Worried About the Avocado

Glancing down at a questionnaire Niko’s doctor had handed me on the way out of the office today, one item stood out: Frequently worried or afraid. I was supposed to select the degree to which the description might be true: Not at all; Somewhat; A lot, or some similar scale. I sighed as I checked off A lot.

Worried or fearful aren’t words the average observer might immediately think of as descriptors for my ebullient son. He is curious about absolutely everything, full of questions about life, death, dinosaurs, the solar system, you name it. His questions are thoughtfully designed to extract every possible drop of knowledge from the mind of his conversational partner. Nothing makes him happier than learning that Deinonychus’s teeth were sharp as steak knives, or North American porcupines have barbed quills.

But give him two minutes of silence in the car, or the peaceful quiet of his bed at night, and his mind begins roiling with the ramifications of all these facts. Will a porcupine’s quills HURT us? But why? It’s not nice to hurt people. Why did that bird die? Will I die? When? Will you still love me if I die… or if you die?

Tonight, nearly two hours had passed after putting Niko to bed…after hugs, kisses, cuddles, reassurances, tucking in yet again, soothing the panic of the realization Stuffy had been left in the car, rescuing Stuffy, more hugs, more kisses, ditto for Stuffy too… After all that, I was thinking yearningly of my own bed when I heard a small, anxious
voice. “Moommmmmmyyyyyy!”

I opened his door. “What’s wrong?”

“I need you. I really really neeeeeeed you.”

Usually I can withstand even the most heartfelt neeeeeed, but this one sounded more urgent than usual. I climbed onto his bed and cuddled beside him, any hope for an early night vanishing. “Why do you need me?”

We talked about loneliness, about how far away Mom seemed at night. I reminded him that really I was very close, just a few steps away, and showed him how close his sister was, too — just right next to him, on the other side of the wall. He seemed to relax for a moment, and then in a rush the real problem came out.

“When I was brushing my teeth in the bathroom” — and here his voice wobbled, grew thick with tears — “I almost started to cry.”

“Why did you almost cry?”

“I didn’t want to go to school tomorrow. I was just nervous.”

“What part of school made you feel nervous?”

“Dramatic play. I was worried about dramatic play.”

Dramatic play is not typically a concern for Niko. He loves costumes, always has, and this winter, after a huge amount of effort from his preschool teacher, he had a breakthrough: he discovered his imagination and the joy of pretending. His excessively literalist tendencies make those ventures into make-believe all the more delight-filled. And he often mentions the dramatic play center as one of his favorites. So it was with growing puzzlement that I dutifully asked, “Why were you worried about dramatic play?”

“It’s the wooden food. I’m worried about the avocado.”

Don’t laugh don’t laugh don’t laugh… “The…the avocado
is worrying you?”

“I just don’t want to eat it. I really don’t like avocados.”

Avocados. This child was lying awake for two hours worrying about the possibility that he might have to pretend to eat a wooden avocado. TWO HOURS. It turns out that it was a social dilemma: he wanted to participate and be a server, but what if — oh, the horror! — what if someone asked for the avocado? “If someone else asks for the avocado, you don’t have to eat it, do you?” I pointed out. Not that simple, of course: what if they offered him a bite? “It’s pretend. So you just pretend to eat it, and pretend you like it. Or you say no thank you. Or you take a pretend bite and say it’s not your favorite and you’d rather try a, a, a tomato.” Problem solved. Whew! After two…well, now almost three…hours of obsessing over a toy avocado, his mind was finally peaceful enough to sleep.

Yes, if a toy avocado can cause such havoc, I think it’s safe for me to check off “A lot” beside Frequently worried. Lying awake for three hours, pondering the social implications of pretend serving a toy food he himself does not care for…
What a boy.


Niko’s Princess

Early last week, as I was dropping Niko off for a morning of preschool, a dark-haired little girl rushed up to us and stood in front of Niko, swishing her long purple princess costume dress back and forth. “Hi, Niko!” she gushed. “Do you think I look pretty? I feel soooooo pretty!”

The little girl was familiar to me. I knew her due to her adoring Niko so much that she’d once tackled him to the ground for a hug. I’d noticed that she’d been wearing the same princess costume the last four times we’d seen her — that’s over a week, since we do preschool just three times a week. The first time, Niko was upset because she’d worn the dress “with just underwear!”

“You’re supposed to wear clothes FIRST,” he’d told her. I could tell this was a serious infraction in his mind.

“I have clothes,” she insisted. “I have UNDERWEAR.” This did not satisfy, even when she demonstrated the presence of the underwear, at which point their teacher hastily intervened.

