Monday, September 20, 2010

The Invisible Friends

“I played with two girls today at school.” Diva told me this with an air of casual confidence as we walked down the street to her dance class. I asked the girls’ names and my daughter shrugged; she’s terrible at names, and offered instead only this vague description. “One of them is the girl I played with yesterday.” With it being her first week of Kindergarten, I was just so glad she was already making friends, even nameless ones.

Except that she was lying.

Just days before, when we’d taken her up the hill for her first day of school, all three of us were thrilled and anxious. When the classes lined up on the playground, she didn’t complain that all of her buddies from preschool had been assigned to the same other class instead of hers. And when her teacher announced it was time to head inside, Diva seemed ready. Parents could walk with the children all the way to the school doors or just let the kids go ahead, and when I asked my daughter what she wanted, she was clear: “I’m good—you can go.”

Every day after school, when Daddy and I casually asked how school was, we’d go right to questions like “have you made a friend yet” or “did you play with anybody new?” On the first two days, she said, yes, that there was a girl whose name she didn’t know; on the third day, the two of them were joined by another girl whose name was also a mystery. As friends and family asked how Diva liked kindergarten, I trotted out the nameless playmates as examples of how smoothly it was going.

Apparently, I just fell off the turnip truck. Based on my complete overconfidence about the transition, you’d never guess I have been a parent for five years already, someone who should know better that big moves—say, going to a new school, six hours a day, five days a week with 20 complete strangers—might be exhausting and unsettling. But, no, I wanted to hear that she was happy and surrounded by friends, even “Miss Fill in the Blank” or “Little Somethingorother.”

The truth came out on the fourth night when Daddy asked how her two new friends were. She was matter of fact. “Oh, I made them up.” He was dumbfounded. Hadn’t she been telling Papa about these imaginary girls for days? She agreed that this was true.   

Go ahead, put on your parent hat and decide which issue needed to be addressed first. That she had no friends at school? That she felt compelled to tell us that she did, so we would be happy even if she wasn’t? Or that she was so comfortable just lying outright to her dads?

It is possible, of course, that she had made friends after all. But if so, then she was lying about lying, which is very meta and would make an excellent conceit for a novel, but still meant that we wouldn’t know which stories to trust about her life at school. So Daddy settled on starting with the truth issue.

He reminded her that telling an untrue story is lying and that we aren’t supposed to lie to each other. He assured her that we want her to be able to express how she really feels, and that her Daddy and Papa are the two people she should trust the most. She tried to reposition things a bit, saying that she had only been “joking” about having friends. Later, when I tried to remind her that she really does know the difference between a joke and a lie, she remained adamant: it wasn’t a lie if she didn’t mean it to be.

Ladies and gentlemen, I ask you to flash ahead to when she is 16. Just imagine the apocalyptic wreckage of her fathers’ nervous systems as she employs that logic in other settings. (“College is going just fine, Papa, and the sounds you hear in the background are not a huge biker rally in South Dakota that I dropped out of school to attend.”)

To be fair, she was actually showing a sad kind of maturity here: she had already learned that grown-ups ask many questions with a set answer in mind, so intuiting the desired answer allowed her to perform well in conversation. If her dads asked every single day if she had made friends, then not yet having made any must not only be scary to her but be bad and disappointing to us, so she gave the response that would please 2 out of 3 people in our family. She might not have been answering in the best way by offering up a lie, but we hadn’t exactly been asking the best questions either.

Over the weekend, I noticed how much the pattern repeated in her interactions with adults. On Sunday alone, three separate grown-ups asked Lily if she liked (or in one case loved) Kindergarten. She said yes all three times, and added nothing else, while the grown-ups filled in the blanks, exclaiming about how excited she must be and what a big girl she was. I could see the stillness on my daughter’s face, her lack of enthusiasm masked by her absolute awareness that only one answer would do.

I tell my college students that research never begins with a question that can be answered “yes” or “no,” because you always end up squeezing your results to fit. True learning comes from an open-ended question, with the information you find shaping an outcome that may well be complicated and not easy to boil down. This is going to have to be my task as a parent as well, remembering to ask the open question, instead of shoehorning the data into the desired result. Instead of starting with “Did you play with someone today?” I need to try the less-leading, “Tell me about recess.” If her answer involves a specific classmate, perhaps even one with a name, excellent; but if she focuses instead on her monkey bars progress, then I guess we’ll talk about monkey bars.

