Friday, November 8, 2013

dancing in other people's shoes

Who are you callin' Nicholas?  That's my maiden name, said the man in the green hat, when I mistakenly spoke to him using the name we had carefully chosen for him 12 years ago.

My name is Dr. Jade, con man.

We were in the midst of a hilarious mystery dinner game with family friends this past summer. We all had characters assigned to us and we were working our way through the evening, trying to figure out whodunnit, who took the treasured jewel, who had the most likely motive, the most suspicious history, searching through clues.

I was most struck by our children's ability to stay in character.  Despite playing the game with very good friends, children they have known for many years, they were stepping quite comfortably out of the roles of the children they typically were together.

And dressed up as movie stars, mad scientists, maids, and international travelers.  They were quite dramatic and had a seriousness that made my inability to stay in character the exception, not the norm.

But really, what I was paying the most attention to, which likely explained why I was having the most trouble of all of us staying in character, were the skills this game was asking of our children, ones that some clearly did not have, and others did, having managed to pick up of them somewhere along the line.  Such as cocktail party conversation skills.  The ability, while wearing one's feather boa, for example, and holding a fizzy drink in a brandy glass, to walk up to someone you do not know, and learn something about them.

To inquire, to probe, to investigate all the while seeming proper and fancy, revealing enough about yourself to keep things interesting.  Or the ability, within the context of long time friendships of kindness and playing together, to act as though you do not like that person, in fact that you are estranged from that person.  Eye rolling, whispering, disparaging the friend you were least likely to disparage in real life.

This evening of watching my children dress up, and acting like people they were not.  It was so fascinating to me.  It was not lost on me that Nicholas was wearing my suit, the one I purchased a year before his birth, for an interview for a fellowship.  I had not worn it since.  And it fit him.

And Nicholas, reminding me of his role, of his character, of his temporary persona...was preparation for the coming year ahead. The reminder to allow him to maintain his persona, to let him be that person for a bit.  Because part of my new requirements of parenting this child, of this age, is allowing him an opportunity to decide who he wants to be.  Despite my memories of the summer Nicholas, and the Nicholas at 10, 8, 3, and as a fresh and pink newborn, and everywhere in between.

And yet, in his misunderstanding of the word maiden, such a funny and sweet reminder of his still-childness.

* * *

A few weeks after this game with friends, Nicholas entered middle school.  And the dressing up continued, but was of a different variety.  And with a different purpose.  He exchanged his bathing suit and crocs for school attire.  He put away the green sequined hat.  His fashion sense now gravitates toward the sporty athletic, and makes him, well, blend, with the pack of middle school children standing in groups as I drop him off each morning.  Apparently, a bit of insignia, a logo, is middle school chic these days.  I enjoy still seeing moments of Dr. Jade from time to time, reflected in his choices of bright and colorful socks, lacrosse socks yes, but socks with a dramatic flair.  He talks sports and music and technology and school projects more.  And jellyfish in the waves and legos and fort building come up less frequently, at least at school anyway.

And then, well established in our school routine a few months in, sports company logos well represented as I watch his form move away from me each morning and blend into the swirl of the similarly dressed friends standing in packs outside school, came our next development.  Preparation for the first middle school dance.

Middle school dance!  These children, dancing together in groups, the brave ones dancing for the first time with their hands on the shoulders of another classmate, more eye to eye than they have likely ever been with each other.  How did this happen?

Nicholas did, however, point out that they have been this close to each other when playing sports together, or standing back to back on the tetherball court at school.  Yes, that's true,  I said.  And decided that his lack of awareness of how this closeness was of a bit of a different kind than his example should be kept just that, and to myself.  And his naivet√© also made me feel a little better.  I keep looking for signs that he is still in there.  Still young.  Still my child.

The dance had a barnyard theme, a costume theme.  Allowing them a bit of childishness.  A break from the cycle of athletic logos.  A reminder of the fun amongst the swirl of hormones and awkwardness and coolness and newness.

