Post 195.

Stone has been trying to figure out how to explain to Ziya that sometimes your best friend no longer wants to be your best friend, and though sadness is inevitable, there’s nothing to do but resiliently be yourself, let go and move on.

‘Is it a school day?’ Zi had asked when she woke up one morning this week. Because of her difficulties negotiating such a changed relationship, she didn’t want to go to school. Indeed, the social life of four year olds is like curriculum from the school of tough love.

This life lesson had been long coming. When Zi moved up school year, the little friend she virtually worshipped no longer clung to her also, and she’s spent the whole year slowly, reluctantly recognizing this.

On afternoons after school, we would hear endless stories. How her friend didn’t have any interest in playing with her anymore and had found a new best friend, how on another day they played all through lunchtime and she felt included and important again, how she also had to learn to play with other girls and find new best friends.

Below these stories was confusion and hurt, and we supported her teachers in emphasizing to her that all relationships change. Ziya doesn’t easily adapt though. She’s shy and self-conscious and, because of such awkwardness, can get deeply attached, holding onto the safety of those with whom she’s comfortable and familiar, investing more emotion, expectation and loyalty than is likely to be reciprocated, and quietly brooding over moments and feelings of rejection.

I never knew that children were so emotionally complicated and sensitive. Or, perhaps, I never knew I’d have to develop the skills to navigate anxieties so early, balancing on a thin line between indulging and devaluing such momentous trivialities. It never occurred to me that I’d have a child who takes so long to adjust to new situations, new children, new everything. I’m sure neither did Stone.

When you are making a baby, you just focus on its health and normalcy. You assume your child will be exuberant and confident, smart and hardy. You hardly anticipate or consider their potential idiosyncrasies, paranoias and neuroses, and you don’t expect them when they are four.

Zi is more fearful than I imagined possible for children now encountering the world for the first time. One night, waking from fitful sleep, she cried out to us that she was scared. ‘Scared of what?, we asked. ‘Scared of everything,’ she said, and I wasn’t surprised.

At parties with children from her class, I watched Zi play by herself because she didn’t know how to integrate into group play or was the only one afraid of the height of the play structure or waves at the seashore. We began to take her to her parties early because she could handle beginning with one or two children, but was overwhelmed arriving when too many were already there. We’d encourage her to find a kind friend or older child who would look out for her, and were grateful when she soared away with them. Stone and I had to learn more patience, and he explained his own experience of losing a best friend in the transition to QRC.

On Zi’s teachers’ advice, everyday we talk about who she played with at school, and what they did. When she told me they formed a ‘Supergirls’ group last week and how all the girls were in it, I felt that it had taken a year, but our wallflower had begun to more independently blossom.

Like us, our children’s hearts puncture and heal, their days are full of ups and downs, their discomforts may be perplexing and their abilities take time to grow. And, it’s not just Zi as so many other parents know.

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Post 145.

You may be surprised to know that the most verbally abusive person in my life is my three year old. Or, perhaps, if you are a parent, you are not surprised.

Aside from disclaiming me as her friend whenever she’s resentful of my authority, Ziya also has suddenly begun to articulate, with American Psycho meets Voldemort darkness, all the ways she can think of maiming me.

‘I will hit you on your head with a tree’, she threatens. ‘I will push you and make you fall down and get hurt’, she promises. ‘I will mash up your face’, she swears, channeling The Godfather. At this point, I began to get concerned.

She was always physically assertive, wrestling me in the nights when she wanted to fall asleep breastfeeding and I was pushing her off, flinging both legs and arms like a Tasmanian Devil in infrequent though full-scale two year old tantrums, lashing out when she was vex at her dad or me and then having to apologize for hitting.

That’s average, if annoying. What’s terrifying is when her little brain starts to use her expanding vocabulary to imagine and detail infliction of harm and pain to assert dominance, exact revenge or register resistance.

Stone and I never throw words at each other. In fourteen years, he’s never insulted or become angry enough to say mean things to me, and vice versa. We don’t put each other down and we don’t put Ziya down. We also censor Ziya’s television consumption, precisely because of its violent content and overall unhealthy transmission of values about gender, race, class, sexuality, nation, capitalism and so on. Between Dora, Dinosaur Train, Martha the talking dog, Curious George, Word World and the Wild Kratts with their focus on animals and ecology, where did Ziya learn to negotiate relationships by being so vocally vicious?