That day, as she swished her dress in front of Niko, she held out one leg. “Look, Niko,” she said. “I’m wearing pants with my costume.”

“Oh,” said Niko, a little flatly. “You look so sparkly.” He seemed a bit puzzled by the whole thing, but willing to admire anyway.

After the two walked away, his teacher, laughing, whispered to me that the child’s mother had explained the reason for the princess costume. “She dresses herself every day. She wears that costume for Niko! She calls herself Niko’s princess.

I laughed too, shaking my head. But even though it was funny, it bothered me a little. Not the insistence on one particular garment — we’ve been fortunate enough to escape that battle so far, but I understand it. No, what triggers a little alert light in my mind is the idea that she’s choosing her clothes based on what Niko likes… or what she thinks he likes, anyway. It’s a little worrying to see a small child so fixated on another person that she adapts her clothing choices to suit his preferences.

I somehow feel that I’d like to blame society or the media or a faulty family model for this willing sacrifice of a girl’s preference for a boy’s. I feel strongly about a woman’s right to her own body, including what she puts onto it. It’s possible that this little girl may be witnessing a situation in which an adult in her life is modeling some kind of self-imposed personality smothering, or being actively smothered. Or maybe she sees it on some grown-up TV show. It ruffles my quietly feminist feathers to see this tiny girl already changing her entire approach to clothing based on what she believes a little boy likes. If I were more committed to social justice, or a more aggressive champion of women’s rights, I might find myself writing an impassioned plea to society to free our little girls from the burdens of male expectations.

However, while such scenarios are entirely possible,  life is rarely so easily categorized. It’s not always feminists against the world, no matter what it sometimes feels like. An equally likely explanation for her extreme behavior is that maybe she just really, really likes Niko and wants his attention. In her little mind, wearing what he likes could be a perfectly logical method of attracting and holding his typically fleeting interest. After all, her mom seems like a confident, self-possessed woman, not a timid, self-effacing mouse; it’s doubtful that she is modeling being stifled by the patriarchy.

In fact, despite my puzzlement over her daughter’s obsession with my son, I sympathize with her mom and feel that we might have a bit in common. I’m holding to a tiny bit of hope that she might be my very first preschool parent friend. Unfortunately, this may have been jeopardized by Niko’s reaction to his friend’s attire last time we saw them. The two were being dropped off at the same time, and Niko and I walked in to see her dressed in a charming outfit featuring sparkly leopard print — the first non-princess clothing in, I believe, three weeks. I recognized the gargantuan effort the mom must have expended to get her into a different garment. It was apparent that a pinnacle in parental persuasion had just been reached; I knew I was looking at a milestone of mothering achievement. My mouth opened to compliment the little girl on her pretty outfit, reinforcing her mom’s triumph, but Niko was too fast. His eyes widened in outrage as he demanded indignantly, “WHY AREN’T YOU WEARING YOUR PRINCESS COSTUME?” Little girl’s head and mom’s shoulders drooped simultaneously, and though the teacher and I both rushed in with positive reinforcement, I fear the damage was done.

I can hardly wait to see what Niko’s princess is wearing today.


(The featured photo is not mine, but since I grabbed it from an anonymous eBay posting, I don’t know who to credit for it. Sorry.)


Abracadabra MOMMY!

His small face was filled with confident hope — no, with absolute faith. He KNEW this was going to work. He held a shiny black straw that the uninitiated might not recognize as a wand. One hand was lifted dramatically; the other held the wand at the ready. He took a deep breath, smile of anticipation growing, as he shouted, “Abracadabra MOMMY!” and tapped my thigh gently.

I’d had no warning. I was lying on the floor as Sofie crawled back and forth over my stomach, occasionally standing to take a hesitant step and then toppling back onto me. Niko had been running around the living room tapping toys. “Abracadabra!” Whatever magic he’d seen with his toys had satisfied him — but only temporarily. Now, he was trying it on a living being.

I saw the glow dim, just a little. “It didn’t work,” he said, genuinely puzzled. I knew that look. Not betrayal, not disillusionment. Not quite. Because he didn’t really believe it. Clearly, something was amiss, but he wasn’t certain what was wrong.

And I wasn’t quite sure how to help him. I’ve read my fair share of parenting books and texts on child development: compulsive reader + Barnes & Noble children’s department employee + a degree in education provides ample opportunity to read all about raising small people. But not a single one gave a tutorial on helping your child succeed in casting magical spells.

“Maybe,” I suggested carefully, “maybe you need more words.”

