Last week, Saskia and I went to the co-op. Please don’t imagine cute little toddler girl with a neat ponytail atop her head sitting, belted in by the handy safety strap on each cart, in the shopping cart. Instead, imagine cute little toddler girl, hair long and wild, racing around the place pushing her kid-sized red shopping cart and grabbing raisins from the bulk bin (sorry, River Valley Market; I was putting potatoes in a bag and she grabbed a handful of raisins). Picture cute little wild toddler child seeing a placid little tow-headed boy riding compliantly in the cart, securely belted in. She looks up, and with all her eagerness and articulateness (she has both aplenty), she calls up, “Hi.” Actually, she says, “Hi. Hi. Hi. Hi!”
The toddler perched in the cart, far from raisins, is mute at that very moment. His mom and I stand by the bulk bins and trade kids’ names and ages; Henry’s 21 months to Saskia’s 20. Henry’s mom says, “She’s so independent.” I ask, “Is this your first?” She nods. I point to Saskia and explain, “She’s the fourth. Not that you need to have four for independence to take root; he’ll get there soon enough.” Henry’s mom looks a little wistful. I chase after Saskia, in order to stop her from grabbing nuts to hurl across the floor. We have to get past the bulk bins—fast.
It being a small enough store, Henry, his mom, Saskia and I run into one another again. Henry’s mom asks, “Can I ask you, since you have been through this before, what do you do when they’re so clingy? I mean, still?”
I say something along these lines: I try to sit next to my kid and imagine what’s going on from his or her perspective and be patient and take in the wonder of that person’s unique self and I try to remember that when I’m ready to blow a gasket, I’d better find a little escape, be it a babysitter, spouse, limit set… I am part of the equation and I count.
It seems like there are two themes more challenging to parents than they could ever imagine: patience and boundaries. Patience is kind of obvious. If you’ve got it, great, you’ll develop more; if it’s not your natural resource, you’ll be figuring out how to drum some up pretty darn quick, because children are many things—cute, smart, cuddly, cheeky—including trying. Children may be, at any given time, needy, loud, slow, whiny, demanding, unwilling to go to bed and hungry. Boundaries, though, that’s somehow less obvious. What this mother was describing was a sense of engulfment. When you are willing to lay your body down in front of a speeding car for your child, how can you figure out how to go to the bathroom alone or have an adult conversation? I’m not entirely joking. The amount we’re willing to do for our children makes such seemingly fundamental things as privacy or alone time or a little solo space pretty hard to come by sometimes. Does my 11 year-old regularly wander—sleepwalk, that is—into our bed in the middle of the night? He sure does. Have we figured out how to stop him? No, we have not.
A few minutes later, Henry is wandering somewhat near the deli counter with bagel in hand. His is a more dazed, lugubrious toddler walk than Saskia’s zoom-around-the-aisles pace (good word, at times, for her actions, careening). Henry’s mom, whom I learn is named Alya, says, “Well, once I said that, look at him; he’s being independent.”
Of course, Saskia proceeds to say, all at once, “I want a bagel. Hi! Hi! Hi! Hug.” She hugs Henry. She kisses Henry’s shoulder. She hits Henry’s face. That’s how she greets most fellow tots. I pull her from him before she can bite him, and hand her a bagel of her own. She takes a bite, and announces, “I no like ‘dis.” (A good thing about having four children is this: someone will eat it; one child’s rejected cinnamon raisin bagel is another child’s treat, and indeed, an hour later, Remy is delighted to be handed the bagel-minus-a-bite).
Lucien, who is 11, has never slept over at a friend’s house. He will go to visit any of his grandparents very happily, where he is privy to the royal grandchild treatment (also, he went on a sleepover with our friend, Amy, at her New York apartment; she delivered the royal friend of the parents’ and fan of Lucien’s treatment). He prefers his sleep within easy reach of his parents’ bed, thank you very much (and then he prefers to migrate from his bed to his parents’ bed, not every night, just most nights).
One of the milestone events at the Smith College Campus School is the sixth grade’s trip to Nature’s Classroom. The entire grade goes with their classroom teachers, and without parental chaperones, from Monday morning until Friday afternoon. As fifth grade rolled toward its conclusion, Lucien was pretty resistant to the whole sleep away at Nature’s Classroom scenario. As parents are wont to do—in this case, this mother—I worried. How could I help Lucien build some confidence about his ability to take on the sleeping away aspect of Nature’s Classroom? Not going was not an option.
Some kids in Lucien’s cohort went to overnight camp—for a couple of days, a couple of weeks, even nearly a month—over this past summer between fifth and sixth grade. Beyond going for fun, garnering some confidence or readiness for Nature’s Classroom, if not an express goal, seemed a happy by-product. No surprise that Lucien refused to entertain the idea of sleep-away camp. I had set a much more modest summer goal: get Lucien to spend a night at his dear friends’—twins, Alex and Ella—house. Lucien was born about twelve hours ahead of these buddies, and they’ve all been close since infancy. Because having a pair is like a built-in play date, their mom, Shelley, has eased more than one of their pals into the world of sleeping at a friend—well, friends’—house. But Lucien rejected that idea. Nor did Alex want to come spend a night at Lucien’s, which was part two of the anxious-mothers-prepare-their-never-sleeping-away-from-home-sons-for-Nature’s-Classroom plan.
