Today is M’s last day of Kindergarten, and a half day at that. The school year has been in wind down mode since about two weeks ago, what with a class walk to the ice cream shop and lots of outdoor time to pass the days and all. You can sense the anticipation of summer break among the children, their teachers, and the parents. We are more than ready.
I could talk about the things she learned in the classroom this year, like how to read or add and subtract numbers. I could talk about the physical changes that she underwent over the past 9+ months, like losing eight teeth in the span of five weeks (oh my, that was rough!) or growing almost three inches and one shoe size. I still can’t believe I have a child that weighs 50 pounds. I could talk about the new territory of budding (and flailing) friendships or socializing with many more kinds of kids than she’s ever had to prior to Kindergarten.
Yes, Kindergarten and being six years old offers much time for exposure, experience, and excitement. But those are actually not the important takeaways, at least for me, from this year of Kindergarten life.
No, the most important, impressive thing I’ve seen took place on the monkey bars.
I’ve watched this little girl go from barely being confident enough to leave my side to stride over to the monkey bars—where there is a lot of movement and noise generated by dozens of children every morning, some of them much bigger and older than her—to now being able to swing along the entire length of bars.
She first started out trying on the younger children’s playground at school.
But soon scrapped that plan to aim for the bigger set on the other playground.
These aren’t your stationary monkey bars, mind you. The bars swing from chains, giving them an added dimension of complexity. Once in a great while the older, taller children like to push them so that they swing while a (usually) younger child is approaching. For someone who does not like crowds, noise, or high action surroundings, this was certainly not her ideal set up. But, for some reason, she wanted to give them a go.
It took her many, many months to work her way from only just reaching out to grab the first, elusive bar to feeling confident enough to let go and reach for the second. She worked on it every morning, save for the days of inclement weather when the children were inside before school. She only had about ten to fifteen minutes to practice until the whistle rang, but that’s what she chose to do. She wasn’t interested in playing chase or talking with her friends. She wanted to master this feat.
There were a lot of falls to the ground. There was a sea of children, the same age/grade as her, who could do the entire length (and back!) without any effort it seemed. She was the only one who could do just two bars. One, two, drop. One, two, drop. Weeks and weeks of only that. Sure, many other children probably cannot do any of the bars, but they simply weren’t over there trying, and so it looked like she was the lone child who couldn’t master this childhood rite of passage. I am envious of her inborn set of blinders.
It didn’t matter to her. She didn’t give up.
She was determined and focused in a way that, quite frankly, took me aback. At least considering the anxious, tentative child that she was (and still sometimes is) in the years before this one. She learned how to tell the older children blocking the bars with their game of tag to move out of her way. She found her voice to tell the bigger children that it is not OK to cut the line. She learned how to fall, and pick herself back up, with grace and resolve.
And then, one day late this spring, after a weekend trip down to the schoolyard to show her how to get the body momentum needed to reach the third, she did it. She wasn’t just reaching, grabbing, and then dropping. She was actually climbing. Then more success followed during school day mornings and lunchtime recess. She reached the fourth. Then the fifth and sixth.
And, finally, the elusive last bar. Number seven. She did it. Just days before the final week of school, but she did it, and was already turning herself around to start working on her return trip.
While we were camping over Father’s Day weekend, she showed me her hands. They have callouses forming on them now. They are the physical manifestation of confidence, determination, strength, and perseverance. They are badges of courage for putting herself out there, not knowing if she will really ever achieve her goals or if someone might laugh when she falls. They are little pads of protection for the future challenges that lie ahead.
These, to me, are the most important things for her to learn right now, and I’m so glad she did.
I have learned a similar lesson myself this year, at least when it comes to my endeavors of writing, which are still very nascent. I’ve had to learn how to tune out the noise around me of those who seemingly have more success than I do. I’ve had to pick myself up after many, many rejections and falls. I’ve had to keep at it and persevere with a determination that, thankfully, seems to be unassailable when it comes to this drive to write. I’ve had to learn how to do this in the face of others not understanding or caring much about this path I’ve started down.
I’ve had to wait for callouses to form on my own hands, so to speak.
It’s starting to pay off, all this effort. I was proud to have a piece published on the NYT Motherlode earlier this month. And today, you’ll find me with another piece on Literary Mama, writing about some of what my life as a secular/atheist parent has been like so far.
