Eleven months ago, as I walked Baby J. into her new gan for her first day, nerves rippled in my stomach. My baby was growing up, and was ready to move into a full time day care environment, even though I was desperate to keep her at home with me for another year. But, she was a very social child and we recognized her need to interact with children her own age.
We selected this gan carefully, and I was confident that she would be happy in this loving and nurturing environment fostered by an amazingly warm and caring staff (I was right). The first day lasted only a couple of hours and parents were asked to stay, so that the children could slowly acclimate to their new environment.
Breakfast was served first, and all the children were encouraged to sit at their pre-assigned places. I looked at all the different little faces, clustered around six tables. They eyed each other warily while training another gaze on their parent, making sure they weren’t suddenly abandoned. Baby J. was on a special table, the one assigned for children with food allergies. She was allergic to all dairy products, and her table only had two other children with lactose problems.
She didn’t seem to mind that there were only three children at her table, when the other tables had 5-6 children. I, on the other hand, started to fret terribly. Here she was, singled out as different, and sitting with the other “different” children at a “special” table. The philosophy behind the decision made sense, it was easier this way for the gan staff to make sure they didn’t accidentally feed her dairy or that she wouldn’t reach across the table to eat from someone else’s plate who might be eating dairy.
But while rationally I applauded this decision, emotionally I didn’t want her to be branded as different from her peers. I worried that this would impact the way she socialized, that the children wouldn’t want to be her friend because she had a milk allergy, that she would somehow be ostracized from the pack.
I smiled as she waved her pita at me from the table and tried to quell my fears. I didn’t want my insecurity to trickle down to her, I didn’t want her to pick up on any anxiety and think that this wasn’t a great place.
Suddenly, she stood up from the table, pita still in hand, and ran into the other room. Looking around excitedly, she raced over to the play kitchen and started to play. I ran after her and tried to pull the piece of pita out of her hand. I told her that it was breakfast time and not play time, and that she needed to come back to the table where all the other kids were. Not surprisingly, she started to complain and cry. She didn’t want to be at the table anymore, she wanted to play! I tried to reason with her, pointing out how all the other kids were sitting nicely at their spots at the table and eating their breakfast. Gently, I began tugging her back towards to other room, and she howled her protest.
This wasn’t the first time Baby J. decided to be an individual. When I took her to music classes, she ignored all the children sitting in a circle and danced around the room instead. When the instructor asked the children to line up to take instruments, she ignored him completely and ran out of the room. I suddenly imagined all the obedient children at circle time, while mine wandering through the gan, lost in her own thoughts, completely ignoring what everyone else was doing.
Suddenly, the gannent showed up, broke me out of my daydream, and demanded to know what I was doing. Shocked, I explained that I was trying to get my daughter to return to the table where all the other kids were sitting. She told me to leave my child alone, that it was fine for her to play, that the purpose of the day was for her to have a good time and get used to the gan. Everything else, she scolded, would come much later.
I felt chastised, and humbled, and even ashamed. I thought about my reaction and I realized, I was so fixated on Baby J. fitting in, that I completely overlooked her individuality, her self confidence, the fact that she didn’t care that all the other kids were doing one thing and she was doing something else. In that moment, I realized what an amazing child I have, and I hoped that she would forever embrace her sense of self and do what she wanted to do, regardless of what everyone else was doing. (Note, I say this within reason. I don’t want her to be flitting around the room in first grade, ignoring the teacher trying to give a lesson.)
As the year went on, Baby J. learned how to sit with all the other children at circle time. She learned how to line up with the other kids when they handed out musical instruments. She outgrew her milk allergy and moved onto the other tables, finally able to eat all milk products! She discovered how to share, learned to wait her turn, and to participate in the activity of the moment, and not run off to play in another room. She grew up, she made friends, she blossomed.
And so, when we went to her end of the year party last Friday, I was confident that she would sit in her assigned seat. She didn’t, choosing instead to climb over the seat and sit in my lap. I embraced her happily, patiently. I knew this time that, when she was ready, she would join the other children. I knew how excited she was about her performance, so I let her take her time.
I noticed other parents coaxing their children to their seats, encouraging them to join the other kids in the circle and participate in the performances. One parent even forcibly sat their child in the seat, eliciting screams and cries from the reluctant child. I felt bad for the child, but I empathized with the parent. They just wanted their kid to fit in.
And then, after a couple of songs, Baby J. climbed over her chair, spread her wings, and flew around the room like a butterfly.
It was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Is you child an individual? Do you accept his/her quirks or do you try to get them to conform? Let me know in the comment section below!