Once a week, my 2-year-old daughter has gymnastics class. The instructors are all so sweet, and the way they teach the children how to do the exercises is very creative. A lot of the exercises are nicknamed after animals or other toddler-identifiable objects. The kids really have no problem following along with the instructions, especially because they make learning so fun. That is, most of the children have no issue. However, my daughter is, as some say, free-spirited. This word possesses many connotations, but to me — free-spirited means that my daughter is independent. Unfortunately, it also means that if she doesn’t feel like doing something, she likely won’t. She very sweetly will decline your invitation. What ‘free-spirited’ does NOT mean is that my daughter is a brat. It also does NOT mean that my daughter is undisciplined. If she is misbehaving, she gets disciplined. Not wanting to climb across a set of bars and pretend she’s a bear doesn’t require intervention. As long as she’s not jumping in front of another child or putting herself or anyone else in danger, I will continue to let her hop around and tell me “I want to be a kangaroo, not a bear!”
This is sort of what gymnastics class looks like. Guess which one Ella is…
The problem occurs when I fail to remember what’s important about parenting (teaching by example, loving, showing respect, nurturing their strengths, encouraging them through their struggles) and start worrying about what other parents think of me. The reason I started off talking about gymnastics class is because this is where my daughter struggles. I use the word “struggles” loosely. She’s athletic and strong, but sometimes just doesn’t feel like showing off her moves. Other times, she forgets how to wait her turn and ends up jumping out of line to bounce around in the middle of the floor or is distracted by something she sees on a shelf and is suddenly sprinting towards a rainbow, teddy bear, or whatever else that catches her curious, twinkling eyes. To be honest, it sometimes upsets me on the inside when I see the other tiny dancers quietly waiting for their turn to do exactly what the instructor said while my little pumpkin hops on one foot while making faces at herself in the wall-length mirror. I always thought that my feelings of exasperation and frustration were my little secret, that I hid it well. I was wrong.
This past week, I was cuddling with my daughter and reading her a book after gymnastics class. She was enjoying the story and I thought we were having a very sweet moment. My daughter, though, was clearly still worried about what had happened earlier.
“Mommy not mad at me anymore.” She snuggled into my arms.
“What? Mommy isn’t mad at you, sweet girl!”
“Mommy mad at me in the car.”
My heart quietly shattered. I knew exactly what she was talking about. On the way home from gymnastics class, I told her that she had to stop running around crazy and start listening. I also told her that she was acting like a baby, not like a big girl. My words had obviously hurt her. I hated myself.
When did I start being such a perfectionist? Why does my daughter have to conform, fall in line, and do tricks with cutesy animal names for me to feel good about myself and my job as a parent? Why am I sometimes so myopic about how truly blessed I am? I have healthy, beautiful children. They’re smart, independent, affectionate, funny, and very sweet. Every child presents a unique set of challenges, and if my biggest challenge happens over a balance beam with a giggling goofball, I’d say I have it pretty good.
My mistake was thinking that this was my daughter’s struggle. It’s not. It’s clearly mine. I have to be okay with my children’s differing personalities. I have to stop worrying what other parents –who might even have seemingly well-behaved children– think of me. I have to teach my children to be respectful and obedient when it is time to listen, but also to allow them to be themselves. I have to stop considering others’ opinions of me, and just do what I know is best for my children.
Tonight, when putting my little girl to bed, she didn’t confirm that I wasn’t mad at her. She just grabbed me by my face, kissed me, and said “I love you so much, Mommy.” In case I needed any more evidence of my blessed life, that little unprompted smooch set me right.