During play, at school.

Since she’s started school, her conversational give and take, her social skills or lack of them, and her handling of conflict and power have had to step up. It’s at home that she re-enacts newly encountered situations and tests newly acquired skills. She hasn’t yet figured out, or maybe she has, that there are certain things you should not say and certain things you only say to your friends at school. It’s hard to tell if she doesn’t understand correct boundaries or is deliberately pushing them. As we all know, three year olds are wily creatures capable of sophisticated plotting when they have a point to make.

I don’t know if it’s like this across the country, but it shows how emotional, verbal or physical violence becomes part of peer culture. They’ve been learning to pelt it out since preschool. Maybe it’s the historical role of domination in founding our society, and the fighting words and relations that it has made unnoticeable and accepted. Maybe it’s that we see playgrounds as idyllic spheres of innocence and joy, so schools and families don’t treat such learning outcomes as serious, and don’t seriously and collectively try to transform our children’s investments in violence. Can parents, principals and psychologists cooperate to make playgrounds places where abusive talk isn’t fine-tuned everyday?

I tell Zi that mean words hurt feelings. We discuss how she feels hurt when threatened in those ways. I tell her not to respond when she’s on the receiving end and to say sorry when it’s her.

It’s a developmental stage, but it’s also a warning sign about the world our children will create. What can we do while they are still our fledglings to change such fate?

Post 140.

When she gets angry at Stone or me, Ziya’s latest response is to announce that she’s not our friend. ‘You can be your own friend!’ she declared before hunching her shoulders and stomping off after I quarreled with her. ‘Daddy is not being my friend’, she accused on another occasion, giving him the look of the wounded and betrayed when she didn’t get her way. Yes, my baby is in school, practicing the complex emotions and skills compelled by social interaction. Friendship, and all that it means, has clearly become a hugely important source of connection and negotiation.

Every afternoon on our way home, as I ask her about her day, we talk about who she played with at lunchtime and what they did together. Young and Restless has nothing on the tribulations of this three year old. Some days, some of the girls include her as their friend, some days not. Some days, she says she played by herself because everyone already had a friend. Some days, she finds someone else to play with. In her circles, friendships are made and broken, alliances established and renegotiated, sides chosen and then switched with the vigor of UN Security Council horse-trading over Syria. Forget high school. If you thought that a pre-school playground was about play, think again. This is where Zi most figures out who she is, how she should or shouldn’t behave, what feelings she should articulate and to whom, and how to survive hurt, healing and tough love, which after all is the way of the world.

There are the good days when the girls make chocolate, almond, ice cream cakes, whipping up their imaginations with the mulch on the ground. They seem to spend a lot of time cooking, rather than pretending to be astronauts or even superheroes, but that’s for another column. Some days, a boy might push Zi and we practice saying no or I remind her about telling a teacher, and affirm the importance of her learning to stand up for herself. She bosses everyone around at home but turns into a mouse at school, and has to become capable of taking her comfort and confidence with her wherever she goes.

I fear for her, as any parent would, knowing that each year she will discover that life is harder than she expected and that she will have to learn to hold her head up on her own. I fear for her, knowing her vulnerabilities and softness, and wanting her to experience the safety of love for as long as she can. I also remember the situations where I had to learn to cope, make friends, go it alone, and feel good about myself through good decisions and bad. For her to excel at those life lessons, despite whatever fears, I have to continuously let go. I can ask, listen and advise, but mostly I have to just let her grow.

All a parent can do is trust that their children will figure it out as we all have to, emerging as imperfect beings, able to forgive themselves and forgive others, dust themselves off and, against all odds, optimistically move on. ‘Is it okay to make mistakes?’ she asked this morning as we drove to school. ‘Yes, of course’, I said, ‘if we didn’t make mistakes, we wouldn’t learn. Everyone makes mistakes’. ‘Yes’, she concluded, all mini-Buddha, ‘mistakes are okay’.

And so begins another ordinary day of making friendships and making mistakes. Beyond learning to spell or colour, there are tensions and disappointments as well as resilience and joys to watch her discover.