Learning to walk, feed yourself, and control your bladder are solid milestones, worthy of notations in the baby book. But as time marches on (or, more accurately, blasts forward at breakneck speed) the developments are slightly more subtle.
With the basics out of the way after that first couple of years, the days between ages three and four are prime for honing skills of smart-assery, social grace, and independence.
Perhaps there’s no room in the childhood ledger for skills such as these, because even with a lifetime of practice it’s tough to say if they’re ever truly mastered. As an adult who leaves the house and interacts with other adults, I can confirm: some never do.
This past year of my daughter’s life, I’ve watched her transform from toddler to full-blown kid. She stands taller – the combination of a lengthened frame and new found attitude. She uses words like “basically,” “actually,” and “amazing.” (And also “bagina.”) I’ve snapped photos that catch my breath, seemingly capturing at once a ghost of the baby she was and the image of the woman she’ll be.
Maybe there’s no place in the baby book for them, but these moments, snippets of assurance that this curly-headed little creature will make her way in this world just fine, seem far more noteworthy than the standard fill-in-the-blanks.
How to be a smart ass (without being totally obnoxious)
One of the most rewarding experiences of having more than one kid is watching them develop a relationship with one another. Each time they hold hands without being forced to or curl up together to read a book, you wonder if anyone has ever spontaneously combusted from being unable to process the cuteness.
Of course, moments later you’re stepping into the middle of the third fight of the day, certain these two clowns are still going to be arguing over who gets what dinnerware at their first Thanksgiving home from college because “she got the blue plate last year!” OH MY GOD YOU GUYS I’M GOING TO LIGHT MY HAIR ON FIRE. WHY DOES IT MATTER? IT’S A PLATE.
Until this past year, the unhappiness or discomfort my daughter wrought on my son was more or less due to her existence, not because she was sophisticated enough to orchestrate her own brand of misery. Now that she’s spent enough time figuring out what makes him tick, she trolls him with surgical precision.
It’s well known around our house that my son will find any excuse imaginable to get out of going into the basement alone. Daytime, nighttime, it doesn’t matter. What he’s afraid of that being escorted by a preschooler could protect him from, I don’t know. But she’s no dummy. The last time he made some lame excuse for her to come with him while he fished his soccer shorts out of the laundry, she refused.
“You can go by yourself. I’m busy. There’re no monsters.”
With a huff, he slowly worked his way down the stairs.
I watched as she quietly abandoned the castle she was building and tiptoed to the basement doorway.
She took a deep, deliberate breath and bellowed, “OH SHIT! THERE’S A GHOST DOWN THERE!”
He scrambled up the stairs so fast it’s possible his feet didn’t even touch them.
Finding the line between independence and knowing when to ask for help
My daughter is the type of kid who rarely asks for help. Since she was old enough to have her own agenda, she’s pretty much taken matters into her own hands. I admire her do-it-myself attitude.
But you know what I find even more commendable? She knows when to draw the line. The truth is, some things just aren’t meant to be dealt with solo, whether you’re four or 40.
Last time we were visiting her grandparents, she dashed off through the field to the school yard to play with her brother and cousin. Fifteen minutes later, before I even realized she’d returned, she emerged onto the deck, completely naked, a tail of toilet paper trailing behind.
“I pooped my pants. I tried to clean it up, but it’s not working.”
Not working was an understatement.
“Man, I really stinked it up in here,” she offered as I swung the bathroom door open to take in the horror show for myself.
She studied my face as I cleaned and disinfected each shit-streaked surface.
“You’re not mad, mama. I can tell because you’re not making that mad face. I bet you’re just disappointed.”
“I’m not mad. Not at all. I’m not disappointed either. I’m actually pretty impressed. I can’t believe you even tried to address this nuclear disaster. Knowing when to ask for help is a pretty important skill.”
She stood up a little taller, proud as a poop-encrusted peacock.
“Well, thank you,” she nodded.
You can’t take everything personally.
Driving home from preschool pick-up last winter, she prattled on from the backseat about the trials and tribulations of that day’s playground time. Allegedly, one of the girls was crabby and refused to accept her role of “sister” in the game of house they all agreed to play.
But instead of dramatically complaining about the injustice, she thoughtfully offered, “She talks really nice. She was just mean outside because she was cold. I think that was the problem.”
Friends are everywhere if you’re looking.
It’s possible this kid has a more robust social life than I do. Last week she overheard the squeals of her neighborhood buddies and laid it all out for me. “I’m going next door to Olivia’s house, and if she’s not in her yard, I’m going to go to Ella’s house, and I’ll look both ways before I cross the street but there’s never any cars because it’s not even really a road.”
Slow your roll, Captain Threenager. You’ve only been tall enough to reach the doorknob for four months and while I fully trust your capabilities, letting you go alone could give me a prime spot on the 6 o’clock news.
And it’s not just when we’re home. Trips to the playground, a morning on the green at the farmer’s market, or a long line at the Post Office, it doesn’t matter. She always seems to find someone to enjoy herself with. Often, I watch from a distance, as she twirls her way into the orbit of the nearest kid with the biggest smile. She patiently waits for an acknowledgement, playing alone until they notice. It’s usually only a matter of moments before they dash off in the same direction, without so much as a pause to introduce themselves.
“Mama, I learned two new friends today,” she tells me at bedtime. Learn friends. That’s what she calls it.
Because they’ve really been there all along – no “making” required.