Lessons In Parenthood: Week 9
To illustrate this week’s theme I have to tell you two stories and the first goes like this:
Olivia and I were at the park and there were kids a bit older than her playing soccer with their dad. They also had a frisbee on the ground that they weren’t using and Olivia picked it up and started playing with it. One of the kids protested thinking Olivia was going to take it home with her, but his father assured him that no such thing was going to happen and he should let her use it for the time being. After a while it was time for Olivia and I to leave and I told her that she needed to give back the frisbee. Naturally, my two-year-old objected to this idea. I told her that either she could give it back or I would take it from her and give it back myself. I had only meant that she would put it back on the ground where she found it, so I was taken aback when she walked right into the middle of their soccer game and approached the oldest boy (who had previously objected to her). She stood right in front of him and he didn’t even look at her. He ignored her completely for a few moments, but she didn’t back down. She just stood there and waited for eye contact. As her mom, I felt the initial urge to intervene because she was really obstructing their game. I first “felt bad” that she was interrupting them then annoyed that he was ignoring her. I almost got up to go “fix” the situation when I stopped myself and just waited. It felt like days when it was really a few minutes that I watched the scene unfold. When the boy brushed past Olivia and continued with his game, Olivia casually approached the girl in the game and offered the frisbee to her. Misunderstanding the situation, this girl showed Olivia how to properly throw the frisbee and then returned to the soccer game. Olivia watched her throw the frisbee, watched her return to the game, then went and retrieved the frisbee, brought it to me and said with a smile, “Mami! They gave it back to me!”
At this scenario I have to say that I was really proud of Olivia. She wasn’t intimidated by the kids who were bigger and several years older than her. She really tried her best to follow through with the instructions I had given her. She was fearless in approaching a group of people she didn’t know. That’s difficult for anyone! This was especially impressive considering what kind of child she has been up until now.
The second story goes like this: We were at the Herbalife ordering center picking up products. I was writing out our order and always when I do this I let Olivia watch a quick video or two on my phone. It’s a treat for her and it’s a way for me to be efficient. While we were there a man, who was a complete stranger to both of us, came up and wanted to show Olivia a magic trick. He came up to us very enthusiastically and asked her,
“HI! What’s your name?”
She gave him one side look and leaned away from him and closer to me. I smiled at the man and looked at Olivia. I waited a moment, but she didn’t offer any sort of communication. He was being nice, but I had no intention of forcing Olivia to participate. I answered for her.
“Olivia! Would you like to see a magic trick? Look! See this!”
Olivia continued to avoid eye contact. He proceeded to do the whole disappearing coin bit. Now you see it, now you don’t, what’s that behind your ear, oh look it’s a coin, yada yada yada. Olivia was not amused. In fact, the more he insisted on his magic trick the more Olivia clung to me. When he went to pull the coin from behind her ear she recoiled and hid in my coat. She’s always been a more reserved child rather than extremely outgoing, but this was clingy even for her.
The thing is, that man wasn’t being weird or offensive, he was just trying to be nice. I imagine that his magic trick really amazes some kids. But I have a rule that I don’t try to make Olivia do something she is uncomfortable doing just because the other person may feel awkward.
In the evening I was reflecting on these two stories and how they had played out. How it occurred to me and to Olivia. I thought about how differently Olivia behaved in two similar settings. In both instances she had to deal with people she didn’t know and yet she acted very differently.
Since Olivia was little, she was an extremely observant child. Even when she was just days old she took the world in through her big eyes with astounding awareness. As she got older she had quite a feeling for others’ emotions and could sense the feeling in the room. She was what people could label as a very “sensitive” child.
When I was growing up, being “sensitive” was spoken of as a negative character trait. It meant you weren’t tough enough, you overreacted to minor things, you needed to “get over it” when something upset you, and so on. When I saw that Olivia was a sensitive child I refused to look at that as a bad thing. I saw it as she had a unique quality about her that made her care deeply for others and for herself. She was hyper aware of what was going on around her and she could sense the energy of a person’s intentions very quickly. From the time she was just a few months old and as she’s grown older, if she wasn’t comfortable with someone I didn’t force her into it. If someone wanted to hold her and she didn’t want to go to them, I wouldn’t hand her over. I never made her respond to a stranger’s questions. I’ve always looked at these situations in a way that I respect her feelings and her being so much that I won’t violate that to soothe someone else’s feelings. If it makes the other person uncomfortable that Olivia isn’t being cooperative, who cares? That’s their problem.
I didn’t just accept that Olivia is sensitive, I embraced it as one of the qualities that makes her herself. Even if it wasn’t one of the characteristics I would have chosen for my child, I should still see it as a part of who she is. Truly loving her means respecting every part of who she is. It’s sometimes easy to overrun children’s feelings by expecting them to interact and behave according to our adult social standards.
By respecting who she is and not forcing her to accommodate others’ feelings, I had always hoped that she would feel empowered in her being. I had hoped that she would grow up to care for others, but not feel she had to sacrifice her own safety, her own wellbeing, her own privacy, her own sense of self in order to please anyone. I had hoped that by teaching her this she would gain confidence eventually. When I reflected on the two stories above, I realized that she had demonstrated just that. She had not engaged with someone who made her uncomfortable, even though it may have made him feel badly. Yet, she had gone beyond her comfort level to approach a group of complete strangers with boldness. Even more exciting for me to see, in the past few weeks, she has become more and more confident navigating the world around her. She approaches people, talks with them, wants to do things without help. The goal is that she becomes a competent human in this world and right now I would say she is on her way to just that.