Road Trip

Elijah, age 2

Elijah, age 2

When Elijah was 3, I took a job at a private day care nearby in an effort to gain some experience in the early childhood field and earn some money for college. The added perk was that this particular center offered free tuition to its employees, so Elijah was able to attend preschool a few rooms down from the class I was assisting in. It seemed like an ideal situation. My first day of work, I got us both up bright and early and dressed Elijah in a brand new red & cream outfit complete with matching kicks, scarves, and gloves. I wanted to make a good first impression. After getting myself presentable, we hit the road. I was nervous, as one would expect me to be, but my toddler’s carefree chattering lightened my mood a bit. I remember that his favorite CD was playing, a little album I had picked up during one of our trips to the Sacramento Railroad Museum. Elijah was in one of his fixation phases and loved anything remotely related to trains, including music. This CD contained a nice score of railroad themed songs, however there was this one track that had nothing to do with trains from what I could tell, but ironically, it was his favorite on the disc. It was a folksy little acoustic tune about growing up.

That morning, as we rolled along the freeway, I recall tearing up as I watched my son in the rearview mirror, kicking his legs in time to the music, singing, “Hey little boy, you’re acting kind of old, you’re just a little child today…hurry not, don’t rush your days, the time will pass away….slow down, little boy slow down, little boy I said slow down. Before the twinkle of an eye, your time will come around…” His little voice was so sweet then—I wish you could have heard it. Small, yet deliberate, he could carry a tune like  no other toddler I knew and he’d belt out songs as if he were singing to the heavens themselves. By the time we made it to the new school, I was feeling more at ease. But that was only temporary. The first day was rougher than I’d expected. The classroom I was working in was small and stuffy and filled with restless, rowdy two-year-olds. To top it off, the teacher I was working under seemed more interested in sharing the details of her personal life than focusing on the management of the little toddlers in our care. By the time I got to Elijah’s classroom to pick him up, I was feeling ambivalent about the center as a whole. That’s when I saw my son. He was off in a corner, eyes downcast, lip trembling. I glanced at the floor to see what he was staring at, and saw that he was standing in a puddle. He’d had an accident, but in the chaos of the room, no one had noticed. I swept him up, and quickly got him in a fresh set of clothes. He had been potty trained for months and had not once had an accident, until then. As we drove home that day, I knew I would not be returning to that job. Experience and money aside, my little boy was not going to be little for very long and I was not going to have him attend a preschool where he was not being attended to.

I wish I could tell you how fast time passes. It seems everyone tells you so from the day your baby is born; “Cherish these moments, they go so fast… They grow up so quickly.” We politely nod our heads in agreement while admiring the tiny features of our newborns and secretly tell ourselves things will always remain as they are. Those little eyes forever looking to us for guidance, the fingers clutching ours for comfort. And then they are 1, and take their first steps without your help. Then they are 3, and run into a wide open space without once looking back to see if you are there… then 5, and the door to the kindergarten room closes behind them as you stand on the outside wondering how it all happened so quickly. Then 10, and their social life begins to circulate less around you, and more around their peers. Then 16, and you receive an official letter in the mailbox one day with the license that allows them to roam further away from you than was ever before possible.

Elijah earned his right to drive recently. He diligently studied his driver’s education book, persuaded various family members (including myself) to take him out for impromptu driving lessons, scheduled all the necessary appointments with drivers’ training and the DMV, and in the end, was rewarded with his drivers licence nearly a month and a half after his 16th birthday. This has allowed him to drive himself to and from his many baseball games during the week when no one is available to take him. It permits him the freedom to visit friends in nearby neighborhoods on the weekends… neighborhoods he previously could not venture into because they were too far to get to on skateboard or bike. It affords him the feeling of freedom, yet at the same time saddles him with a great deal of responsibility. And it has prompted me to, once again, loosen up my psychological reigns a bit as we inch our way toward his 18th year…

I tell him, the rules of the road are much like the rules in life: be courteous and cautious but confident in your abilities to manage difficult situations as you encounter them. Trust your instincts. Always refer to your rearview but don’t fixate on it. Don’t be ashamed to ask for directions. Even in the age of MapQuest, you may still need to seek out the direction of someone who knows the area better than you. And above all, never forget the way home. There is nothing like the comfort of your loved ones when you grow weary of traveling or need a place to refuel.

