Wednesday, December 28, 2016

What Your Children Wish You Knew

I said nothing at the time.

At a children's birthday party, one mother announced her four-year-old son had asked for trumpet lessons. Several parents complimented the boy's interest in music.

"No!" she responded. "I'm not listening to hours of trumpet practice! I told him he could learn the violin or piano."

I felt terrible for the curious boy who was intrigued by a trumpet. The sound? The shine? The keys? Only he knew. Somehow he saw himself through that instrument, but when he asked for help from the most likely person, his mother threw a pie in his face.

She taught him his dreams had to be her dreams.

No matter their age, children know about their lives, their purpose. They feel the nudge pushing them a certain way. The dream might seem odd at the time. It isn't.

When Maggie was in third grade, she wanted to learn to ice skate.

In North Carolina? I thought to myself. We weren't even in the mountainous part of the state that got subzero temperatures. Where would I ever find a frozen surface?

Still, I realized something invisible tapped her shoulder. I considered her life as a Chinese adoptee. As a toddler, the one Chinese person she saw on television was Michelle Kwan. Maggie faithfully watched her compete in the Winter Olympics, imitating her movements across our carpet. Her Famous Americans report in first grade was on the champion figure skater. One Christmas I gave her a snow globe of Kwan.

Unlikely as it first seemed, the ice skating dream had been a long time coming. Every child wants to be like someone, and Maggie identified with the only Asian face she saw in a sea of white ones.

So I asked around, discovering an indoor court at the fairgrounds was frozen for several months each winter. Cliff and I signed her up for private lessons, not sure our athletically reluctant daughter understood what she was bargaining for.

Maggie took this seriously because it was her decision, not ours. She was intrinsically motivated to succeed, earning four badges from the Ice Skating Institute for mastering a series of skills. No one else could do that for her. Alone on the ice, she won, not ribbons or trophies, but personal success.

Awards end up in cardboard boxes.

Self-confidence lives forever.

And I saw hers in action on a particular Sunday afternoon when the arena was open to the public. A small girl wobbled along by herself in the crowd and fell. Indifferent people whizzed by the sprawled beginner who could not get her footing. But Maggie saw. Zipping along with more speed than usual, she wove through the crowd until she knelt beside the child and helped her reach the rail.

There was our daughter--all skating courage. For Maggie, it was never about costumes or competition. None of that interested her. But confident skating allowed her to test herself in another way, a generous way.

That's when I understood her dream. Ice was her way of taking an inevitable first journey on her own.   

Children need to feel brave.

That's the point of parenting--helping children test their strength in ways we might not choose. We're simply required to believe. I hadn't bargained for the countless cold hours I'd spend sitting in a dimly lighted rink, but I did it. Because the dream inspired her heart, it inspired mine.

Parents need to think of their child's dreams as a boat for crossing precious early waters. Refuse to be like the mother at that birthday party who thoughtlessly sank her son's ambition.

Instead, hand over a paddle.

Or trumpet. Or ice skates.

Then stand back.

This isn't about you.

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Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas 2016: Toddler Coat Politics

In the days approaching Christmas, life is sporadically peaceful.

While kitchen multi-tasking, I set a sheet of parchment paper on fire. No cookies were lost. Our dog Maria recently took a fall and couldn't walk, landing her at the vet's with us carrying her in by towel sling. Two weeks ago I undertook a harrowing drive through an arctic snow blast to Cincinnati so I could help my friend Laurel. Her inner-city church sponsors an annual family gift distribution and depends on volunteers. I'll be processing this experience for the rest of my life.

This spring Cliff had two ER runs because of soaring blood pressure. After hospitalization and countless tests, he's back on his feet and better than ever. Because no one loves a road map more than he does, he's traveled to North Carolina's Merlefest and visited Nova Scotia with his friend Allen. Although they covered miles of gorgeous scenery, I suspect they appreciated the pubs and Irish music best of all.

In the fall, we toured Williamsburg and Monticello for the gazillionth time. Cliff loves history; I love beautiful buildings. Because he's teased me forever about my bouts of fiery rhetoric, he scheduled a trip to Patrick Henry's farm in Scotchtown so I could stand where he wrote his "Give Me Liberty" speech. There's something reassuring in knowing I share the genetics of another writer who was not always well received but was right, nonetheless, I choose to believe. 

Maggie is considering a major in sociology or psychology. This summer she worked as a guide at the Thomas Edison Birthplace up the street and volunteered at the library's cooking class for children, meaning she can speak at length about light bulb filaments and aversions to lettuce. If there's a career in there, she'll figure it out, coupled with her devotion to campus dogs. As president of their Planned Parenthood chapter, she's attending the Million Women March in January. With Cliff's protest of Spiro Agnew's visit to Oklahoma and my being at Ohio University during the Kent State Massacre, she continues the family forays into political hot zones.

Of all the places we've lived, oddly enough we've had more company in Milan than anywhere else. We're happy but puzzled at the same time. Quiet and historic, little happens here. Nevertheless, plenty of guests have been mesmerized by our butterfly bush covered with a flurry of winged creatures two-stepping from leaf to leaf. Who could have guessed one plant could accomplish so much good? In a world where bees and butterflies are dangerously challenged, they flourish around our porch. Amazingly, one monarch actually sat for twenty minutes on my arm.

If you read my August post Crazy Corn, you know about my alarming moment with a local farmer's political views. There's plenty of crazy on both sides these days. Last weekend at that Cincinnati church, I worked alongside a volunteer whose national opinion was vastly different from mine. Rather than needlessly arguing, I searched for our common connection. Turned out, we were just two people who'd grown up in Ohio's Rust Belt and knew about lean times.

After winning his confidence, he told me he'd explained the need in this church to his affluent co-workers. One colleague responded by saying, "If you keep giving free things to those people, they'll never get jobs." He asked the man how many three-year-olds he'd ever seen buying their own coats. "I'm looking out for the innocent children who can't help their circumstances," he said to me. Who'd disagree with that point of view?

So that's my advice. Find the commonality.

Patrick Henry said: "We are not weak if we make a proper use of those means...placed in our power." Few of us can accomplish revolutionary change, but we can influence our corner of the world.

We can do something.

March. Plant a butterfly bush. Donate a toddler coat.

Do good wherever you are.

You always have that power. Always.

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