She was quiet when she got in the car. It was only the second week of school, and I could tell something was off.
“How was your day, love?” I asked N, knowing full well that this isn’t the question that is going to get me answers.
“Fine,” she responded, looking out the window.
“What did you have for lunch?” I asked, because this girl loves to eat. It’s always my gateway into her day.
“Rice, beans, chicken, melon, salad, and a cookie,” she responded, still without looking at me.
“Who did you play with at recess today?” I asked, trying again.
:: Silence ::
“Sweetheart, are you OK?” I asked – hoping she would let me in to whatever hurt she was carrying.
:: Silence ::
We locked eyes in the rear view mirror. Her eyes told me she wasn’t fine. Her eyes pleaded with me to stop asking questions, to just be there with her, to take her hand, and to love her as only her mama could.
Reaching my hand into the backseat, I said, “I love you, chickee. You know that, right?”
“I love you too, mama,” she said, taking my outreached hand in hers.
We sat in silence for much of the ride home, N quiet in the backseat, holding my hand – my arm dead from the elbow down due to the awkward angle. But I’ll be damned. My baby was going to know I was there, and if she wanted to hold my hand for the full one-hour drive home, she was going to have my hand to hold.
“Mama, I sat by myself at recess today,” she finally said – so quietly, I almost didn’t hear her.
And all the air was sucked from my lungs. My heart immediately tightened, and that familiar lump formed in my throat.
Shit. What do I say?
I frantically scanned every piece of knowledge I had about childhood development, social issues, and girl behavior.
Nothing. I have nothing. I am an educator, damn it. How do I not know what to say?
Therapy, Tina. Think about therapy.
Panic was setting in. And then it dawned on me.
The Adult Chair. What does Michelle Chalfant say about moments like this?
The Adult Chair is a podcast about healing our childhood trauma and asks us to recognize that when something hurts – when our reaction to someone or something is so visceral and so palpable – that we question why, where the hurt is coming from, and most importantly, re-parent our inner child.
What would little Tina need in this moment?
She wouldn’t need an interrogation, that’s for sure. She would need to be comforted and to feel loved.
“Oh, sweetie. I am sure that was difficult for you today,” I said, fighting back my own tears. “Would you like to talk about it?”
“Not now, mama,” she replied as she squeezed my hand.
Careful not to let her see the tears streaming down my face, I returned the squeeze.
“OK, love. But I’m here when you are ready.”
The truth is, I wanted to ask a million questions. I wanted to go to school and demand from these little girls why they didn’t want to play with my daughter. I wanted to fix everything that is hurting her – and I still do. But that isn’t my job. That is not what I am supposed to do as a parent.
Besides, beating up little girls who may or may not be picking on or excluding my child wouldn’t look good for anyone, let alone an educator. Nor does it set a proper example.
But sitting back and watching N navigate the social challenges of second grade is tough. It is the first time in her life that I’ve felt so helpless, like I couldn’t fix whatever was hurting her. A cold, wet paper towel and a kiss on the boo-boo just wasn’t going to cut it this time, and likely won’t ever work for her again. And I miss those times. I miss the times when mama’s hugs fixed everything, the times when I could protect her from heartbreak.
To add to the challenge, we recently moved to a new neighborhood. We went from an apartment where there was no pressure to meet the neighbors and make friends to a neighborhood teeming with kids ranging in age from 2 – 13. N has been idle in her attempts to make new friends. After the initial influx of kids coming over to introduce themselves, there have been few attempts on either end to form a connection. Instead, N chooses parallel play – a technique many parents of infants and toddlers might recognize: each child focuses on their own independent play with limited to no interaction with the child next to him or her. So, six kids will be out in the neighborhood riding bikes or climbing trees. Five of them are interacting and playing games with one another, and one is orbiting their play. Guess which one is mine?
Life is no longer easy. N will be 7 soon, and then 13, 18, 21 … she will stumble and fall. She will fail. And she will experience heartbreak. But she will also learn to grow, to heal, and to love. N will do great things and be a loving, caring soul, because that’s who she is, and that’s who we are raising her to be.
And even still, I struggle with the right thing to do or say. Sometimes I pry too much and she throws up her walls and shuts me out. Other times, N is more forthcoming and information about her day pours out of her like a levy broke. As an educator, I understand the importance of allowing our children to navigate their own challenges, to work out their own disagreements with friends, and to forge their own path. As a parent, I want to be the one on the front line, her body armor, protecting her from anyone who means her harm. As an educator, I recognize that this is all a part of growing up, and that the best thing I can do as a parent is to give her the resources and language she needs to see herself through to happier days. As a parent, I want to fix all of it. I want for N to never experience hurt, whether physically or emotionally.
As with anything in life, it’s a balancing act. But it sure is difficult sitting back and watching it all play out. I am also aware that this is only the beginning – that the hurts are going to become more than sitting alone at recess – and that we have a decade of childhood drama and challenges ahead of us.
Until that time passes, my heart will be in my throat, hopefully preventing me from overstepping …
Help me! How do you (or did you) help your child navigate sticky social situations? What can I do as a parent to support my child and encourage her to seek other friendships?