When I was the proud mother of a newborn, a two-year-old and a four-year-old, I thought parenting couldn’t get any tougher. Every day was a blur of caretaking, feeding and physical lifting. Merely strapping the three kids in the car ate up 10 minutes, and this was after the 20-minute prelude of coats and shoes. When well-meaning mothers of older children assured me I would look back on these days with yearning, I bit my tongue and smiled. Obviously, they were still mentally challenged from the years I was currently experiencing. In time, they would recover. Perhaps I would too.
When my daughter entered first grade, I was confident the hardest parenting days were behind me. After all, my children were now becoming more independent—no one was in diapers and one was in elementary school full time. I was looking forward to easier days to come. However, in one eye-opening morning, I saw, for the first time, that the steepness of the parent road was increasing each and every year. I thought I had attained level ground and was stunned to realize my climb was just beginning.
My epiphany began when I volunteered to chaperone a walking field trip for my daughter’s first grade class. When I arrived in the classroom the teacher was already assigning partners. The rule was they had to walk in twos, preferably holding hands. Even a novice like myself could immediately detect the importance of the partner selection. The room was absolutely silent as the teacher called out a name, hesitated, and then announced the second name. Faces would light up or fall; muffled cheers or groans were detectable. Some children went up to the teacher to negotiate a more acceptable walking partner. To her credit, the teacher didn’t budge. The partners were set—no discussion.
When the partners were standing together in an orderly line, we set off down the sidewalk. That’s when my enlightenment truly began.
Kids immediately started boycotting their partners. They hung back pretending to tie a shoe or zip a coat, or they’d run forward on the pretense they needed to relay important information to someone and “forget” to come back to their partner. In the blink of an eye some kids were walking alone while others were walking in threes. Some girls who were not partners had their arms around one another, while others who were partners would not look at each other. I watched one girl yank her hand out of another’s and wipe it on her pants. When I called her on it, she gave me a blinding smile and assured me her hand was just sweaty; she’d love to hold her partner’s hand again. In the time it took to walk eight blocks, I had a disheartening preview of the many social traumas in years to come.
Of course, I tried my best to fix things. I found myself dashing back and forth, nipping at heels like an overzealous Border Collie. “Zack, you move back to Tyler; he’s your partner.” “Taylor, remember to hold hands with Grace, your partner. Ellie already has a partner.” “Emma is walking alone; who’s Emma’s partner?” It was an exhausting endeavor.
Despite these efforts, there were still children walking alone and feeling left out. I found myself walking with them chatting determinedly, trying to distract and soothe. But I must admit, although my efforts may have helped, they didn’t fix anything. The kids who weren’t wanted as partners knew it, even as I pranced about trying to repair things. These children were now socially on their own, at least during school hours. Sometimes they would come home with their feelings hurt and their wings clipped. Sometimes they’d come home buoyant, feeling popular and accepted. As hard as it is for parents, we cannot control this.
And that realization can be harder than all the diaper changing in the world.
Although having young children is hard, it’s more physically than mentally challenging. You’re always busy, but you’re also still in charge of their social interactions. Play dates are often arranged around mothers’ relationships rather than children’s friendships. If there’s a dispute, you rush in, soothe, and make it right. And when children are very young, they almost always play one-on-one, or at least in very small groups. That way no one is left out. But as we know, parents can’t negotiate friendships forever.
It’s hard to watch our children struggle with friendships and acceptance, but our faith can help us here. We need to remember that God is in control, and since he created our children, there’s no one more qualified to guide them. We simply cannot parent alone, and we should give thanks that we don’t have to. He will help us through every stage and give us the strength we need to step back to let our kids experience and learn.
Most importantly, with Christ our children will never truly be alone. He will always be our children’s partner, and he’ll never drop their hand.
Excerpted from Glimpsing Grace in Ordinary Days.