Nicholas went as a farmer, considering wearing my cowboy-ish boots for a bit.  Then decided that nimble and comfortable feet were an important part of his evening.  His feet?  Had become bigger than mine.  And so, he exchanged my boots, for his man-sized Nikes.

Much fun and silliness was had in the kitchen before the dance, all of us a little nervous, all of us benefitting from being a bit goofy for a bit.  Julia stood lookout, watching for the headlights of Nicholas' ride to the dance.  Because there was still, behind the enjoyment of the childishness, still that: the pack.  The developmentally appropriate awareness of the evaluations, judgements and acceptance of peers.

But luckily, his ride was also in the spirit of dressing up and one farmer and one barnyard animal shimmied down our walkway together, laughing and chatting, and were driven off, into the night.  Thus ensued a very fun night, and I will leave it at that, because as they move from child to young person, more must be left unsaid, partly because we don't know and we weren't there, and partly to respect his privacy and allow him space to grow away from us. 

This dressing up.  This trying on of persona.  The power of trying to be someone else, hidden behind a mask, or a costume, or clothing decorated with the right company's logos.  To be someone else for a bit, walking in the shoes of a slightly different walker, but still the same behind the mask.  That is middle school.  And sometimes it feels as though what they wish most at this age, for acceptance and the ability to blend in with the pack, is in direct contradiction with what we as parents wish for most.  To remain who they are, who we, as parents know them to be, these years of familiarity between us.

I happened upon this post, by James Preller, on one of my favorite children's book blogs.

Beginning with this quote, which Jonathan and I both love,
To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
Preller says this:
Let's...agree that one of the greatest achievements in life is to become, simply, one’s true self. It sounds easy enough, but as we know, it is not. I’m a father, I have three children, including a 7th-grader and a 9th-grader. I watch their awkwardness and insecurities and struggles. 
To be content in your own skin. 
To not look to others for your cues. 
To accept and trust who you are, to follow your own inner compass. 
These are not easy things. 
At no time in life is it tougher than in middle school, when peers begin to replace parents as prime influencers. How to dress, what to talk about, what to watch on television, how to act, where to sit, whom to befriend, whom to avoid. This is how we forge identity, hammering out our awareness of self (which is a created thing after all, the “self” we decide to become). At middle school, many of these daily details are powerfully influenced by the pack. 
by James Preller, for the Nerdy Book Club Blog

Perhaps it is because my training as a child psychologist focused on early childhood, and particularly on birth to five years old. Or perhaps it is because, if you visit a book store or peruse information online, there seems to be a similar early child focus. But this parenting gig? It keeps on rolling. They are not cooked yet when the what to expects give out. And they are not yet young adults when their minds beginning to grapple with many of the same issues that we as adults do, only with less experience, less perspective, so much being for the first time. They are still raw and too tender.  Unlikely to survive alone in the wilderness.  The evolutionarily adaptive cuteness of big eyes and heart melting drooly grins has given out to stinky feet, acne, and bodies that need products and showers to keep them lovable. And their behavior, sometimes, seems more an effort to push away rather than pull you in.

We as parents are dancing the jig of supporting and processing and guiding this young person in our life, while he takes more of the outside world in, and while some of those young adult things start to trickle in and enter his awareness.  And all the while, maintaining his privacy and autonomy.

And so, as though I have reached the end of the sidewalk, as though my oxygen tank is running on empty, as though I am going to have to take a deep breath and keep on walking, one foot in front of the other on foreign and uncertain terrain.  The shoes I walk in feel a bit uncomfortable, need a bit of breaking in and getting used to.  But we keep parenting, keep walking, dancing more and more, trying to be a bit different, to change how we have been parenting, for a bit.  To see how it works, and doesn't work, for us.  To see the value in this.  And to enjoy the music.

Just as we hope our children will accept and trust who they are, and that they will be people who follow their own internal compass, we attempt and hope the same for ourselves, as parents.

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