Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Don't Hate Me Because My Child Is So Brilliant

Last week was a moment I'd been dreading somewhat. Earlier this fall Grace's dance teacher asked us if Grace could move up to the next-older class. Grace absolutely adores dance, and she worships the ground her teacher walks on, so she rather understandably does extremely well in dance class (incredible genetics help a lot, I'm sure).

Since Grace was already one of the younger students in her age group, we decided not to move her up. She's so young, and has so many years of dance ahead of her, why rush? She's having a good time, so why mess things up?

A couple of months later her teacher called us at home. After some discussion and persuading, we agreed that come January, Grace could move to the older class. We still had some reservations, and hoped that it would end up being a good thing for her, but we decided to trust the teacher's instincts on this, as the entire reason we enrolled Grace with her in the first place was that we trusted and respected her ability as both dancer and teacher.

In the back of my mind throughout the month of December was a nagging dread of January's first dance class day. It wasn't Grace I was worried about, or Mia, who had permission to officially start dance class a couple of months early, taking Grace's former spot in the younger class. I wasn't even worried about entertaining Mercie for an entire morning of back to back dance classes. Nope. What I persistently wanted to avoid was the inevitable moment when the other moms realized that my daughter had just moved up, while their darlings were still in the beginning class. I was secretly hoping that one or two of the other children had also been moved up, if for no other reason than to deflect attention away from Grace.

I'm obsessively proud of my kids. They are the most frequent topic of conversation that comes out of my mouth. I'm convinced that by far, my kids are the absolute BEST kids possible--the most charming, beautiful, intelligent, funny, creative, talented, and capable children on the planet. But having three of them very close together has taught me how ridiculous it is to compare one perfect child to another. And yet as parents, that's what we constantly, chronically do. From the minute the baby appears, it's a barrage of comparisons. How long was your labor? How big was your baby? When did he first smile? Cut his first tooth? Take his first steps? And heaven help poor parents when it comes to things that seem related to parental involvement. Your child took first in his school at the science fair? My child took first at State in spelling. And so it goes.

I know this because I spent the first little while doing it, and still have to fight the urge sometimes. Watching three distinct personalities emerge has been a large cure for me. It's one thing to know intellectually that children develop at different times and ways--it's another to see it play out right in front of you.

But I've also learned it because I started off my parenting journey with the wrong analogy in mind. I didn't think it in such concrete terms, but if someone would have asked, as I basked in my first days of parenting, I would have said that parenting is a lot like baking bread. If you follow the recipe and do everything right, you get the end result you want.

Now this presupposes that children are the inert ingredients that make up bread, and it also presumes that parents have an awful lot of power in managing the lives of children. I've been proved sorely wrong on both of those innaccurate assumptions. My children are living, breathing, dynamic and very much mindful participants in my parenting experiments. I may have the illusion of power in our relationships, but as they frequently remind me, it's mostly because they humor me enough to allow me to parent them. Just try telling a teething toddler that under no circumstances is he allowed to wake up crying one more time and you'll quickly recognize where true power lies.

Now I'm not a gardener by any stretch, but it seems to me that a better analogy for parenting might be planting seeds. Seeds have a tendency of growing no matter what. Some make it through in the most dire circumstances--rocky, clay-baked soil, no nurturing, pruning or feeding. Some survive excessive watering and press on in spite of injurious and overdone pruning. Even in ideal circumstances, under the watchful eye of a good gardener, some seeds don't fulfill their potential, or their bloom is delayed beyond what the gardener thinks is 'normal.' Factors beyond the control of either seed or gardener can seriously hamper and impair the plant--frost, disease, rot, predators.

As a parent, I just do what I can to help my little seedlings grow and flourish. I can't turn an oak seedling into a strawberry plant, or a rose bush into green beans. All I can do is nurture, protect, encourage, and sit back to enjoy the show. Nagging isn't going to help a seedling grow faster or stronger, and listing all the ways she's not a lilac isn't going to help her be the best possible eggplant.

In spite of my sometimes over-controlling and sometimes unintentional neglect, my girls are growing. They are blossoming in ways I never could have imagined back in the days when I was writing subconsious plans for how they would turn out. They are a source of constant delight, never-ending wonder, and unparalleled joy. Daily I see that it's a very good thing that they weren't passive ingredients waiting for me to work my parental magic on them and turn them into something else. I like the seedlings that they are ever so much better, and I can't wait to watch them bloom.

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