“NOOOOO! I don’t want to go on the lazy river!!”
“Come on, honey! It’s so much fun! We’re going to float along and we’ll hold hands with Daddy and Jack from their tube.”
“No, it is too bumpy and scary.”
“Sweetie, I’ll be right there holding you.”
“Ok, fine…If you go down the lazy river, I’ll give you chocolate.”
Bribery. That’s what I’ve resorted to in order to get my oh-so-serious and oh-so-cautious preschooler to try new things.
We escaped the brutal East Coast winter temperatures for five days over New Year’s, trekking to the Bahamas and staying at the resort monstrosity known as The Atlantis. Water slides, water parks, and yes, oh yes, lazy rivers. A no-brainer vacation for a family with kids under five, right?
Sometimes things aren’t quite as simple as you think they’re going to be.
My child is sensitive. And, high-strung. And, cautious. And shy.
In other words, she freaks out over stuff like her “R”s not being quite right. She thinks deeply (well, as deeply as a 4-year-old can) about her relationships with other kids at school. She won’t say “Hi” back if you greet her, but will instead give you a look that says, “Can I crawl into a hole now?” It’s taken her two full years of coaxing to get her to feel comfortable in the pool and to – miracle of all miracles – dip her face in and blow bubbles.
As her mother, I struggle to know when to push her to jump over these hurdles and when to accept that they are part of who she is…and even look at them as character strengths rather than defects that will get in the way of her living a colorful, fulfilling life.
Throw in the whole mother-daughter element: The fact that she looks like me, makes the same facial expressions as me, and even has a tiny mole on her hip just like me and you have the perfect storm for a mommy-projecting-high-expectations-on-child situation.
Still, despite all these similarities, she is not me. Or is she?
There are pictures of me around M’s age hiding behind my mother’s skirt at a wedding. Not engaging. Not laughing. Not friendly. Hiding. Terrified. Shy. My mother has her arm around my head, holding me to her.
There are stories of my first weeks in preschool. Not making friends easily, wanting to play by myself. The most notorious story from that time is how my mother walked me into school one day, introduced me to another little girl, and pulled out some toys for us to play with. Knowing my tiny, Asian mother, this was done in the sweetest, gentlest way possible. Still...
My mother did gently nudge and encourage me, but for the longest time, she let me be me. I stayed shy and cautious into elementary school, though I was never made to feel bad about it. If I wanted to hide, read books in our dark basement instead of playing outside, or write stories about fairy princesses, no one ever said I should be doing something else.
And yet, M isn’t exactly like Little Rosana either. She makes friends. She loves school. She plays with other kids all the time. But, that shyness, that cautiousness, that sensitivity, it’s there. I see it because, well, you easily recognize traits you have yourself – especially the ones you don’t like that much.
It’s not easy being a shy, sensitive kid. It can quickly spiral into (gasp!) lack of confidence. I don’t want my child to feel like her default answer to trying new things is “Nope. No can do,” which is how I often felt as a little girl.
Then there’s this story. I was 9. My mom signed us up for swimteam. Being from another country, she wasn’t sure what to expect, but thought it would be a good idea to get us involved in some team sports.(I have to give her credit for not just thinking outside the box, but leaping out of it on this one. Thai people don't do swimteam.)
Legend has it, she looked at the notice on the bulletin board at our public pool, advertising a “meet,” and thought we were going to attend some sort of meeting or orientation. She filled out the paperwork and we showed up early Saturday morning thinking we were going to get an introduction to swimming. There, we were greeted with whistles, team chants, the firing of a start gun, and kids swimming furiously up and down roped-off lanes in the pool.
Any kid would panic at the uncertainty of the scene unfolding, but I thought I would die right there on the spot. I remember the anxiety filling my throat, my eyes opening wide as the coach approached us. I needed to lay down.
“Come on! We need another swimmer for the 9 to 10-year-old girls!” the young coach said as he grabbed my hand.
The next thing I knew, I was literally jumping into the pool and flapping my arms around like a bird, hoping my manic movements were somehow, some way propelling me forward. There is a picture of me gasping for air with a desperate arm shooting out of the water.
I didn’t even have a proper swim team suit.
But I finished. Third out of five. For the first time in my little life, despite the fact that I was petrified to the point that someone probably should have checked for my bathing suit for chocolate swirls, I didn't run.
And, I wasn’t half bad either.
From that point on, things done changed for Little Rosana. Not entirely and not overnight, but over time and with baby steps. So, what did she grow into? What became of that shy little girl? I'm happy to report, she is an adventurous, well-traveled, independent, friendly, fun-loving woman who still gets a little shy around new people. Not bad.
So, when I get that burning sensation to push M to do something, tell her she’s being silly or overdramatic, or minimize her feelings, I have to remember how I felt at her age. All I have to do is keep giving her opportunities to grow while recognizing she is who she is. Her shyness, cautiousness and sensitivity can also be wonderful traits that fuel a creative spirit and keep her from doing stuff like running headfirst into oncoming traffic.
So, back to the lazy river. M sucked it up, took one for the team (twice!), and didn’t even want the chocolate afterward. Still, enough was enough for my girl.
“Mama, I really, really don’t want to go on the lazy river again.”
“That’s fine, sweetie. You don’t have to,” I said as I wrapped the striped towel around her shoulders and pecked her on the cheek.
"Maybe when I'm bigger I'll like the lazy river more? We can try it again when I'm just a little bit older?"
"Sounds like a plan, honey. Sounds like a plan."