by Natalie Christensen
This is a story of success and failure.
Our youngest went to her first camp recently, a week of mornings at a local farm. She’d never done such a thing before, and was thrilled and nervous. We knew she would love it, she knew she would love it, but sometimes starting a new thing is tough, so I lingered at drop-off until she gave me the “all-clear”. I saw her take a deep breath and slip into the crowd. I took a deep breath too, my heart running circles in my chest.
I watched the clock all morning, and when I went to pick her up, I ran from the car to the barn. There she was! Grinning from ear to ear, her ball cap askew, her knees dirty. She was pumped—proud of her achievement, jazzed about the weeding, harvesting, and cooking she had done, beaming with joy.
She was a girl over the moon.
On the way home, almost as an after-thought, she mentioned some writing the kids had done, copying down recipes they were using in order to re-create them at home. She said that the other kids were faster at this task, that their handwriting was neater, and that she didn’t have time to finish like they did. Again my heart started running in circles, a new anxiety fueling it’s frantic pace.
Growing up, I was what teachers called a “model student”. I finished every task on time and in perfect form. I would love to report that this success was only a result of ambition and intellectual acumen, but in reality my behavior and grades were also a defense mechanism, a way to feel less scared about “doing it wrong” and displeasing someone. You can imagine the ways in which I was then triggered when my little girl described the above scene at camp.
According to Echo, recognizing that she felt great stress and nervousness about writing in this context, and determined to have the most fun possible at camp, she sought help. Apparently she approached the camp leader and said: “Um, I’m homeschooled? And so far I have been interested in other things more than writing? So I have less practice than the other kids? And so I am slower? Do you mind helping me finish my recipe?” The leader responded with tenderness, eagerness, and warmth, and together they formed a plan in which Echo would write at her own pace and then, if time was limited, the leader would help her finish.
My inner turmoil was at such a fevered pitch during this re-telling that I translated her words into this: I am academically behind others of my own age and because of this I struggled greatly at camp. I had a hard time. Also, you weren’t there to help me.
This is what she actually said, (in paraphrase):
- I am completely emotionally secure and aware.
- I trust my own academic development to unfold as it should, on it’s own time.
- I recognized my goal of having fun was being thwarted by feelings of stress, and I developed a creative solution.
- I trust my caregivers and know that I can turn to them for help.
- I formed a solid connection with my camp leader by being honest and seeking assistance.
- I took care of myself emotionally so that I could be free to have fun.
- I did this all on my own and am only telling you now because you like information and I like to share it with you.
She’s right about it all. There was no failure during farm camp. What Echo described is complete and total success. Homerun—out of the park—holistic—success. The “recipe” she actually wrote is one for life-long happiness and prosperity.
My own recipe included an initial response of empathy for her struggle and her triumph, then later I added a dollop of ill-concealed concern, a splash of good-natured guidance, and some cheerfully described writing tips. My own emotional baggage couldn’t seem to stay out of the kitchen.
Echo rebuffed my attempts to help her speed up her writing pace, making it beyond crystal clear that she had it more than handled, thank-you-very-much. I silently vowed to stop harping on it, and to lean into my relationship with her, instead, knowing intellectually that academics fall in line if feelings are supported. Yet again, I couldn’t help myself from meddling behind the scenes. I surreptitiously studied the other kids’ recipe books for comparison (really, her handwriting looked fine) and enlisted my partner Nathan to subtly contrive instances for our daughter to practice writing.
I just couldn’t drop it. It was like all of my wisdom had flown out the window. I have spent years studying emotional processing and brain development. Together with my partner, I offer workshops and courses on engaging feelings as the most effective way to ensure academic success. Yet here I was, almost tossing it all aside as soon as I thought I perceived the slightest setback.
The only thing that saved me from doing any harm to my relationship with my daughter, from shining a big self-conscious spotlight on her level of writing skills, was that Echo doesn’t work that way. She is clear that her best learning takes place when she feels inspired. She is sure that she will, and can, learn everything she may want to know, when she is ready. She trusts herself and her process completely, because that’s how we raised her.
She simply will not let me use her life to process my own anxieties.
A week after camp, sitting at the counter eating a bagel, she stopped to exclaim: I’m going to write a play! I have a great idea where in the end the maiden marries the villain. And that is what she has done. She has spent days filling a composition book with pages and pages of writing; unselfconscious, inspired, creative, divine writing. All on her own.
My daughter spells beauty as “booty”. I can spell almost every word in the English dictionary, yet I am the failure in this story and she is the success. I failed at trusting her process. Failed at seeing her for who she is and all that she is capable of achieving. She succeeded at loving me anyway, seeing my anxieties as separate from her own, and continuing to live her fully realized life.
About Natalie Christensen
“PARENTING WITH EMPATHY.”
Natalie Christensen is a writer, illustrator, and mother living in Missoula, Montana. She is co-creator of Feeleez, a line of tools that support the emotional development of children. She offers life + parenting coaching and on most days can be found on the banks of the Clark Fork river with her family and her yellow dog.
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