Maybe these kinds of writing accomplishments will be short-lived. Maybe it is all pure dumb luck. Maybe it’s my fifteen minutes of fame and nothing more. Whatever it is, I’ll take it as it comes.
But, just like my daughter, I’m going to keep reaching for that last bar until I get there.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Sometimes, as a writer, you have to let go of certain pieces—that is, the ones that keep getting rejected. I wrote this about a year ago, in response to a call for submissions that focused on a particular theme. It got rejected. In fact, it got rejected a few more places after that. I need to let go of this piece, not because my confidence in it is faltering (though it is), but because the girl that I wrote about here, she’s different now. Braver and less risk averse. I want to honor that transformation. When I write about her, I want to be in the present. To do that, I need to let go of this tiny snapshot of the past.
What are you doing?” I asked her.
Her eyes were closed. Her empty hand was in a fist. Above it, she inhaled through her nose and exhaled through her sweet pink lips.
“Smelling my flower, and then blowing out my birthday candle to make a wish,” she replied, infused with that faint hint of “duh, Mama!” that five and a half year olds seem to suddenly pick up from the older kids at the playground.
My wrinkled eyebrow revealed that I didn’t understand.
“Miss Lara told me to do that when I was afraid of the dark clouds on the playground today,” she explained.
Ah, now I see. There must have been thunderstorms on the distant horizon during outdoor playtime. I can only imagine the look of fear that she must have had, likely clinging to the leg of the nearest adult. She had been in a stage where even the remotest of thunderstorm possibilities triggered palpable, visible fear. For the greater part of a year, this was but one thing that induced a perplexing state of anxiety for her, our sensitive worrier. These were covert breathing exercises aimed at getting her to relax.
But what threw me was the off-the-cuff brilliance of that twenty-something teacher’s aide. It far outshined the (very expensive) textbook advice that my anxious young daughter had received from her highly decorated post-doc therapist just nine months prior. It was so obvious and elegantly simple: if you want to reach a child, speak to them in their own magical language. Why do we adults so frequently forget this? Flowers and wishes? Yes, these she could understand. This she could use.
Our worrier was becoming a warrior. She was breathing again.
All it took was a pair of cheap plastic goggles. Not the supportive praise of her Dad offered from a poolside bench over sixteen humid Sundays at the Y. Not my kind words of encouragement before she left for her lessons, or the high fives for the small achievements when she returned. By all accounts she loved swimming in the pool. Yet despite our efforts, our young daughter was seemingly destined to remain a pike, with eel becoming increasingly elusive so long as she refused to immerse her head.
The reason? Wet eyes. She did not trust her breath if she had to keep her eyes closed too. Like me, she is someone who needs to see what is around her. Getting water in those bright blue eyes was the roadblock standing in the way of above and below.
Ultimately, it was not our measured reassurances and coaxing that gave her the confidence to go under. It was not our ability as loving, supportive parents. No, it was the bubblegum pink goggles found in the last aisle of a dusty bargain bin store, purchased in a last ditch effort to help her move forward. I hated them at first, overwhelming in their plastic stench and insulting in their $1.99 price tag. The likely conditions under which they were manufactured crawled under my skin. I thought about the environmental ramifications of my purchase as I reluctantly handed the clerk my five dollar bill.
But how could I ignore the instant transformation that this elegantly simple solution ultimately induced? This time, it seemed, her comfort and confidence were clearly Made in China.
Our little mermaid went deeper in the water and also within herself. She learned how to hold her breath.
The dichotomy of what my anxious little one learned in the span of just one year was nothing short of life saving, maybe for all of us. We are not living at the outer edge of raw exasperation. She can take in more of what life has to offer.
Breathe in, breathe out. Take a gulp of air, and hold it. To trust in these polar opposites is to reveal one’s own inner strength and bravery. She is freer now because she knows how to breathe, and when not to.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Type of book? Picture book
Year published? 2013
First time reading this author? Yes (definitely not the last though!)
First time with this illustrator? Yes (again, not the last!)
The Breakdown – Mine
I was drawn in by the illustrations first, and the story second. A quick thumb through the book told me that it was, predictably, about a young boy who was afraid of the dark. But the illustrations, which were so, well, dark, interested me quite a bit because so much of children’s book illustrations is so, well, light. I like contrasts and wide range in subjects and illustration, especially for young readers who are figuring out what they like (and don’t like), and how to tell a good book (written and/or drawn) from a not so good one. This was one of only a few darkly illustrated books that I’ve found for her age range, so I was excited to see it on the shelf.
