About a year ago, I packed a week’s clothing, kissed my eight-year-old son and six-year-old daughter goodbye, and drove to my sister’s to care for my sweet nephew. It was 30 minutes across town, but in parenting terms, I had voyaged to another planet. For seven days, I entertained 15-month-old Jake through diapers and snowsuits, crawled around playing with balls and trains, and delivered twice the recommended intake of bedtime stories. By the end of the week, I’d noticed two transformations: My nephew and I were officially smitten, and I had fallen freshly in love with my own kids. Absence helped me notice that Rylie and Morgan were in a sweet spot (big enough to tie their own laces, not too big to kibosh the schoolyard hug), and so was I.
My week with Jake reminded me just how physical life is with very young kids. My husband, Rob, and I no longer wipe faces or bums, cut up food or haul little people in and out of cribs, car seats, swings and tubs. Morgan (now eight) still asks us to adjust the water for her shower, but after that she shoos me out of the washroom and emerges with freshly combed hair tumbling down her nightie. This little show of independence is liberating on days when all I can see are dirty dishes and a to-do list begging for overtime. It’s also sobering to see showering join milk pouring and swing pushing on the ever-growing list of things I’m no longer needed for.
Fortunately, I’m not completely obsolete. In fact, now I hold their hands through the emotional side of life. I helped Rylie nervously reach out to a shy new boy in his class. And when Morgan collapsed in tears on the day her pals attended a party she wasn’t invited to, I ignored the dishes. Don’t get me wrong: I was there for the meltdowns over dinky cars too, but I’d rather help kids wrestle with authentic dilemmas, not the pseudo-tragedies that overwhelm toddlers. Problem solving has become a fun team sport, though I know I’ll be benched someday when the kids brand me a hopeless old windbag.
For now, I’ll enjoy that they like having us around. They still cry, “Watch me!” as they rock out on the monkey bars, but I’ve also learned not to wait for an invitation. I made an out-of-character decision not to freak out the day I noticed Rylie riding his bike with no hands, wearing a grin wider than a Mack truck. Holding back is hard, but I’ve discovered school-aged kids don’t always need us as much as we’d like to think. When a well-meaning mom came to the baseball diamond to join her son and his buds, she diligently divided up teams and imposed order — and sucked out all the disorganized fun they’d been having. Rylie and a few other boys left: “Does she think we’re little kids or something?” Clearly, we sometimes need reminding. And if memory serves, the parents who still haven’t clued in to the difference between involvement and interference will be pushed further away when their kids saunter into high school.
Make no mistake: This stage isn’t all sunshine and smiles. My kids pick on each other with so much devotion that I wager they’ll be 25 before they’re friends. Morgan’s homework protests can make my ears bleed, and she’s already trying out big-kid tricks like eye rolling and lip curling. And while Rylie’s responsible enough to walk alone to school 10 houses away, he’s still a child: I was horrified the day I caught him and his friends throwing snowballs at younger kids walking to daycare. So although the transgressions can be bigger, discipline seems to be getting easier. Maybe my kids are old enough to get rules and consequences in a way a preschooler can’t — or perhaps I’m more experienced and less uncertain. I used to dread having teenagers, but as I grow more confident with my parenting, now I’m naively looking forward to it.
“Your life really starts when you’re seven,” declared a friend’s young daughter recently. “You don’t need diapers and you can talk and read and feed yourself.” It’s also when life begins anew for parents. I used to crave time away from our labour-intensive little ones to recharge. As they’ve grown, those pangs have eased up. In 2004, Rob and I savoured a rare grown-up weekend in New York while he ran the marathon. This year, we drove down with the kids, who declared Manhattan as much fun as the beach. Now these are people I like hanging out with. I’m not slaving over face wiping and car-seat buckling, nor stretched too thin from the emotional warfare and packed calendars of older kids. I am grabbing the camera less, but savouring moments more. This, my friends, is prime-time childhood.
If I relate better to kids this age, I find it equally fascinating to see how they relate to others. When they return from a buddy’s cottage or a neighbour’s sleepover (look who’s escaping from family now!), I beam when parents report that Morgan asked to be excused from the table or Rylie loaded his plate into the dishwasher. It’s bittersweet to see they can manage just fine without us.
When the kids were six and eight, we hopped in the car and drove to Montreal. On a whim, we scored a 7:45 p.m. reservation at L’Express, a famous bistro where my girlfriends and I have lingered over bouillabaisse and steak tartare. But my mind raced as I laid out Rylie’s golf shirt and cleanest sneakers: Was it too chic for children? Would they find anything to eat? Would they behave?
I needn’t have worried. They devoured croque monsieur (French for grilled ham and cheese), grinned at the waiter’s jokes and noticed they were the only kids in the joint that night. I felt like I was dining with the family I’d always dreamed would arrive someday — only they were here now, right at my linen-covered table.
• gains an average of 3 to 3.5 kg (7 lb) and grows about 6 cm (2½ in) a year, which may result in clumsiness as he adjusts to his new body size
• 6: jumps with feet together; can ride a bike without training wheels; begins to learn specific sports skills, such as batting a ball or kicking a soccer ball
• 7 and 8: develops more refined skills, such as kicking a ball into the goal and consistently hitting a baseball
• 6: does up buttons and ties shoelaces; goes to the bathroom alone and washes independently; cuts meat; prints name, alphabet and numbers from 1 to 10
• 7: opens a lock with a key; uses the phone independently
• 8: skillfully writes and draws; can do chores, such as setting the table or emptying the dishwasher
• 6: counts to 100
• 6 to 8: learns to read, write and do more complex math; learns about the world; knows left from right; learns own phone number and address
• 8: can tell time and read for fun
• 6 to 8: develops more independence; wants to be liked and accepted by friends; identifies feelings and puts them into words; starts to become aware of the future and her place in it (what she wants to be when she grows up, etc.)
• 8: grasps more complex humour; increasingly concerned about rules; shows more responsibility by taking care of himself, his belongings and room
Source: Janet Grabowski, a Winnipeg paediatrician and assistant professor in the Department of Pediatrics and Child Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of Manitoba
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