A DYING CHILDCheryl and Michael Haggard cradle their son, Maddux,…
August 16, 2014
Well, it is the middle of August 2014 and this summer has just about ended.
Your mother and I put you in gymnastics camp for one week in June, but you complained you would rather stay home with us – and from what I could see at camp, you pretty much just played around without learning much gymnastics. You are still a bit young for organized sports or summer camps, I realized.
So you spent all your summer days with your parents. And you just about drove us crazy.
It has been a difficult summer, and you have mostly been the cause of that. In fact, I have thought to myself, “Elizabeth ruined my summer!” (Your sister, Julia, was in various camps most of the summer.) Your mother would watch you for couple of hours, and then when her patience was almost at an end I would take over. Then when I had had enough she would take over – we were like sentries relieving each other. The days could run long.
I am ready to go back to work and put you in preschool. I have four or five good hours of active parenting in me per day. But nine or ten hours straight day after day runs me ragged. Being at the workplace is often easier than being at home.
I am not saying this to make you feel bad. “Just control and discipline me like you should any four and a half year old!” you would probably reply in reading this years from now. But that is easier said than done, my beloved younger daughter.
So why am I writing you this letter?
I am writing to tell you certain core temperaments and behaviors I see in you as you approach your last year of preschool. You are currently no longer a toddler but not yet really a “little girl.” You still wear Velcro straps around your shoes instead of shoelaces you cannot tie. Next year at this time you will be looking kindergarten in the face, but you are not there yet.
Your mother, in particular, sometimes despairs of your behavior which can be distinctly “uncivilized.” I remind her that Julia also exasperated us at this age, and that you too would outgrow making a huge mess, throwing giant tantrums, getting absolutely filthy, eating like a little savage, crazy bad personal hygiene (when we don’t force you to take a bath). You take bowls in the kitchen and fill them with water, all sorts of spices and condiments, cleaning materials of various types, and then you leave the mess for us to clean up. Yesterday you took a fresh bar of soap, put in one of your sippy cups, filled it with water, put the top on to seal it, and carried it around all morning. You said it was your “potion.” (Your mother was quite confused when she found it later.) Normal “toddler” behavior, I suspect. So it goes. I go out to work out in the garage and I find you have re-arranged my carefully organized exercise bands into strange patterns of tangled chords.
A few things I have particularly noticed: how physical, how strong and adventurous and wanting to climb everything you are! Not content in climbing into my lap, you want to climb onto my back and get on my shoulders. As we do in the pool, you want to sit on my shoulders and shout, “Hee haw!” riding me like a horse. At the breakfast table you try to climb me like a tree as I attempt to eat my Raisin Bran cereal. (Your sister Julia never did this.) You stack chairs on top of each other, and then climb up cabinets to get food or gum hidden up high away from you by your mother. You show no fear in this, although your parents very much do when they see you tottering high in the air on whatever you can find to climb on.
You are so physical! At times I have seen you play-wrestling with your older sister, and it seems like were the much bigger older sibling, not Julia. Your sister occasionally has a look of fear in her eyes when you are aggressive with her, even as she is almost twice your age. And although it seems implausible, I have even seen you play so rough with your mother that she seems overwhelmed – even a little bullied. Last week you spun her in her office chair so hard she dropped the iPad she was holding and the glass screen cracked. When I urge her to grab and control you, she says, “But she’s strong! So fast!”
So feral, I might add. Sometimes.
As a consequence, I have felt the need to be the one in the family that controls you. When you are in a tantrum or simply won’t comply with an order to climb into the bathtub or get in the car, I will count down from three and then just grab and put you there. No arguments or words will work when you don’t want to obey. Sometimes it is almost as if you will only respect strength greater than your own; and I am the one able to do that. I feel like I have to remind you I am the “alpha dog” in the pack. I never thought that would be my role with a daughter. But my gut tells me that is what is needed and what works – what you need, daughter mine.
Maybe it is because almost every day your mother went for long hikes at Arroyo Verde Park when she was pregnant with you. You are so strong. So independent-minded. At least this is how I see you at this age.
Your preschool teachers have informed me that you can be disobedient. “Elizabeth sometimes flat out refuses to follow instructions in class,” they have explained to me. When I ask you about it, you claim the following: “They want me to do hard work, and I don’t want to!” This makes sense to me. You didn’t buy what your teachers were selling. Then you ignored them.
Your mother and I have our concerns with your sister, Julia, but disobedience at school was never one of them.
A part of me worries. Will you not mature out of this stage? Difficulty with teachers, authority in general, throughout your life? A wild, independent streak? Learning how to accept and obey authority (even, at times, arbitrary authority) is an important component of learning to get along in the world. To not learn this is to invite difficulty.
