Monday, December 14, 2009

Who Knew?

On Friday morning, at approximately 9:15 a.m., I discovered Abby's secret power: she can sit still.

If you've had the opportunity to meet my little girl, then no doubt you've witnessed her constant whir of activity. At the tender age of two, she already has a full agenda of toys to play with, costumes to put on and take off, books to skim, trails to blaze in the house while hopping, bear crawling, running, or--rarely--walking, and people to charm with her sweet affections and charismatic antics. She flits through her days like a hummingbird, buzzing here and there, stopping just long enough to enjoy the choicest morsel of whatever catches her attention, her little body a-hum with energy even when momentarily still. "Busy," we call her. That may be an understatement.

Her activity level is matched by coordination, however, resulting in all manner of climbing, swinging, tumbling, jumping, and balancing on the nearest piece of furniture. Aside from the occasional miscalculation, she manages to wield her body with grace and athleticism. For nearly a year, we've talked about needing to get her in gymnastics so that she has an outlet for all this monkey-business.

But there was always the little problem of sitting still long enough to hear direction. Last spring I had her enrolled in our rec center's Tumblebugs class, a kind of open gym for tots. They create all kinds of obstacle courses and climbing structures for the kids out of gym mats and equipment, and the kids can roam freely from activity to activity at their own pace. Some kids walked, others ran. Abby careened. She loved it. The problem came, however, when the class had to leave the mecca of adventure to close the class in "circle time," five minutes of structure where the instructors led us in silly songs and rhymes. For ninety-five percent of the kids, it was no problem. When Ben was little, in fact, it was his favorite part. For Abby, it was a physical impossibility.

The first few weeks I tried to keep her corralled, explaining firmly that it was time to stay with Mommy and sing songs. At some point, though, it became clear that resistance was futile. Generally, any attempt to keep her engaged resulted in fussing and an early departure. A few weeks into this charade, I conceded the battled and allowed her to meander through the circle of parents and kids. It was then I realized she was still paying attention to the songs and motions--often, she'd stop and watch for several seconds on end, and I'd hear her singing them in the car later or around the house--but she needed to move. This was a temperament issue, a learning style, not a behavioral problem. Abby was made to go.

Nevertheless, it drove me crazy (because now I was the parent with that kid--humility is a tough lesson) and left me riddled with anxiety about her ability to survive in future classroom settings. So Josh and I put off registering her for this more structured gymnastics class until now, though she was eligible by age several months ago. Her need for a physical outlet finally outweighed our reservations about her attention span.

We've been talking about this class with Abby for a while now. Originally, she was supposed to try it a couple weeks ago, but she got sick, postponing our trial. So when we arrived on Friday, she was excited and eager. I walked her through the procedures so she'd know what to expect: when we entered, she'd have to take off her shoes and socks (and yes, her hat and mittens, too, which she wears practically 'round the clock these days) and then wait for the coaches to tell her it's time to go into the gym. And once she entered class, Mommy would stay out to watch, and she'd have to listen to the coaches and follow their instructions.

I sat in the waiting area and watched her carry her carpet square from the door to the big blue floor and line it up with the other children's. I then proceeded to overflow with pride and amazement for the next forty-five minutes. To the extent that she understood, Abby followed their instructions enthusiastically, jumping, stretching, crawling, hanging, and balancing as directed. At times, other kids wandered off or got distracted, but Abby remained focused, patient, and cooperative. She stayed on her mat while waiting her turn, and though she squirmed around the full square foot of it, her attention never wavered.

I'll confess to being stunned, pleasantly.

She had a blast. I think she felt like a big girl, finally getting to do something all by herself. When Ben asked her what she did that morning after we picked him up, she said she went to her school to do gymnastics. She was given a taste of independence, of personal responsibility, and she handled it brilliantly.

I won't pretend that I didn't exhale a huge sigh of relief, both for the immediate outlook of the gymnastics class and for the long-term probability of success in school. Abby has energy, yes, and will need the opportunity to move and motor in whatever setting she finds herself, but she has the basic skills of listening, following directions, staying in one place, and waiting her turn necessary for success in structured endeavors. Her very mature display that morning filled me with optimism for her future. Does that sound crazy?

It also raised my expectations of her, and I noticed myself allowing her more freedoms throughout the day out of confidence that she would handle them responsibly. The way we view our children truly shapes the way we treat them, which in turn influences the way they see themselves. Never before has that concept manifested itself so clearly and obviously to me.

I learned something about Abby Friday morning. It's not that she didn't possess those skills before--I just hadn't given her the opportunity to show me now that she's grown up a bit since our Tumblebugs days. Her personality, in all its exuberant energy and charismatic charm, is revealing more of itself as she grows. And perhaps as exciting is the revelation that she's gaining, even without our notice, the maturity and self-control to channel it appropriately.

As parents, we plant these seeds and we care for them diligently day after day, but it seems so much of the fruit of our labor is reaped somewhere in the distant future. This little gymnastics class was a sweet reminder that the sowing does matter, that there is all kinds of growth occurring below the surface that we can't see. And occasionally, we get to see a little shoot breaking through the surface into our view, a small encouragement to continue on in faith and great expectation of what will eventually bloom.

Abby sat still. I can hardly imagine what's next.

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