It started with a lanky 6-year-old that had no interest in learning to swing. He sat on the swing and his legs dangled like two lackadaisical twigs in the stagnant humidity of summer. His twin sister next to him pumped her legs and swang high into the sky, back and forth, higher and higher, her long brown hair whipping behind her and across her face. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I wasn’t sure if he truly just couldn’t figure out how to swing or if he just had no interest. Both my husband and I would both go through painfully detailed tutorials with him: you lean back, you straighten out your legs, you lean forward, you pull your legs back . . . He kicked and flitted, and remained dangling upright. He’d quickly lose interest and tackle the next adventure.
I suppose it was okay when he was four. And five. But now it was summer and he was six. It should be part of the 6-year-old experience to feel that wind whirling by your ears, that weightless tingling sensation in your stomach as the swing swung low, the lightness of flight as the swing swung high. While this certainly wasn’t the end all be all milestone of a 6-year-old, it was time to try a different angle. This is how we came up with the ingenious idea of making it a competition. Our kids, and let’s be honest, my husband and I—have a bit of a competitive fire in our hearts. Make something into a competition, and we will roll up our sleeves and dive in.
Here were the terms we set forth at the beginning of the summer:
By the end of the summer, my son needed to learn to swing and I needed to learn to do a headstand. Best one to complete their goal got to plan the date of their choice for the two of us.
My husband and 6-year-old daughter made a similar bet. They both needed to learn to braid hair. Best hair braided at the end of the summer got to plan the date.
The competition was on. All summer, it was a fun, energetic banter as we “competed” to perfect our end goals. By the end of the summer, my son was soaring high on the swing and both my husband and daughter had mastered the art of the braid. My headstand was a little shaky, but my feet were up in the air and that was good enough for me.
We allowed my parents to judge our competitions and I should have known their grandparent-biased would throw the results. Both my son and daughter won the competition. It was a clean sweep by the 6-year-olds.
The summer was over well before a blink of anyone’s eye, and the grand prize of an end-of-summer date never happened before we rolled into the school year. We promised them up and down that the first Friday after school started would be our date night. It was in fact the only free weekend night we had for the month of September. That entire first week of school, they could hardly contain themselves, planning their dates, changing their minds over and over. My relentless persistence even paid off as my son carved a stop at Starbucks into our date night. Friday came and that morning started with every light switch in the house seemingly flipped on. “Happy Date Friday, Mommy!!!” The kids bounced about their morning in anticipation for the end of the school day.
Two hours into their school day, I got a message that my mother-in-law was feeling short of breath. She was going to the emergency department. I was car-less at the moment–my parents were visiting and out buying every bulk package at Costco they could possibly fit in my minivan. My husband had left work and was on the way to the hospital to make sure my mother-in-law was okay. Ultimately, my mother-in-law was admitted to the hospital. I thought about the rest of our weekend. I worked the rest of the weekend evenings, and the mornings were inundated with kids’ activities. Every slot of time was spoken for. I thought about how it was important for us to go visit my mother-in-law and important for the kids to go visit her and show their support and love for her. I thought about this sacred Friday night that was the culmination of a summer’s worth of teasing, afternoons spent practicing swinging, and mornings spent biting my lip as my daughter doused my hair in water and pulled and knotted it into braids. I thought about their little bodies buzzing with anticipation. I thought about their longing for alone time with their parents.
As a parent, a piece of your heart aches deeply when your child experiences disappointment. Your natural instinct is to shield them with bubble wrap to protect them from the crash. Your natural instinct is to leap forward onto that mud hole so they don’t stumble and land face first in wet, cold, sticky dirt. Your natural instinct is to try to hold up the dam and patch the holes before the big cartoon tears start to spurt out of the corners of their eyes. But what do we do when we shield them from disappointment? We raise children that miss an opportunity to learn to cope. To learn to encounter deflation and devastation and realize that on the other side of that is healing and acceptance. We raise children with the attitude that everything goes “right” and will easily fall into place with no understanding of the brick walls that will hit them in the face even when they do everything they are supposed to do and swing as high as they can and braid as nicely as they have been practicing to do.
Disappointment is just a part of reality. And it hit me that perhaps I was approaching this all wrong. All this time, I have been working so hard to raise these children. All this time, I have been trying to create fun and memories and hit milestones. What I really want, is to raise human beings. Human beings that put fun and prizes aside to be there for their family when they are needed. Who learn the importance of dropping everything and seeing their grandma in the hospital when she is sick. Even if it is just to sit at her bedside and eat a meal with her. That even though, this Friday date was the culmination of summer and the most important thing they had in their 6-year-old lives, there is absolutely nothing more important than family and being there for one another.
I thought about how to address this when I picked them up from school. I knew that they would be enveloped in the heaviness of disappointment that made my every maternal instinct cramp. But facing and coping with disappointment is also part of the raising of a human being.
We set down our backpacks and sat on the family room floor. I have something to talk to you about. I said. Grandma was having a hard time breathing today, so she went to the hospital and they decided to keep her there tonight so they could help her breathe better. We talked about being sick and how that felt. We talked about being alone and sick and how that must feel. We talked about being sick, alone, and in a hospital bed and how that must feel. We talked about how if they were sick, they probably wouldn’t want everyone in their family to leave them by themselves in a foreign place and go out and have a really great time. We talked about the importance of being there for family and putting everything else aside. We talked about putting our date on hold and going to see grandma in the hospital.
My daughter looked at me. Her face fell for a transient second. You probably wouldn’t even catch her reaction if you didn’t look closely because it was quickly replaced with a bright smile and a nod. This is how she responds. My son broke out into immediate tears. His cheeks got flushed. His whole body became hot and sweaty, and he crumbled into me with large heaves. This is disappointment, and this is how my 6-year-olds express it differently. We talked through their feelings. Their reactions. That disappointments are tough and both their reactions are valid. We talked about how each setback and how we react and move forward will help us the next time.
I allowed them their time to process. And when they felt better, they both knew that it really just came down to family.
That night, we spent in a hospital room. The kids ate their dinners with french fries with full kid-energy and kid-joy. They bounced around grandma’s big hospital room. They gave her hugs, lifted her spirits, and they let us tickle them until they were full on squealing. We left after a full night of being together and the night ended the same as if we had gone one our date nights—with exhausted kids asleep in the van from another full night.
And that’s how I came to realize that in the day-to-day choices we make in raising our children, we are ultimately raising human beings.