I admit I was hesitant to get this book because, knock on wood, M has not ever seemed afraid of the dark. Sure, she goes to sleep with a very dim night light on, but we shut it off after she falls asleep. That means when she wakes up to use the bathroom, which is every. single. night. it’s dark in her room. But I didn’t want to give her any ideas that she should be afraid of the dark, like so many children seem to be, so I was hesitant at first. In the end, I’m glad I got the book because she immediately took to it and its underlying theme, which is bravery.
The topic of bravery has been a prominent one in this house and for M in particular for the past year, and it is nice to provide some “new material” in this regard with books like this, if only to reinforce the concept. Laszlo, the main character (aside from “the dark”), must summons up some courage to rectify the darkness that has besieged his room when the night light goes out. Naturally, the extra night lights are stored in the basement. The dark basement. Dark makes its range known throughout the house—in closets, behind the shower curtain, beyond glass windows at night—but it is the basement that is the ultimate dark, especially to a child. Laszlo’s bravery is ultimately rewarded at the end of the story after he ventures down the stairs into the basement.
What I really loved about the story is that it personifies the dark as a friendly entity. I think this is a good message to embrace at a young age . . . yes, this coming from a grown woman months shy of forty who still must have a night light on somewhere upstairs in order to fall asleep. Ahem. But by giving the dark some dialogue in the story, it softens the bad rap that the dark usually gets. It also reminds us that we can find courage, or at least keep an open mind, to trust in the things that we cannot always “see” in bright light. I think this kind of reminder serves us well when it comes to encountering people or ideas that are unfamiliar to us, though I am not sure that that is what the author was going for ultimately. I recommend this book to children aged 4-8, and possibly older, especially if bravery and/or fears of the dark are common topics of conversation in your house too.
The Breakdown – Hers (edited slightly for typical 6 year old tangents)*
What did you think of the book?
I liked the name Laszlo. I liked that he finally went down [in the basement] because he thought it was too dark. I liked it because it was dark. I liked the pictures because they were dark.
What was the main idea of the story, do you think?
It was about a boy being afraid of the dark but then he wasn’t afraid after he tried going in the basement.
Are you afraid of the dark?
No. I’m not afraid.
Then why do you fall asleep with a night light on?
I like to make it brighter while I’m getting sleepy. And in case I have to use the bathroom before I fall asleep I won’t trip.
* M’s teacher is having the children explore identifying the “main idea” of stories this year. While it’s certainly (and arguably sadly) driven by a long-term need related to future standardized testing where this skill and reading comprehension will be tested, I think it is still important to develop this skill in its own right so that she becomes a critical reader and thinker. To that end, I have been asking her more and more about the books we read, and will periodically include her in book reviews so that you can get her takeaway from the stories as well.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
Last Sunday, we took M to see Elizabeth Mitchell in concert. We have been listening to her music ever since M was just 8 or 9 months old (thanks to a friend who introduced us to her music). In the half hour before the doors opened at the show (which took place at the Reggatabar at the Charles Hotel in Cambridge), there was a less than organized line and check-in procedure that had evolved between us show-goers and the hotel staff person. Because we had been there since the line had first formed with just two or three families, we knew what was going on. But the people just getting off the elevator about 20 minutes later? They didn’t. And then they just stood around mumbling to other people also getting off the elevator (who looked equally clueless) about how they didn’t know what was going on or where the line actually was.
And as I observed all of this, all I could think to myself was, why don’t you just ask someone? After a second line had started forming near the elevator people, I finally spoke up and told them that the real line was actually snaked around the corner and that was where they needed to go.
I see this time and again, when adults in a crowd of varying states of organized chaos (ballet recital line ups, school functions, etc.) clearly don’t know what’s going on but are too afraid to speak up and ask (and not to their fault always, either—here the hotel staff didn’t do a great job in communicating what he was doing and what we all were supposed to do…but still, at some point you just have to ask).
On Thursday this week, I was at a store buying some new dish towels and a glass pitcher. M was with me. As the clerk started wrapping the pitcher in some newspaper, M struck up a conversation with the clerk, completely unprompted by me. This same girl who many times will still sometimes wrap herself around me or her dad’s leg when coming into a crowd of people—familiar faces and strangers alike—was striking up a conversation about the summer weather and the virtues of wrapping glass things. I just stood by silently and let the dialogue go and end where it would all on its own. On the way out of the store, I mentioned to M how proud I was that she was so brave to start “chatting it up” (as I so frequently say) with the clerk. It looked like M was happy that I noticed and acknowledged this effort.
