Tuesday, January 25, 2011

A Hat, A Neck, A Big Round Belly

Ah, the number five. You remember learning to write it, don't you? First the hat, then the neck, then a big round belly.

Well, this jolly-old-number has brought nothing but frustration and disappointment to my four-year-old (almost five-year-old) daughter for the past year. It is THE ONE number that she just can't couldn't get right. 

Mommy! It doesn't look like a five it looks like a three! Voice quivers in fear.

Mommy! I. can't. do. it! Foot stomps in anger. 

Mommy, the belly is going the wrong way! Tears fall in frustration.

Well, it all came to a head last week. I couldn't take it anymore. Ava + I were going to get our lives back. She was going to persevere and OWN that number once and for all.

It was afternoon + little sister Anna was napping. I was straightening up after a morning's work in my office; Ava was beside me pencil + composition notebook full of blank pages in hand. Sun was streaming in bright white streaks through the window. A pretty day but cold. So cold you were okay being inside, appreciating it in warmth.

Ava's afternoon challenge was to practice our phone number. She cheerily announced that she wanted to give it out to all of her classmates so that they would have it, just in case. (I realize this could be very bad for a couple of reasons. But the most immediate being that our phone number has a five in it.)

So she began.

Usually when we get to the foot-stomping-tear-streaming-throat-yelling part of number five writing, I tell her maybe we need to take a break. But today, I decided to try a different approach.

When she was ready to give up, to throw in the towel and pick up a puzzle instead, I stopped her. Told her no, that we were going to write the number five. I told her that today was the day she was going to get it. She protested, confused. This wasn't the way it usually went. Usually, we had a little talk about how everything happens in time, how she will conquer five soon, how she wouldn't someday be seven unable to write five.

It wasn't something I had planned, this perseverance approach. But it suddenly felt like the right thing to do. I sat her down and told her we would write the number five twenty times.
Twenty times! That's too many! I can't do that.
Yes, you can. And, you will. I told her.
She sat at the table and was so flustered she couldn't even grip the pencil correctly. She stood up to leave. I sat her back down. She cried. I told her to get started. Firmly. She got up to leave again. I sat her on my lap and kept her there.

I modeled the number five one time. Had her study it and practice it five times before I turned the page over. A blank page. I told her to write the number five. She cried louder.

A hat, a neck, a big round belly.

She got it fifty-percent right. Not good enough, not for her.

She cried louder and I told her we weren't leaving until she wrote it twenty times.

She composed herself and started again, stopping herself at the big round belly--the part where she usually went the wrong way. She thought about it. She went the right way.


After her tenth twenty, she cruised to the finish.
Mommy, I'm doing it! 
The bright white streaks are no longer streaming through the window now. They are streaming through her. Ava is aglow.  
I wish I had captured her face on camera as she inhaled that page full of five's and recognized the writing as her own. It wasn't just a smile, it wasn't just a grin. It was a realization settling deep in her bones. Strengthening her. Framing her.

The truth is, it felt like the right thing at the time, but I wasn't sure it was the right thing. Until that moment. Every time before that, when I allowed her to walk away from the table, I thought I was preserving her confidence.

But here was my realization: Up until that day, I wasn't preserving her confidence. I was artificially preserving her perfection--a practice that I have personally perfected. Can't do it perfectly? Don't do it at all!

When I made her sit at the table and work through discomfort and fear (made her persevere) I was showing her how to abandon the perfect five and accept the five that was perfectly hers. In that moment, over and over and over again. 

Because ultimately, I want her to know the value of seeing it through, not just the value of it, want her to be able to apply the empathy that is gained in the struggle, want her to enjoy the satisfaction that rises out of the sacrifice, want her to accept the rewards + recognition that result from the (hard) work. 

Of course this strategy cannot be universally applied. I'm not going to trek her to the top of a snowy mountain and force her to ski down it. Nor am I going to hand her the periodic table and make her decode it. I don't want her to persevere in a relationship if it's not good for her. Some things, you have to walk away from.

But not the number five. And not lots of other difficult and uncomfortable experiences that await her.  But yes, there are some things she will just have to walk away from. And I pray to God that she has the confidence, the faith, and the experience to do that too.