They're Not All Teachable Moments

Art therapy and alone time heals (some) wounds.

"Mommy, sometimes it's not easy to be with friends." She sat down next to me in a sad little pile of tangled hair and dirty feet. I'd left her outside to play with her friends, our neighbors; they'd been devising new rules for a game of Hide and Seek, like only a group of three-and-belows could do.

This looked serious. I put her brother down on the play mat to explore. "Jacob, your sister needs to talk to Mommy," I said, more for her benefit that for his, at six months old. I wanted her to know she had my full attention, even with her brother semi-crawling off the mat to paw at the tile. It was the least I could do after that solemn statement.

"Can you tell me what happened? Did you get into a fight?"

"No," she answered. "We were riding our horses and my horse wasn't as fast as theirs. I want to have a faster horse so I can ride like them."

We'd named her bike Minimus, after the trusty purple pony from her favorite cartoon. I knew sometimes she envied the bigger pedal bikes of the older girls in the neighborhood, all pink, purple, and princess-y. But I also knew that, on her Strider, a balance bike, she was as fast as any of the kids her age. Maybe even faster. She'd been riding since she was two and, lately, when I'd come out to watch her, I could hardly keep up. She especially liked going downhill, the momentum allowing her to take her feet off the ground and stretch them out to the sides. I'd proudly watched her balance and admired her confidence.

"Was your bike not going fast enough? Were you racing?"

She nodded. "I wish I had a fast horse," she repeated. "But I wasn't biking. We were just pretending. It was just me. I wasn't fast like them."

It was time to launch into mother knows best mode, I thought. So we talked about practicing hard every day and the importance of eating healthy food so our bodies could be strong. Remember that episode when Sofia joined the Flying Derby and she couldn't reach the bell tower? How clever of me to relate her situation to her fictional role model.

Except, as I thought about the moment later, I wish I had kept my mouth shut.

They don't all have to be teachable moments. All those things I said, she already knew. She'd heard them enough before. But did she know she could come to me with whatever feelings she was having and that I would be there to listen, without judgment or instruction? In my effort to teach, did I forget to connect?

Sometimes, when we talk to our kids like they are kids, we forget to talk to them like they are human. Imagine that friend you have who always has a quotable quote (or worse, bible verse) ready for every situation; who pats you on the head and trivializes your discouragement by encouraging positivity; who's made it his business to enlighten you and show you how to make it in the world. That's me with my daughter. Every chance I get, it's "But remember..." or "That's why you should..." And don't forget the classic, "See. I told you..."

Respectful parenting suggests reflecting your child's feelings back to her, rather than trying to fix every situation. Emily Plank of Abundant Life Children says it beautifully here. This sums up my predicament:
No words of mine bridge the chasm between her expectation and her reality.
Emily Plank, Abundant Life Children
It was Plank's essay that came to mind as I reflected on what had happened earlier. When I'd read it just a few days ago, it had resonated with me. I didn't know I would soon have to put into practice the wisdom it had offered, or more accurately, how quickly I'd forget what I'd read and fail to do as Plank had advised. Add today to the steadily growing pile of should haves, could haves, and regrets. I could have said, "It's not easy being with friends who are faster than you" or "You wish you were as fast as your friends." If I really wanted to empathize, rather than advise, I could have said, "I sometimes wish I were faster when I'm with my friends, too."

Her feelings are not childish; in fact, they are rather familiar to me, at 35. It is not always easy to be with friends who are are faster than you; however, "faster," for me, would be thinner, more outgoing, more financially secure, or, maybe, better dressed.  There, I've admitted it, in this space. Thank you for not telling me all the ways I can achieve all those things if only I did X or tried Y or was more Z. Thank you for not making this a teachable moment.

There will be more moments when it will be hard to be with friends, which really means it is hard to be her. When, as Plank says, she feels a disconnect between her expectations and aspirations and her reality. When who she wants to be is not who she is. She will have those moments at 3 and she will have them at 30. I hope I have the wisdom to remember that I am not here to make her life easy but to stand with her when it's hard and hold whatever part of herself she offers—a thought, a heart, a hand, or the whole pile of still messy hair and dirty feet—until it is no longer hard for her to stand on her own.