It is pretty clear that M will not be allowed to take Halloween Kitty when she heads to Kindergarten in September. Out of a preschool class of seventeen 5-6 year olds this past year, M was in a very, very small minority of kids who still needed her lovey to enter the class in the morning, up until about the last month of school. He still came to school with her, but stayed in her bag until rest time. I was hopeful that it meant that the transition to Kindergarten without him would be not quite so bad. But, after starting camp a couple of weeks ago, her reliance on her beloved stuffed black and orange cat was back in full force at drop offs. It’s already eased a bit (she is going to the same place for camp that she went to K-Prep after all) and so I mentioned to her that these last three weeks of camp would be a great time for her to practice drop offs (in a familiar place) without HK, because she won’t be able to bring him to Kindergarten (there’s a rule about no home toys, as far I as I’ve been told anyway).
She was devastated to learn this news. And I empathize with her. My thinking was, that if she can let go of HK while in camp, then the crutch would not be as missed as if doing it on the first day in a completely new setting. Personally, I don’t care if she uses a lovey until she’s 49. And for that reason, I found a very small, stuffed animal that looks identical to another lovey she has (but no longer uses) so she can clip it to her backpack in the fall. A second best solution, if you will. For her, these loveys ease the tension of breaking into a social scene, even familiar ones.
At random intervals we talked about this upsetting news over the course of the next few days. This inability to bring HK to Kindergarten was weighing heavily on her and even starting to affect her sleep. With still 7 weeks left to go in the summer, I didn’t want this to become a dark cloud on what should be a fun time of the year, and a transition that she is (according to her) otherwise really looking forward to. Despite me reminding her how she had made friends (and quickly) at her current school and all the other standard parent reassurance fare, I needed a different approach. I needed to remind her in a more tangible way about all of the brave things she has accomplished in just one year. How she has been able to do hard things, and can do this too. That she is my brave little bird.
So I made her this:
It hangs in the kitchen now, a reminder for the coming weeks of just how brave she is. These are all things that, at some point in the past 12 months or so, worried her on some level and she could not do. I think the poster is already working. Just this past Saturday, after much hemming and hawing about whether to go in the pool at her grandparents’ house in the wake of a short thunderstorm (she’s very afraid of thunder when she’s outside), I actually heard her tell herself “I can go swimming. I can be brave about it.”
Wow. Yes. And, eventually, she did.
I’m not sure if it’s a relic of once being fully immersed in a “work for someone else” way of life—it’s now been just over two years since I decided to downshift and begin working for myself—but I lately often find myself thinking about what my job description as a parent might include. There are, of course, hundreds of day-to-day duties. But what about my obligations and long-term goals? That is, setting aside the mundane tasks of doing laundry and remembering the permission slips for school, what is my overarching mission in this role? What does she need to someday leave the nest?
Two themes continue to surface for me: teach M how to feed herself, and teach her how to navigate the many kinds of social interaction that we all encounter in our daily existence. If she can effectively carry these things out on her own at some point in her future life, then I can leave this earth (hopefully long from now) knowing she is self-sufficient.
Of course, being able to feed oneself has many different facets, whether it be understanding the kinds of foods that nourish and help our bodies stay strong, learning how to grow food or cook it, or finding a way of life that helps at least pay for the ability to do all of these. But feeling comfortable in the social side of life? It’s trickier to teach, especially if your child is slow to warm up or easily overwhelmed by a lot of people at once. On her part, it requires being brave and moving past hard things. On our part, it requires seeking out opportunities to have her test the waters. Never mind going to the post office, forcing her to order her own ice cream, pay for it and wait for change this summer has made a huge dent in her feeling comfortable—and speaking in an audible voice—with unfamiliar adults and teens. Never underestimate the motivation behind the promise of a good scoop of vanilla with rainbow sprinkles!
Now I’m finding it also requires a heavy dose (at times) of reminders about all of the other brave things that she is now already doing. It is so easy to get absorbed by the one or two things that still cause fear (in her case, going to school without HK). But when you look back at all things that you also once feared but now do so effortlessly, it hopefully starts to put things in more perspective, both for her and for me.
