Thursday, October 25, 2012

On the depths of their emotions

We have a firm rule in our house, one that you might need in yours, too: stickers go on paper and people. Repeat with me: paper and people. Everybody: paper and people! You get the idea. If any of you have tried to scrape off a worn-in sticker from a nice stretch of hardwood floor or a freshly painted wall, you understand where I'm coming from. I have no interest in standing against the magic of stickers, but as with most things in life, boundaries are important.

For the most part the girls follow this rule but we do have missteps from time to time. I usually roll my eyes to the high heavens when I spot a misplaced sticker, but when I came across this yesterday I could only smile. I don't know where Alyce received the alphabet stickers, and I don't know when she escaped to her bedroom to stick them on her bedside table, but at some point in the past few days Alyce used rainbow letters to spell out the name of her best friend. A friend left behind at her old school in another town, but who is obviously never far away in her thoughts. 

I find myself constantly underestimating the emotional depth of children. Yes, Alyce and Shira bounce along a spectrum of emotion every day, jumping from feeling to feeling with almost a new one every minute. It would take only a short visit at our house to stand witness to the highs and lows of childhood. There is excitement over opening the paints, devastation over one sister's discovery of the other sister's hidden treasure, thoughtfulness in a moment when one recognizes the other is hurt and needs help, over-the-moon delight when I finally agree to a cup of hot chocolate. But it's the depths of these emotions that get me every time. 

I think many of my struggles as a parent to Alyce and Shira comes from not acknowledging how real these highs and lows feel to them. I grow frustrated, as I did this morning, over Alyce dragging her feet to choose a dress for school, but maybe I would be less so if I took a moment to remember how upset she was when she awoke from a nightmare this morning, how those raw feelings might still be lingering only thirty minutes later. Or maybe if I thought about how much joy she feels wearing an outfit crafted exclusively, if not quickly, by her. When Alyce feels sad about her new school, something she is feeling less and less these days, I need to remind myself that she misses her friend. Alyce is not a baby but a sensitive, loving, excited, joyful, and stubborn little girl whose feelings for her friends--or her toys or her favourite food--are as real as yours or mine. They can't be dismissed. I love my own friends deeply; so does she.

It helps me to remember these things. Parenting books are often so preoccupied with helping us through all the (very important) basics of food and sleep and safety that we're all at risk of forgetting how one of the greatest challenges and gifts of parenting your children is learning who they are, how they feel. I sometimes get so preoccupied with the details of care and how to manage these details within the organization of our larger family, that I forget that one of my most important jobs, and probably the most fun, is to watch. Just watch. 

The controlling perfectionist grown-up in me often ends up worrying about routine and habits and structure, all fine things in their place, but I hope I can remember more often that I can still parent from the background. It's such a balance, isn't it, to let our children feel these depths without trying to manage them? They need these depths, just like we do, to learn who they are in the world. They need to love their friends and feel sad about sisters colouring on the wrong paper and get angry over their mama saying, No, Alyce and Shira, we can't stay up and read anymore, it's bedtime. Just like I need to cry sometimes when my day juggling work and life is hard, or how I need to dance sometimes because I'm just so happy to be near my family.

How do you remember these things?

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