No one who knows her would call our daughter Shayla a wallflower. “She’s a fighter,” her first grade teacher told us in our parent conference, “and that’s a good thing. Sometimes in this world you have to fight for what you want.”
I’ve always thought of myself as mellow, but living with Shayla I’m coming to see the fighter in myself. And I don’t always like it.
Our early battles seemed important; there were issues of safety or self-care. You can’t sit in someone’s lap in the park if you don’t know them. A four year old can’t stay up however late she likes. Don’t throw the cat off the balcony or stomp close to your brother laying on the ground. Stay on the sidewalk. Those kind of fights seemed like minimally-required parenting. I felt unequivocally right.
Yet there’s something in us that clashes about the less important as well. Do you really want to wear those shades of purple and maroon in the same outfit? Wouldn’t you rather do your project this way? You can’t just invite yourself over to someone’s house. Some of this is culture, or taste. It does matter, but can also be trivial, and I’m embarrassed to care so much. Some of this I’d like to loosen my grip on.
Then there’s this middle ground of things that are actually pretty important, but that maybe I shouldn’t push so hard on either. For instance, while Shayla’s blessed with a fine intellect and is thriving academically, she’s immature socially. She can’t lose at games, or let things go if she’s baited. And, perhaps due to her previous life, she’s drawn to drama, trouble, the “bad girls.” I realize it’s both awful and ridiculous to call first graders this, but that’s the first thought I had about a couple of them, and while I’m hoping to be wrong, I doubt I will be.
The teacher conference made me reflect on what I expect from my kid. I’d like her to excel academically and be well behaved and well loved in her class. I’d prefer she be perfect. While I guess that’s a minor sin compared to the neglect and trauma she experienced earlier in life, it is still a kind of coercion and refusal to let her be her own person. It’s tricky because it is important who your friends are, and what your values are. But I think we’ll have more success with the power of example, and helping her see what her choices result in, rather than the force of will to “make” her be something in my image.
So I’m working on letting my little fighter be her own girl. I let her know that I wouldn’t like a friend who didn’t tell me the truth, or lured me into trouble. I wouldn’t trust the kid who’s bartering snack after snack but not giving her the promised rubberband bracelet. I hope she’ll make good choices, and she’ll get a lot of reinforcement when she does. But I have to let her be herself, make her own mistakes and learn her own lessons. I cannot make her act like someone she’s not.
And I have to admit to myself that I’m not the easygoing figure I imagined. I can be willful and controlling, I want everyone to do things my way. Maybe that self knowledge is the most important piece of all, and the gift of my bullheaded daughter. Perhaps together we’ll soften a bit and let the others, occasionally, have their way.