A few months ago, I spent an evening sifting through a box that contained my school records from kindergarten through college. During those years, my parents diligently saved report cards, memorable artwork, progress reports, and yearbooks, among other items, and then handed them off to me when I moved out. I don’t know what compelled me that night to look through the stuff, but I remembered pretty quickly why I don’t go through them very often: I hate reading about my younger self.
There is in fact a great deal written about me from those early years, starting with the letter that my parents wrote in support of their application to have me attend a private school for kindergarten. They
unfortunately thoughtfully kept it for me, for what purpose I have yet to decipher. While my father now points to the positive portions of the letter as proof that I was then who I am now (does that make sense?), I actually hate this letter. I feel as if it makes me out to be this little monster instead of a probably pretty normal 5 year old only child. This gem of a paragraph, which Dad wrote in his best PhD-in-childhood-development-ese, still stings:
Probably the least successful aspect of her development so far has been in developing social relationships with other children. She tends to be aggressive and self-centered. Thus, as an only child who is very independent, she tends not to share well or to seek out relationships with other children on an equal, sharing basis. Rather, she tends to dominate efforts of other children to relate to her.
Was what he wrote true? Absolutely. But reading about these propensities of mine in such strong, negative and almost accusatory language still gives me the feeling of failure and bad-egg-ness. Before you get indignant on my behalf, though, know that the essay worked, I was admitted to the school and got glowing reports from kindergarten onwards before they pulled me out after third grade because it was getting expensive. And, I now I have friends and get paid to be aggressive. Ironic, eh?
But, what strikes me now for the first time is the question: what 5 year old kid isn’t like this? Seriously. Aren’t all kids basically self-centered, aggressive (passive or otherwise) miniature adults who are still learning the social norms and graces for maneuvering successfully in the world? Reading the letter in the past has always made me feel as if I was exceptional in this regard. Now, though, I have to wonder if being a well-adjusted, selfless and passive 5 year old is in fact the exceptional thing.
Watching Rex grow has helped to put this all into some kind of perspective. I’ve been reading a lot about toddlers and their behavior and I’m beginning to subscribe to the notion that the ‘bad’ behaviors of toddlers are not ‘bad’ in the way that they would be if you and I did them. They are trying out all the world offers and it’s my job to say what is and what is not acceptable and where, not label them as self-centered or aggressive. Above all, I’m embracing the notion that it is a phase, as in temporary, will grow out of it behavior. Just like being a self-centered aggressive non-sharing brat was (mostly) a phase with me. I share now, although I still hate it (but I would never tell you that to your face while you are helping yourself to my ice cream). I am aggressive only when called for and I feel pretty confident that I’m not wretchedly self-centered, or at least any more than anyone else.
So after that stellar introduction of me to the school, what did my kindergarten teacher think about me?
She is able to be a playful little girl but readily takes on the challenges of being six years old in a competitive environment. She is strong minded and can be quite stubborn. She is sensitive and has a good sense of humor. These characteristics have helped her to become a leader and much sought-after playmate.
I like this version MUCH better.
I think that anyone who spends any time with toddlers wonders how on earth anybody ever becomes a functioning adult. At some point we all of us have had to learn that we need to share, that it’s not acceptable to hit/stick our fingers up our noses etc, etc–and that really isn’t an easy process. But most of us get there in the end!
(old friend now in new digs)
I have boxes of similar records, sigh. Yet, for some reason, we keep them. (why?)
I find myself reassuring the Mister a *lot* these days that all of the tantrums are developmentally appropriate. It does make it easier to know that life is just a series of phases, and this too shall pass.
I remember once how my favorite teacher gave me a mark of “unsatisfactory” in the leadership category on those silly progress reports they used to do. I was devastated, and I went and joined all the clubs I could think of, just to become an officer and show her I could be a leader. It’s interesting how what others think of us (and how they phrase it) can mean so much.