Four going on fourteen - FamilyEducation

Four going on fourteen

June 02,2008
I love so much about our daughter. I love her free spirit and her people-person character. I love her sunniness and her desire to be friend to all, big or small, animal or person, insect or object--like the fragile blue robin's egg she found on the path the other day. But she's giving us gray hairs these days, keeping me awake at night as I toss and turn, not even sure why I am so bothered, when I can barely articulate what it is that has me on the edge. She's a free spirit, T. is--she drifts around in her own sunny and beautiful world singing songs and seeking out friends wherever she goes. She's the lady who stops to talk to everyone in the supermarket line, or the neighbor who delays you on the way back from the pool, with long and detailed stories and an earnest, sweet look about her that makes you regret your impatience and relent, and want to sit for a long while and sip some lemonade together under the shade of a tall tree. And that term social butterfly? It fits her perfectly.

Yesterday, at the neighborhood pool, I watched a cluster of tall, long-limbed teenage girls, grouped in a circle in their deck chairs--a tight, closed-ranks type of circle. Tanned shoulders and ponytails blocking out the boys, they bent close to talk and giggle and stretch out their legs in the sun. I turned to Scott:

"Can't you just see T. there in ten years?" I asked him.

He looked and laughed, but I saw a jolt of worry in his eyes at the thought of T. there, a teenager, scant bikini, ponytail, and all. I swear he sprouted a few gray hairs on the spot.

T. has no self-checks in place these days. My usually compliant four-year-old has been replaced by a stubborn, my-way-or-the-highway girl who pays no heed. She seems to be missing that inner voice, the one that tells her to be cautious, not to run off, not to disappear OUT OF THE POOL BUILDING with three other kids without even a backward glance. She runs here and there; one minute she's by the umbrella, the next she's gone--we find her at the other end of the pool, crouched on the ground by the deep end, too close to the edge, looking for frogs with a few other kids, her little body obscured by their larger ones. I pull her away and later, that night, lie awake, frozen almost at the thought of her tumbling into the deep end, unnoticed. Yesterday, instead of calling for me, she ran off to the bathroom with a friend, and I found the two of them in there, chatting away from inside their stalls, as comfortably as if they were two teenagers in a high school bathroom.

At the wedding last weekend, she vanished for 15 awful minutes. I found her, far from the reception tent, upstairs in the manor house, with her cousin. They were peeking into guest rooms on the upper floor, and running to and fro like they owned the place. The whole world is like a playground for her these days; she latches onto other families with small children, following them around like a long-lost relative, inserting herself into their games, asking to share their snacks and toys. Two days ago she playfully bonked a strange lady over the head with her Little Mermaid kickboard. Most parents are happy to welcome her, but some (like the hapless lady who'd been assaulted by the foam kickboard) look askance at us, wondering perhaps why we don't rein her in more? Teach her some manners?

What do you do with such behavior? I hate to check her enthusiasm about people and her desire to make friends wherever she goes. I hate to step in and pull her away from the new friends she makes, to be that nagging voice telling her not to overstay her welcome with other people's families, not to stalk other children who are shy and clearly don't want to play, not to ask for snacks, and to look at others with suspicion and caution and reservation always. I want to nurture her friendliness, yet spark in her also a sense of holding back, and it's a fine line to tread. But at the same time I toss and turn with worry about T. and about that teenage T.--the one with the ready smile and the ponytail, the friend-to-all, who drifts from place to place, running carefree in the here and now without ever a backward glance.