The husband had a work-baby at the same time that we had G. This left me (mostly) all alone at home with an infant for the first two years of G’s life. While she was happy on her own for short stretches when she was at home, any time a stranger was introduced, or we were outside, she transformed into a pangolin-koala hybrid; curling up and clinging tightly to me. I emphatically believe that when children seek closeness, you should give it to them. When they know for sure that you’re not going anywhere, they’ll detach from you by themselves.
I knew this in theory anyway. Obviously, as a first-time mom, there’s a limit to how zen you can be. As a person, space is high up on my list of priorities. I need it. I use it to come back with my batteries recharged. As a mother, I felt that need for space even more. When we’d go to yet another playdate or function where G refused to get down from my arms, I’d wonder when on earth I’d get to be me again.
I realize I sound like a broken record here, but time really does change so much if you just wait. At a little over 2 years, G suddenly, without warning, started approaching other children on the playground by herself. We had prepared her for school with plenty of books and conversations. I don’t think we had prepared ourselves for just how happily she waltzed into school. The only time she complained was at the end of the day, when it was time to go home.
G being at school was disorienting on so many levels. For the first time ever, there were thoughts in her head that I couldn’t directly trace the source of! It really was like cutting the umbilical cord on my end. As she navigated those first weeks at school and on the playground, the husband and I watched with a mix of wonder and trepidation. Letting your child out into the world is a leap of faith!
We noticed that G was a stickler for rules. If an adult told her something, and she trusted the adult, she would obey implicitly. Regardless of anyone else jostling for their turn or pushing, she would stand in line (even when there wasn’t even a line!!) and wait. We’d watch with our hearts in our mouths, wondering if she was too soft for the world; if she’d ever speak up for herself. We knew enough not to speak for her, or try to fight her battles by getting involved, but my god, it was hard.
I feel like a lot of parents, especially in India, are very conscious of what a ruthless world their children are inheriting. We are so used to a country with no lines; where rules exist to be broken, and everyone knows everything is unfair. We are used to fighting our way through things, racing to get everywhere first – and we just take it for granted that this is the way life works. When the husband and I saw G as a child experiencing that world for the first time (albeit in a microscopic bubble), all our doubts rushed to the fore. Should we teach her to fight? That rules aren’t always absolute? That the ideals we modeled for her at home were just that – ideals?
Yet, if we did, how could we look her in the face again?
And if we didn’t, how could we trust that the world wouldn’t break her into pieces?
I leaned towards taking the high ground. I pointed out that I’d never had cause to cheat or cut corners, but that things had worked out pretty well for me. Okay, I am comically polite, and that’s sometimes a waste of time. I know I do more than I need to for people, and that it’s often taken for granted. However, I do what I do willingly, and I know when to push back (… Sometimes. When the husband reminds me to. I omitted that bit).
The husband pointed out that I had always lived in an ivory tower, whether during my childhood, or at fairly exclusive jobs. The world out there wasn’t as full of bubble-wrapped edges. We went back and forth a lot, but finally agreed that we’d feel better if we could just see some instances of G expressing herself firmly when she wanted something, rather than merely retreating. If not, surely people would walk all over her!
It was around this time that I read some words by L.R. Knost which really struck a chord. She wrote:
It’s not our job to toughen our children up to face a cruel and heartless world. It’s our job to raise children who will make the world a little less cruel and heartless.
This put so much in perspective. Why play an angry defense when an offense of goodness can change the entire game? Why assume the world will always be a terrible place? Yes, I am a glass half-full kind of person. But for the next generation to change things, they all have to be. They have to be people who truly believe in fairness, kindness, and gratitude – not just when it’s convenient, but consistently, because it’s the right way to be. They have to be capable of looking outside of themselves to see what others are experiencing. They have to be capable of putting the world’s needs alongside their own. They can’t do any of that if they’re busy fighting to protect their own interests all the time.
The only hope we have of the world changing is if we change it ourselves. One child at a time.
(PS: The irony is that the following year G emerged as the co-leader of a clique in her class. We discovered the fear of raising a mean child was far worse than the fear of raising a meek one That’s a whole other battle for a whole other post).