Or are you just lazy in preschool? Unwilling to do “hard work”? In elementary school and later will this be the same?
But I have my own strong independent streak, and another part of me applauds your knowing what you want to do, and then having the clarity of vision to know what you don’t want to do. You are nobody’s robot. “Lazy” in performing tasks unwilling, but implacable in pursuing your Passion?
We shall see, Elizabeth. We shall see.
I do not want to give you the impression all is acrimonious in our household. You spend many hours playing happily with Julia in creative games you make up together, and time and time again I think about how smart an idea it was to have two children instead of one. Even when two you fight I solemnly intone the following: “You have a lifelong ally in your sister, so be good to each other!” And we go swimming just about daily and have so much fun in the water. I go to the bottom of the pool, and you dive down to get me. You are a wonderful swimmer for your age, and that is the result of being in the water two or three times a week since you were a baby.
You never had a swimming lesson. You learned to swim because your older sister could swim and you were in the water so much it just came naturally. Sometimes other parents ask me if you can swim, looking at your tender age. It has been months since you could swim the whole pool without much difficulty. You swim in the ocean with Julia and me. You see us go off into the waves and follow along. Fear, to the extent you are afraid of the surf, does not restrain you.
I wonder if you might not prove a mighty capable athlete in your time, Elizabeth. I wonder.
We have worked on the alphabet on the iPad and with flashcards this summer, and I will deliver you to Mrs. VJ’s preschool classroom with full certainty that you are “good to go” with all your basic numbers and letters. Next year we will work on your writing and “sight words” through reading “Bob’s Books,” just as I did with your sister. You have plenty of school smarts. That much is obvious.
And each evening we have our “daddy time” at bedtime where we lie down and you fall asleep on the floor next to your bed. It takes about half an hour, and you drape blankets around me as we listen to a “Snow White” or “Little Mermaid” audio book from my old iPhone and you settle down for sleep. Your favorite line is the part in “Snow White” where the queen says to the dwarves, “I’ll crush your bones!” We both whisper that line when it plays and smile. You lay next to me, sometimes with your arm around my head, as you slip away to sleep. I tell you how much I love you. I give you little kisses on the head. I tell you not to have any bad dreams or be fearful while asleep, as I will guard your door at night and protect you from anything bad happening. When you are finally good and asleep I place you in your toddler bed, tip toe out of your room, close the door behind me, and sigh a sigh of relief that I can finally get back to my evening’s business.
It is the exact same treatment I gave your older sister. I started doing it with her when she was around a year old and continued until she outgrew it at around six and a half. I got the idea from Michel de Montaigne’s father who commanded that his son never be awoken except by the playing of gentle music. I only want my daughters in their youngest years to go to sleep surrounded by love and security.
Your mother thinks I am crazy. She also claims, with reason, that I have made it so nobody besides me can put you to sleep – that I have “spoiled you.” Others have agreed, your grandfather (my father) among them. And it takes patience and gobs of time on my end – and I have been doing it with you and Julia for over six years. Six years every night without any break.
But I feel small children can hardly get enough love and security. And I know it is love which binds child to parent. It is a child’s love and respect for a parent, ultimately, that commands obedience. That love and respect is earned by a parent (or parental figure). Commitment. Patience. Maturity. Blood, sweat, and tears; sacrifice and suffering; to be a parent.
“The gift of a happy childhood” – that is what I am trying to give you and Julia. The best start in the race of life with an enriched childhood with parents that were paying close attention. There are no shortcuts in that weighty endeavor, Elizabeth Anne Geib. To do a good job requires 80% effort, a great job 90%, but to go that extra bit to do an outstanding job is what really costs.
But you were two and now you are four, and next thing I know you will be eight and then sixteen. And you never get a second chance at being a child. “The gift of a happy childhood” – as much as I can swing it.
Each morning you come crawl into our bed and lay down on my chest and sleep for a half hour or so. I have let you know in no uncertain terms that you can only do this when the sun is up, and only a few times have I had to lead you back to your room and bed because it was dark out. You lay on my chest and we wake up slowly together. I love this.
But you will outgrow the early morning cuddling, as has your older sister already. Julia wants to go to sleep alone and wake up alone; she wants her privacy in her room. She loudly protests intrusions. Only rarely does Julia nowadays ask, “Will you cuddle with me, Daddy?” She will start second grade this week. Julia is fully a “little girl.” She brings us new joys and challenges as parents.
But I will enjoy what is left of your early childhood, Elizabeth. Equally I will suffer it. That is the truth.
I am a big believer in the idea of “what is well begun is half done,” and I will be curious to see how much you change over the years, how much remains the same.
And so I have written you this letter, my beautiful daughter, and put down my thinking in writing, so that both us might read it later and compare and appreciate and understand.
Love, Your Father,
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