“More words?”

“Well, for a magical spell, you need to say exactly what you want to happen.” His face cleared. This made perfect sense to him.

“Abracadabra make Mommy disappear!” Again, the gentle tap with the little wand.

Well, now I knew what was supposed to happen. But once again, it hadn’t. He gazed at me hopefully, not ready to give up.

“I think maybe you need some more magical tools,” I told him. “Like…maybe…that blanket?”

His face showed his internal conflict. He considered this for several seconds, expression unchanging as he mulled over the implications of the need for the blanket. Then the 10000000-watt smile returned. “Okay!” Off he went, back he came with his beautiful cars-and-trucks quilt made by a talented friend. He draped it tenderly over my body, folding it back so my face still showed. Then: “Abracadabra make Mommy disappear!” Tap.

I pulled the blanket over my face as quickly as I could. “Did it work?” I called to him.

“Yes! It worked, Mommy! You disappeared!”

Not long ago, this story would have ended differently. Until recently, Niko has had no concept of pretending. He would be sitting on his rocking horse, galloping for all he was worth, and I’d say to him, “Where are you going on Rocking Horsie?” (Another area in which he is lacking in talent is the naming of toys.) And he would skewer me with his scornful gaze: “I’m not going anywhere. Rocking Horsie isn’t a real horse.”

Or he’d climb into a box in the middle of the living room. “This is a rocket ship!” he’d tell me. “Oh, where is that rocket ship going to take you?” I’d ask. Again, that gaze of incredulous scorn: “We’re in the living room, Mommy. It’s not a real rocket ship.”

Last night, Niko was able to transition nearly seamlessly from a deep conviction that Mommy was going to literally disappear with his magic words, to a joyful game of pretend. Watching him enter wholeheartedly into the imaginative play without missing a beat, without collapsing into an anxious and brokenhearted mess because his spell didn’t work, filled me with delight.

I think I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life. That moment when I realized that my son DOES know how to play. And I know who to thank for it. Not me. Not his dad. It’s his preschool teacher. His kind, accepting-of-all-comers (even that boy who was always hitting), generous-hearted teacher, who makes time in the day for imaginative and dramatic play.

Unlike me, she doesn’t lose patience with his reluctance to pretend, walking off to do something more fulfilling than playing with a highly literal child. Instead, she shows him examples of what imaginative play looks like, calling out the names of children who are succeeding: “Look, Daisy is pretending to be a lion. She’s purring because she’s a happy lion. Doesn’t that look like fun?”  I haven’t seen this exact scenario happen, but I know from my interactions with her at drop-off and pickup time that this is what she’s doing, all day long. Looking for the goodness in each child and announcing it. “Look at George! He’s walking in line without waving his arms!” “Oh my, look what a good job Dakota is doing cleaning up the blocks.” Each child glows with the observations. And all of them improve with her positive words — the successful ones strive to do even better, while the ones who aren’t there yet work hard to arrive. [Side note: of course, I used made-up names.]

Yes, I know who to thank for the changes I’ve been seeing in Niko. I’m so happy he has a teacher who is gifted with the ability to recognize the best in each person who comes her way. I’m so very happy to see my son playing imaginatively, with abandon and joy. Thank you, Teacher Mary, for giving Niko and me such a precious gift.

Niko loves riding the scooter at preschool.

First Conference

Wednesday was my first time on the parent side of the conference table. All week, and especially that day, the parent-teacher conference — an event I’ve led as a teacher countless times with minimal anxiety — loomed like a hellish nightmare. I was horribly nervous.

Now, my son is a darling child. He’s fully loaded with creativity, curiosity, and intelligence. He’s bright and articulate. He’s kind and generally obedient. Helpfulness is metaphorically his middle name. In short, he’s a joy. And his teacher is gentle, empathetic, filled with enthusiasm, and knows just how to deal with Niko and his idiosyncrasies. I couldn’t have made a better teacher-student match if I’d drafted a list of desirable qualities and conducted a search with background checks and in-depth interviews.

But. But, I’ve seen Niko with other kids, on the playground as well as instructional settings. I’ve watched as he turns in circles on his bottom while other kids gather to hear the soccer coach’s instructions. I’ve seen him rummaging through the coach’s bag while the other kids chase enthusiastically after the soccer ball. Watched him bounce eagerly up to a startled child on a playground, expecting to be welcomed into a private game.

At home, I see him make baffling switches between calmness and manic silliness. He forgets instructions halfway across the room on his way to doing what he was told. His impulsiveness can be startling and disturbing.