Ever since Ezekiel was a tot, I’ve loved (as in, counted amongst my favorites) a couple of Rosemary Wells’ picture books—now out of print, sadly and to me, inexplicably—about Edward the Unready. Edward’s one of those charming little Wells’ creatures, in this instance, a bear cub: part cuteness, part anxiety. Edward ends up stranded at a friend’s house during a snowstorm and is inconsolably homesick, so Anthony’s father lovingly transports him home (chains on the tires) through snow and ice in Edward’s Overwhelming Overnight. He’s similarly unhappy at a birthday party held at a pool and at preschool. The books have this theme running throughout, a message the adults, most especially his parents, may struggle with at first but figure out, and then impart: "Not everyone is ready for the same things at the same time."
Lucien insisted sleeping over at Alex and Ella’s—or any other friend’s house—wasn’t going to make a bit of difference for his Nature’s Classroom preparedness. In earlier grades, transitioning into the school year had been rocky (in some earlier grades, the school year had been rocky) for Lucien. This year, he seemed not even to have a running start to the year but a soaring one. Nature’s Classroom staff member Nicky D. visited the sixth grade just over a week before the trip and Lucien came home completely excited about going. He brushed off any test clucks of concern I uttered. Eye-roll, head tilt, sarcastic voice: “Mom,” he’d say, “I can’t wait.” Awesome, Lucien, I replied, waiting (anxious mama hen, cluck-cluck) for the other shoe (claw?) to drop. It had to drop, right? He’d been so scared just a couple of months earlier, after all.
So, Sunday, the day before leaving, I braced myself. This is when he’ll freak out, I figured. This is when the shoe drops. Guess what? Not one power struggle over packing, not one tear shed, nary a tantrum occurred all day. He got a little wound up in the evening, yes (but then he started to read a book). He took a long time to fall asleep, sure (and took his customary sleepwalk into our bed). I could barely believe it. He was calmer than his big brother, Ezekiel, the one who had been going on overnights to friends’ houses since he was six and who had, arguably, tighter friendships to rely upon during his weeklong adventure.
Monday morning, smiles, at first broad, closer to school, a little more of the nervous/slightly forced variety, but really and truly, there were still smiles coming from Lucien as we reached the throng of kids and parents milling around the big bus about to whisk them off to Nature’s Classroom.
When he handed in his homework to his teacher, Tom Weiner, Lucien reported, “Draft of story is done, and I walked to school, and I was here by 8:20.” He received a handshake from Tom. I got a glimpse of how all the work Tom had been consciously and conscientiously doing to make himself a positive adult for Lucien to lean on and work with was indeed paying off.
One quick hug from Lucien and then he boarded the bus (a couple of times, it turned out, as the group waited for the stragglers to show up). He looked just a tiny bit lost in the midst of that scene’s crowded cluster: a few teary kids, a few teary parents, a little over-caffeinated parental buzz, a few dazed siblings wondering whether their turn to board the bus would ever come, cameras flashing, a couple of video cameras going, and a couple of school administrators and the two classroom teachers making sure everything was ready-set-go. Finally, a few bags of New England apples were carried onto the bus, and Tom stood at the door to the bus and called out to the parents (as I’d seen him do before): “Have a good week and enjoy the peace and quiet.”
Here’s one more theme more challenging than parents necessarily realize at first: having faith in our children. I’m not talking about blind faith. I’m not talking about some sort of from the bootstraps, just do it, grin and bear it, push them away and hope for the best behavior. I’m talking deep belief. Loving someone is a leap of faith, I think we all ultimately agree—and that’s why it’s so powerful. Believing in someone, that, too, requires a leap of faith. And in that way it’s powerful to be loved by your parents, it’s also powerful to have your parents believe in you. The thing I didn’t know until I became a parent, the powerful thrill I’ve discovered, is that not only is loving my children an incredible gift, believing in them is an incredible gift.
I’m in my ninth (and counting) year of being a parent at this elementary school and I’ve long called this send-off to Nature’s Classroom moment one of the ten at the school guaranteed to make me cry. I cried watching the kids and parents around the bus when Ezekiel was in kindergarten, awed by how big the kids were and how brave the parents were to let them go. The Nature’s Classroom experience is one of the capstone events for the children’s Campus School careers. With parents remembering their children as wee kindergartners having grown up seemingly without their notice, it’s hard not to tap into the poignancy of this moment; it feels, even if you don’t know most of the kids or parents, big.
I have cried every year since kindergarten, too, except when I was trying to be brave when Ezekiel left (looking just a little bit shaky) on that bus two years ago (that is to say, last year, I found myself in tears seeing the bus pass my by a few blocks from school).
When the bus doors closed, we all started waving. And then, as you’d expect, the bus pulled away. I did not cry. I was too proud of Lucien to do anything but smile.