Last night, at bedtime, I told Diva that she can feel any way she likes about Kindergarten. If, when questioned by a grown-up, she wants to say she enjoys school, great. But if she doesn’t like it very much that day, she should say that, too. And so she said something I knew she meant, at least for this moment: “Kindergarten is boring. Except recess. That’s the best.

Ok, so that may not be the happiest sentiment she’s ever expressed, but it contains the one thing I do want to hear: the truth.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

IN THE NAME OF LOVE (Diva's first crush)

It was the last night of the last vacation of summer, and my husband and daughter were snuggled up for bedtime story when she dropped a bomb. “Daddy,” she said, “I love someone here.”

My hubby tried to play dumb. “You mean Daddy and Papa?” Nope. She shook her little curls and waited, wanting him to guess. But he didn’t need to; he already knew.

Though there were six families sharing the rental house, not all the kids were created equal in Lily’s eyes. She was clearly smitten with Cole, a boy her age who boasted all sorts of magic qualities: he ran as fast she did, needed to be active just as constantly, and was willing to play Baby Cheetah, a chase-and-growl game that she’d invented and never wearies of. All weekend, she had maneuvered herself next to Cole at the table or at the beach. And when nine kids settled in for a movie viewing, she snagged the spot nearest him on the floor.

She’s 5.

Let me pause for a moment here to hyperventilate. She’s crushing out on boys at five?

Thankfully, it was her Daddy on the mattress and not her Papa. I might have been tempted to tell her that it’s not appropriate to chase after members of the opposite sex until she’s, I don’t know, 25. And then I would have changed the subject to puppies or cheetahs or something.

Her Daddy went the gentle, liberal parent route instead: asking what she meant by “love” and what she thought people did when they felt that way. Even when she said boys and girls who love each other kiss on the lips—demonstrating that the girl has to turn her head sideways—Daddy did not leap up off the floor shrieking, nor immediately start shopping online for future scarlet letter sweaters. He softly explained that kissing is for older people and that she could show her love in lots of other ways (all of them lip-and-hand-free). He was a model of parental calm.

Of course, as soon as she was asleep, he poured himself a stiff drink.

When he recounted Lily’s bedtime confession to me, we were both flummoxed. How did we end up here? We don’t have cable. We limit her TV viewing largely to PBS and Disney. And she sure as hell isn’t seeing a lot of girls tilting their heads to kiss boys in our house.

We began to second-guess ourselves, considering all the exceptions to our careful media monitoring—we had after all, let her watch High School Musical, and, ok, she may have seen Hannah Montana once. Even old Disney movies might have been the culprits, what with smooth operator Tramp using his artful lies to woo Lady, or Mowgli following a human girl into her village after she summoned him with that horrifying come-hither gaze.   

Or maybe it’s just the age. When my husband sounded a note of disbelief that a five year-old could actually have a crush, I reminded him that I knew I was gay when I was six. I knew because I got caught playing an elaborate kissing game that I had orchestrated with a neighbor boy, Coty; the older kid who discovered us called us pansies. While that was the day I got a name for what I felt, I had been convinced for months that I would marry this particular boy next door. Which means, yes indeed, my first crush was also at age 5.

This is not comforting exactly, since I never relented in my ardor. The object of my crushes changed but there was always some boy I adored, from grade school into high school, and on into college and grad school, where I could finally date guys instead of worshipping them from afar. When I got married, my husband stood at the end of an aisle I started walking down two decades before. So I can be forgiven for already obsessing about my daughter’s romantic inclinations—can’t I?

I know, I know: what all this really means is that I need to learn to breathe out and accept that she’s going to keep growing up, no matter how much each new stage startles and unsettles me. Freaking out, overreacting, and nakedly quashing her emotions will just make me the reincarnation of my grandmother, who washed my mouth out with soap when I told her I loved a boy. I must instead resolve not to be afraid of my child’s very natural feelings.

At least that’s what I’ll tell myself until we buy a mountain compound with a nice perimeter fence and a cozy guard house, where any suitor who wants to pass will have to get by Papa first.