Will the first day of Kindergarten be tough? Probably yes, as it will be for so many others that day, and no matter whether HK is by her side or not. But I know she will get through it in her own way, in her own time. She will find some bravery and confidence and move through social situations at school with increasing ease. It may happen slowly or it may happen overnight. Either way, one day I know it will be something we can add to her list of brave things she can do. And someday, just maybe, she will be the one bold enough to ask just what the heck is going on in the concert line.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
When I was still in litigation, I took a continuing ed seminar for trial practice for attorneys who did not have that much trial experience (you can actually be an attorney for many years before you actually have to try a case; most cases are settled or decided by motions, at least in my practice area). Anyway, we had to give a closing argument in front of the class. Not exactly my idea of a good time. It was taped, and then we were critiqued one-on-one by one of two actual on-the-bench judges in our trial court system who were teaching the class.
The common theme throughout my critique: I don’t project loud enough. This particular judge noted that it was “common among women attorneys” to argue like that in court. Sounds a bit sexist, doesn’t it? But based on what I encountered myself in court, as well as from my year clerking for a judge, I generally agree with that sentiment. I don’t think it’s from a lack of confidence though, as this judge seemed to be getting at. I think it actually comes from a “it’s not really necessary to talk as loud as how large I think my penis is” approach that seems to apply to too many male counterparts in the profession, and the fact that women tend to be more collaborators than antagonists (except when they really have to be), even when they are on opposite sides of the “v”. My take away from the class, and the times I had to go to court thereafter, only added to my mounting evidence that I am not intrinsically wired to do this kind of work (the court part). I am not shy or afraid to talk in front of other people, as long as I have had enough time to prepare what I am going to say. I am certainly someone who prefers to get her point across with reasoned writing rather than oral argument in front of many people, because the latter kind of advocacy requires more “on the fly” discourse. I’d rather toss the legal reasoning around with one or two colleagues in a non-adversarial setting, write my analysis and then step back. This is my comfort zone, my introverted nature.
A few months ago M’s teacher had short conferences with all of the parents to give us an update on how things were going. I was surprised that it even involved a written checklist form with a “grading scale”. (M was not aware that this was even ongoing, and we’ve largely kept her in the dark about that particular part. At the Pre-K level, I just don’t think it’s anything more than anxiety provoking to feel like you are being graded somehow in that way.) There were three “grades” that a student could get in a couple dozen things like “take’s care of one’s own needs”, “uses scissors effectively” and “works on tasks, persists amidst difficulty”. M scored at the “highest” level (sounds so ridiculous to even write that) in all of them but one: “participates in class discussions”. The teacher elaborated during the conference that M is somewhat hesitant to speak in front of others, and does so “very quietly”. Now, I really don’t care about these grades in the sense that we want her to change anything to get the “better” grade. Not my style at all. I really can’t get all that worked up about it.
What I do care about, however, is how her personality type is already causing teachers to view it as a weakness, rather than a strength. She’s always been the kid to take stuff in and mull it over in her mind, processing it for a while and then, sometimes, dissecting it out loud later on with one or two people when she’s had a chance to get her mind around it. Whether she is shy, introverted or both, it’s too early to tell. It’s not just semantics either. There is a difference: shyness is anxiety-based, and introversion just means that the person needs some space (mental, quiet, time) to process and participate or deliver a response.
Then this article came out on The Atlantic’s website. And I got very angry about the stance the author/teacher took. Maybe defensive is a better word. But it made me realize that the likely expectation in our loud, predominately extroverted world, will be that M participate in classes in a way that may not be within her comfort zone (at least it isn’t right now). I want to help give her some tools, but without changing her personality (I mean, how can I really do that anyway?). Not because of the grades, but because of the stigma, or even worse, the prejudice, that she will have to endure by teachers, fellow students and others who do not understand such leanings.
Thankfully, Susan Cain (whose book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, I started late last year and am about 75% through), wrote an insightful follow-up to that piece. You can read it here. I hope many teachers read it.
All of this said, and now that my defensiveness has dulled a bit, I have been thinking about what we, as her parents, can do (or do more of) to help M find her voice a bit better, and project her great ideas and opinions more easily among her
loudmouthed more public speaking inclined peers. Here are some ideas that we have been using, and that you might find helpful:
I’m sure there are other tricks out there for helping kids like M to gain a little more confidence in talking outside their comfort zone, and if you have any to share, please leave them in the comments. Every kid has a point of view. If we can all work together to help bring everyone into the fold in their own way, the world will be a much more well-rounded place.
Copyright (c) 2013 Kristen M. Ploetz
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