I have a vivid memory from childhood. My mom and grandma took my siblings and me to see Make-A-Circus at the marina. The circus performers put on a show that told a story, and then kids in the audience got to go join a group during an intermission, learn a couple tricks, and be part of the next part of the show. It seemed like a fantastic idea, right up until the part where they divided us up by ages, so that we could learn age-appropriate skills. The oldest kids got to juggle or walk on stilts, while the youngest ones just did somersaults. I don’t know exactly how old I was, but I’m guessing I was about seven and my sister about four (and my brother still a toddler and not old enough to participate), and so we were put in different groups. I didn’t last long in my group. I didn’t know any of the other kids. I didn’t know the grownups who were running things. I was out of my element, and so I began to cry. I was old enough to be embarrassed by my own behavior, so I made up an excuse--a stomachache or a headache--and got sent back to sit with my mom again. My sister was bolder and did fine with her group. She got her face painted and did forward rolls across the ring with the other preschoolers during the second act.
I was a little envious of my sister and the other kids, but also so relieved. Some of it was stage fright, I’m sure, the anticipation of being in front of so many people (even in a group of kids), some of it was likely insecurity about whatever skill my group was being instructed on (I have no memory of what it was), but I think most of it was my fear of doing something new and being away from people I knew (even if they were nearby). I have memories of other times when I didn’t want to do something unless I knew my mom would be along with me, or that my sister or a friend would be doing the same thing, too. I can still call up the feeling of anxiety that I felt. Actually, I still feel that exact same anxiety when I’m doing something new without anyone familiar along, and I also feel it vicariously when I watch Adriana sometimes.
I’ve read a lot of things that say it can be particularly difficult to parent a child who is different sort of personality from oneself--introverted parents don’t understand the needs of extroverted children, and extroverted parents are baffled by their introverted kids, but I’m finding that the opposite is often true.Sometimes I am baffled by Lyra’s extroversion: as we head off to a new place she tells me that she’s excited to make new friends, and she answers questions from adults she doesn’t know without any trepidation. I identify more with Adriana’s introversion. I like to think that the way she is with stories and words comes from me, but I really see myself as a child when I see her with a group of kids she doesn’t know, or when I see her get overwhelmed by a group of people she does actually know.
But I ache watching Adriana cope with new situations. When people she doesn’t know ask her questions, she turns to me and hides her face. I usually answer for her (if Lyra doesn’t jump in and do it first) and don’t force her to speak if she’s not comfortable, because I understand. I remember feeling that way as a kid. If I can’t do something new with her, I try to make sure she’s with a friend. Like me, even having her little sister there makes her feel better about something. I watched her at a birthday party this weekend, noticing how she stuck close to her sister, how she panicked when she thought she wasn’t going to sit next to her sister, how she let her sister answer questions for her.
I have to admit not all my difficulty comes from empathy. Sometimes it’s just so frustrating to me that she doesn’t want to do something because I want her to do it and know that she can do it. I’m finding that identifying with this aspect of her personality doesn’t always help me to be a better parent to her. Certainly, I know that she needs to arrive places early and have time to warm up to a new situation, and I am able to give her the time she needs after we’ve been around a big group (or even after being around kids all day at school) to just read and cuddle, or to just set her up with craft supplies and let her draw and cut and glue in peace for a while. But while we’re in that big group it’s so hard sometimes. I get frustrated that she’s clinging to me, that she won’t just answer the question someone has asked her, or that she’s making trouble with her sister. I know that the trouble with her sister is one way of seeking out our attention: I have been pushing her to do something she’s not comfortable with, so she acts up so we’ll remove her from the situation--she wants to be taken to a time out. But it can be hard for me to identify the problem before she starts to act out, and I end up angry.
But sometimes it helps that I can remember feeling the way she seems to. At least I can look back at how I handled a situation and realize what went wrong. I can remember how hard things could be for me as a kid. And I can be so impressed by her when she does something that I know I would have struggled with. One day recently when I was working in her classroom, I watched her get up in front of everyone and talk about what she had done in her art class. She spoke confidently--a strong voice, complete sentences, real facts about what she had learned and created--and I knew that I would have been terrified to speak in front of everyone at that age, even when I knew all the other children. I thought I saw a familiar look in her eyes, a nervousness that I understood. Yet she was standing there, doing so well, and I was so proud.
And I’m also starting to push her a bit more now. I’ve let her turn down invitations to go home with friends after school in the past, but the last two weeks in a row, I’ve encouraged her to go for it. She’s been reluctant but has acquiesced. “Maybe you and Lyra should come with me?” she asks. “What if you pick me up after school and take me to their house instead of me just going home with them?” she proposes. And I say no and promise I’ll be on time to pick her up, and then proceed to worry that I’ll get a call saying that she’s crying at school and refusing to go anywhere without me. The first week we did it, I found her up to her elbows in a mud puddle in her friend’s backyard, a mud puddle they had created and were proceeding to excavate with shovels and toy trucks. The second week, I knocked on the door, and Adriana had her friend came downstairs reluctantly when they were summoned, all decked out in costumes. Both times she begged for five more minutes, because she was having so much fun, and I gave them to her, because it was nice to sit with another adult and chat for a bit while the kids played, and because it was so wonderful to see her happy in spite of her earlier anxieties.