun. Baby A has already picked out her story, and I am trying to help her figure out how to depict it within the dioramic medium using some gummy Lifesavers, marshmallows, Peeps, and jelly beans (both tart and sweet). I look around for more Crafty MacGyver type things, and come up short handed, although I have a ton of ribbon, a stack of colored construction paper, some clothes pins, and popsicle sticks. I also have random fluff.
But no matter, they are happily painting, painting, painting the exterior of the box and lid, when I say, “Hey, maybe we should start thinking about what you want to show, what part of the story.” The book is “If You Give a Dog a Donut” so , for those of you unfamiliar with this series, you give an animal something they want and then they just keep wanting more and more and more until they’ve come full circle and want the first thing again. Not unlike children. In the non-fiction version, I would probably follow this with, “He’ll vomit all over your new couch and rug, you’ll be out a donut, and probably a couple hundred bucks for the vet” but as it is, the fictive text reads, “He’ll want a glass of apple juice.” I ask her whether she thinks this is an inside or outside snack and she decides on an interior motif. I’m trying to figure out in my head how we’re going to create a lush (ok, competitive, yes) interior with the aforementioned materials, and I hear, “You can look in the Duplos and Legos for some pieces for the little detailed stuff and to make your table,” fall out of my mouth. That’s a great idea, Self. Good for you! So I go off to do some “mom stuff” (start dinner to feed children). I casually wander back in and suggest that maybe we could go the more comic route and use a real sized cup filled with some stand in for apple juice next to a Peep cast as the Dog/ Protagonist. Deadpan blankness meets me. Apparently, this is not a helpful mom suggestion.
Some minutes pass, and my daughter comes out to say, “Mommy this is what I’m going to use and here is the apple juice! Here it is….
Do you see it? Let me help you.
While my mouth is saying, “That’s great, sweetheart,” my heart falls. I’m having a plethora of reactions in what seems to be forever and instantaneous. First, I’m thinking, “What the hell is that?” A shiver of panic runs down my spine hoping, praying that she doesn’t ask me follow up questions about it. Then I recall the conversation- right, she said “chair and table and apple juice, but shit, WHERE IS THE APPLE JUICE?”
Right. There it is.
Then, I’m thinking she’s not that great with disappointment, particularly in a competitive realm. Of course, she’s 6 so that’s part of the landscape. I’m having the sinking feeling this is not going to go well and she’s going to have a bad time.
And the most ludicrious part of all of this is my reaction of frustration because my idea is better and why doesn’t she just do it my way?!
WTF just happened there? How old ARE you?
This is the conversation I’m having with myself:
“My idea is better and why doesn’t she just do it my way?”
“Are you really saying that? What is happening? How old ARE you?”
Because I want my daughter to win. Because I want to win. I’m being ugly honest here. But I also wanted to do right by her, and in that moment, I really wasn’t sure, so I got mad at myself. I SHOULD KNOW THIS! I have a uterus, so doesn’t that endow me with the starter pack for this type of encyclopedic parental knowledge AND I studied educational psychology; I at least know the basics of how to handle these kinds of situations. It’s just so much easier when it’s about other people in a book of case studies.
Should I use “tough love” and be honest that it’s not that great (hell, I can’t even really tell what it is, but maybe it will pop against the abattoir red she painted the rest of the box)? Should I push to do my way and show her how to do it? That sounds awful because, while she might be my monkey, this is certainly not my circus, it’s hers. I know the best way for her to learn is to muck through it herself. I don’t want to hurt her, but if I don’t say anything, she’s going to lose and THEN be disappointed. And when that happens, I have to deal with…
Oh. Uh oh. There it is.
I. I. I.
I did back away and sort of pouted over the soup and grilled cheese because I had reached an impasse with myself. A stalemate. I got everything on the table, called the girls, and then my daughter came racing into the kitchen screeching to a stop right in front of me, throws her arms around my legs, looks right up at me and exclaims, ” Mommy! I’m so excited! This is the best project ever! I’m so glad we’re doing this!! Thank you, Mommy!”
Complete lucidity, calm, peace, and yeah, happiness. I watched my daughter as she settled into her seat blissfully unaware of the existential crisis roaring in my head and began munching on her grilled cheese, while her sister lumbered over to the table and plopped down.
Munch, munch, munch.
The frustration and anger, even, comes from that place for me- wanting her to be successful. And of course, I do. But as any parent has to ask him/ herself, “Is my reaction more about me and my baggage or them?” I think it’s more complicated than a simple either/ or. Sometimes it’s not; sometimes it might be simple, but I think, for me at least, it’s important to take the time to figure it out. In the end, I know the project must needs be what it is, Harvard be damned.
Her happiness simply washed over me. The joy of the process fills her. Will she be disappointed if she loses? Yes. Maybe she’ll ask how she could have done it better (“Mommy, why didn’t I win?”) and I will offer my help, asking her what she would have changed if she could. Maybe we’ll do another diorama afterwards. Maybe we won’t again until she has to. I guess my biggest fear is not that she’ll lose, but that she won’t try again. That has little do with her. Recently, she tried a spelling bee at our encouragement; she was apprehensive, particularly because her sister had already declared a “No Freaking Way” platform on the spelling bee issue. Turns out, she didn’t win, but she did a great job and made it through 4 rounds. After being a little bummed, she asked if there was a way she could be better and if there were any other spelling bees.
What the hell am I worried about?
I have trouble getting out of my own way. I don’t want to get in hers.
And yes, I ate the jelly beans (both tart and sweet).