Coaches & Critics

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Early this year I had the opportunity to accompany my 7 & 11 year-old-sons to their  annual baseball tryouts. The tryouts take place over the course of two weekends, and land in the  middle of January which means parents  & players alike withstand the bitter northern California chill for several hours as coaches draft their teams. Though my boys have been playing little league for years, this was the first time I’ve ever attended tryouts. Typically, this task has been delegated to their father, however circumstances had it that I was the chaperone to what my children claim is one of the most nerve-wracking parts of the season. My boys were excited but jittery as we arrived at the field that day. Nerves aside, the overall energy of the place was infectious. Clearly, everyone in attendance that morning was excited to be kicking off yet another season of baseball, even if it was at an ungodly morning hour in the biting cold. As the young players formed lines and greeted friends from seasons past, I found myself hanging back a bit (partly due to the fact that I was one of only a handful of mothers in a sea of dads). As I sat on the bleachers inhaling my warm coffee, I quickly fell into observation mode. 
I watched as each child took their turn at the designated drill and quickly began to notice a pattern of interaction and reaction from the parents of the players. Save for a few outlying personality types, I had the overwhelming sense that the parents on the sidelines fell into two categories: the coaches, and the critics.
The coaches were pleasant to watch. These were the parents who, even after their child missed a pop fly, struck out, or failed to field a grounder, maintained a positive approach to their young player. Encouraging, and reassuring, they offered constructive criticism & instruction without being demeaning.
The critics, however, were by far more difficult for me to observe. If you have ever attended a children’s sports events, you’ve seen this parenting style, and perhaps, like me, find yourself cringing at the tactics used. Critics can be ruthless. Rather than pointing out the players strengths, and acknowledging the effort, they go straight into attack mode. 
My grouchy, judgmental self got the better of me that morning, and I found myself silently criticizing the “critic” parents for their lack of understanding and encouragement, and their failure to praise their youngling’s accomplishments before offering suggestions for improvement. As I ushered my kiddos into the parking lot after tryouts had ended, I felt smugly confident in my superior communication skills, and was sure my children were better off for it. 
That high-and-mighty phase lasted all of five minutes because as soon as I returned home, I was greeted by a hungry toddler who was literally throwing herself against the fridge in a desperate attempt to find a juice box and a teen complaining about how his brothers are constantly finding ways to break into his bedroom in search of gum, money, pocket knives, and anything else  that might be of value to them. It was there that my refined parenting skills were forgotten. In frustration, I swooped up my blubbering toddler and stuffed a banana into her mouth (to take the edge off her hunger, of course). Then, I went after the boys. I began this completely disjointed tirade about how I remember how maddening it was to have a younger sibling rummage through my stuff and how-ironically- at one point I was ALSO the younger sibling who had complete disregard for her older sisters things and because I was a middle child I could relate to BOTH ends of the issue BUT that the bottom line was that everyone needed to shut up & relate to MY needs as a mother whose only desire was to come home from a long morning at tryouts to a quiet home, free of bickering and screeching 3-year-olds. (*deep breath*) When I had finished yelling, I realized my kids were staring at me blankly as if I’d gone mad. (I had). My 6-year-old then politely offered me some sunflower seeds as my toddler smeared banana onto the back of my neck.
For the rest of the month, I unintentionally analyzed each and every conversation I had with my children to see if I was coaching or criticizing. I found that, especially when the stress levels were high, my tendency to be a critic was more frequent than I’d like to admit. Not only that, I took notice of how my children reacted to each style of communication. When I was even-tempered and fair in my reactions to things such as unfinished homework assignments, botched attempts to load the dishwasher, and sibling warfare, my children were infinitely more receptive to my intervention & instruction. When I was short and critical, they quickly shut down and we’d get no where. 
 This is true of almost every interaction we have in family life–whether it’s with a spouse, co-parent, or stubbornly autonomous two-year-old–we are generally  able to accomplish more through warmth & constructive feedback than we are with aggression & criticism.
Not long after the tryouts, my 11-year-old pulled his favorite Aesop’s fables book from his shelf and brought it to me for bedtime readings. By coincidence, I opened to the story of the The Wind & The Sun. For those of you unfamiliar with this tale, it begins with the wind and sun arguing over who was most powerful. As they are bickering, they take notice of a man strolling along the road below dressed in a heavy winter coat. They decide to see who will be able to persuade him to remove his coat. The wind blows with all his might, but the man only draws the coat tighter around him in an effort to fight off the cold. All at once, the sun shines her warm beams upon the man, and he quickly takes off the jacket. In short, the moral of the story is “gentle persuasion is stronger than force.” As I finished reading the fable, my 7-year-old turns to me and says, “We sure are lucky you are warm like sun. The wind is cold-hearted!” 
And there you have it. The wind blows.
Pass the sunflower seeds. 🙂