And I’ve listened as his teacher praises him at pickup time. “He sat quietly all the way through meeting time!” she’ll exclaim with pride. Or, “Niko lined up calmly!” Or, “He sat and did an art activity – and FINISHED it!” “He did such a good job keeping his body calm!”

What I hear as she gives this good news is, This is not typical. Usually he’s running around like a crazy wild thing. Isn’t it wonderful that he managed to have a normal moment? Now, she’s never said anything to suggest that this might be the case. But, still. I worry.

At the beginning of the year, I shared some concerns — these, and others –with Niko’s teacher. She listened and promised to watch for signs of problems. I know this is why she makes such a point of giving me a good report. But, still — I worry.

At conference time, we sit at the table as she shows me examples of his work. She discusses his academic prowess. Describes how he loves meeting time. (He does?!) Tells how adept he is with letters and sounds. How he always knows the answer whenever there’s a question. How great he is at touch-counting, and how he loves using her pointer to count objects in the room. He excels at following pictured instructions — the only child in the class with this ability.

And there’s more. I learn that he likes to stand at the whiteboard scribbling and drawing while narrating what he’s doing to the children who gather to watch. He likes to assemble objects into person or animal shapes on the floor — although when the others flock to first watch in fascination, then to contribute to the shape, he quietly walks away. (I know which parent that comes from. Not me.) He helps other children and has learned to ask before hugging.

I’m a bit puzzled. This description of an engaging, cooperative (except for the shape thing), almost charismatic child isn’t really what I expected. I think back to a day closer to the beginning of school, when I saw him throw a ball directly at another child’s chest, almost knocking him down. Then he rushed to another child and pushed her tricycle. Flung his arms around a third child unexpectedly, triggering startled tears.

“Have you seen any more of that aggressive behavior?” I ask tentatively, reminding her of the ball incident.

“Aggressive? No, never!” She’s shocked. Then ponders. “There was another little boy here at that time.” Her lips tighten, and an unfamiliar expression flits across her face — could it be a frown? It looks out of place on her cheerful, calmly-smiling face, but it’s gone almost instantly. “He’s not with us any more,” she adds. “He did a lot of hitting and pushing. Niko saw that and tried it out that day. He was just learning how to interact, and when he saw that it wasn’t a useful method, he stopped.”

Actually, I’ve been seeing changes myself: welcoming calls from other children when he arrives, sweet good-bye hugs when he leaves. He’s been bringing completed work home, telling us what he learned each day. Generally speaking, he’s acting like a typical preschooler. Not like a child with concerning problems of focus and attention. I’ve chalked this up to his teacher being an excellent manager, helping to smooth his way in the classroom. But maybe — just possibly — it’s him? Could it be that, all on his own, he’s learning to interact with others and function in a classroom? I’m not downplaying his teacher’s influence — I’ve watched her explicitly teach him how to approach others, help him find words to use. And it seems that he is learning what she’s teaching.

Why have I been so worked up about this? Well, I was diagnosed with ADHD around the age of thirty. I’ve always thought that an earlier diagnosis would have made my life a bit easier. The strategies I’ve learned as an adult to deal with my difficulties would have saved so much trouble if I’d had them when I was younger. And I’ve taught children with ADHD — many with a far more extreme case than my own. Their passage through school is not easy. A diagnosis makes it easier, because even the most hardnosed teacher is expected to help a diagnosed child by explicitly teaching time management, focus, and impulse control strategies. If all else fails, there’s medication — the approach that saved me my job and, I’m pretty sure, my sanity.

Our son just turned four. It is, to speak plainly, ridiculous to attempt a diagnosis of ADHD with a child this age. I know this. I’ve taken the requisite classes in child development and have both observed and worked with this age group. I know that inattentiveness and impulsivity are par for the course. But my anxiety about myself, combined with my realization that his behaviors were at the high end of the scale for kids in his age group, made me think the worst. I didn’t trust our brilliant, unique child to learn and adapt on his own.

Here’s what I’m now reminding myself. Niko is himself. He is not me. Even if it turns out, someday, that he has ADHD, there’s no reason to think he’ll experience it like I do. And I should know, better than anybody, that ADHD does not have to be crippling. In many cases, people with ADHD are extremely successful once they learn to channel their energy and manage their impulses. It’s unfair to project my insecurities and fears onto Niko.

Now I have a simple goal. Let Niko be Niko. Let him learn for himself what his strengths and weaknesses are, and learn how to improve his weak areas and maximize his strengths.

For all my pre-event anxiety, I guess that terrifying parent-teacher conference was a excellent use of thirty minutes.