The Day I Finally Understood My Daughter
September 17th, 2013
Miss Mouse started dance classes last week. She was beyond excited at the prospect. My folks took her to a dance store and let her pick out a leotard with a little skirt attached. She tried it on with reverence at home, practicing a few pirouettes in the living room. When I picked her up from school on The Big Day, she tore across the playground shrieking “dance class dance class dance class” at the top of her lungs.
Here’s a picture of her, showing off her moves before class:
And here’s a picture of her, taken about three minutes later, as class actually began:
Total shift. The smile disappeared. The body language changed. She became timid, withdrawn, upset. It took all my powers of bolstering and persuasion to keep her in the room. I wasn’t allowed to stay but she told me afterwards that she sat and watched the whole time.
This scenario has played out – with slight variations – at innumerable events and activities, ever since Miss Mouse was small. But this time, I was ready for it. This time, I didn’t freak out or get frustrated or exasperated with her because a few weeks ago – at a summer cookout full of friends and their kids – I realized two important things about my daughter:
1) Her shyness is genuine, and/but
2) It is not a character flaw.
When we showed up at the cookout, the backyard was full of parents and kids milling about. Buggie charged into the fray and instantly began galloping around the yard with several boys his age. Miss Mouse hung back, hiding behind my legs, even though she knew several of the families there. We eventually managed to detach her and sent her off to play with another four-year-old who also appeared a bit shy.
I lost track of her for a few minutes and in that time, I lamented to Josh about how unfortunate it was that Miss Mouse was so shy. I felt like – for her sake – it’d be better if she had the social comfort and facility that her little brother has…
…and then I saw her.
She was walking hand-in-hand with the other little girl, headed into the house for juice boxes. She never left that other girl’s side for the rest of the evening. They were inseparable. They ate dinner together and played together the whole night, cheerfully oblivious to the other dozen or so kids stampeding through the house.
That’s when the light bulb went on.
Miss Mouse isn’t putting on a show when she hesitates in group situations, as I tended to assume. She is truly overwhelmed by them. But (and it’s a big but), when she finds a kindred spirit, she forms an instant bond. I’d seen her do it before, but hadn’t really put it together with some of her other behaviors. She’s not a social butterfly (like, ahem, her mother). But she’s a good friend with a deep capacity for understanding and connectedness.
Like her father.
Buggie is like me, which is why I understood him more readily. Miss Mouse is like Josh. She’s more withdrawn socially and doesn’t thrive on big crowds. But if you pair her up with someone she can connect with, great things happen.
And now that I get that, I feel more equipped to support Miss Mouse on her terms, rather than waiting for her to become more like me. I try to empathize when she feels nervous, rather than let myself get frustrated by it.
And I let her take new situations at her own pace. The only thing that kept her in the dance studio last week was my repeated promise that she did not have to dance. I gave her explicit permission to sit and watch and she needed to hear that. She needed to know that I wasn’t going to be disappointed in her if she didn’t flit across the room with the other budding ballerinas. If she instead felt like sitting quietly at the side, that was okay.
Even though she didn’t participate in class, she paid attention. When we got home, Josh asked her about what she had seen and she immediately began showing him dance moves and explaining their names. She was animated and excited again, eager to demonstrate proper knee bending and toe pointing.
We’ll be back at dance class again this week. Miss Mouse might not dance. That’s okay. I’ve told her she can sit on the side as long as she wants/needs to. I think we both feel better about it now.