Seeing and loving a serious child

IMG_8780My kid can’t fake it.

When she encounters new people, Serafina is quiet, cautious and observant. She is not the kind of child that leaps into a new social dynamic with abandon or dashes off to see what distraction has captured a group of children. She sticks close by, silently and seriously, and often stays put. Parents and big kids can cajole her, try to lure her or bribe her to participate, but she’s resolute and so solid in her resistance, that they often give up, feeling deflated or even offended.

I sort of hate it.

I sort of hate it because this is not the child I know. At home, Serafina is an exuberant goofball who races around the house and screams with delight when she is surrounded by the people she knows and loves best. She is a downright boss, demanding with such force that we follow her precise orders when we play, eat or read books. She loves to hold court, performing her “ballerina,” singing her own songs or speeches she’s memorized from Daniel Tiger.

I have felt a sting, a sense of judgment when we get together with a group of parents and kids. Everyone else’s offspring is running through a sprinkler while mine is trying to fuse her body with me again. The other kids will giggle if you tickle them, but mine will scream “nooo” and scowl at you. (On two separate occasions, kids in her pre-school cohort have asked me, without any prompting, “why does Serafina only ever say ‘nooo!?'”) Are people asking what I did to make her this way? Are people liking her less because she will not engage?

But she is my child, after all. And this is very much who I was in my young life and now, after years of therapy and reflection, who I still am but now with the capacity to understand it and see how it appears to others. I could never do small talk easily or comfortably. I had no pretense of glee, but when it was real, it was very apparent. I was an introvert in new environments and an extrovert in my comfort zones. I thought for a long time that this is just how I was because I was queer and didn’t “fit” in most spaces neatly. Maybe that was true, or maybe it is/was just who I am. Today, I am a 38 year-old woman married to a woman with three daughters and thanks to brushes with life and death, I have a clear picture of what matters. It is easier now to be who I am than it ever was. The dark, weird, tall girl who did not smile is still there, but she is happy to meet new people and curious to interact with the world.

In this way, I have not loved the praise we give exclusively to the more “outgoing” traits a person might have, especially in children. We celebrate the kids who “flirt” with everyone (a descriptor for kid behavior that I, maybe in my weirdness, feel very funny about). We find it easy to love the kids who are puppy-like and bold. Why don’t we adore introspection and reserve in young people? Sensitive children are brave in their honesty and their vulnerability. Serious children are unique in their thoughtfulness. They are harder to get close to, but they are that much more wonderful perhaps because of what they hold back.

Part of why I love Serafina’s school and her teachers is because they are very intentional about seeing children, listening to them and loving who each child is. Her teachers have helped me feel better and even feel good about her assertiveness (screaming “no!” at boys twice her size) and her deadpan. And Darry too has reminded me that Serafina comes from a long line of spicy, brazen and in-charge ladies, like my fierce Nana, my mom, my aunties and maybe even me.

I want to be so careful to not impose character on Serafina, because her character (like everyone’s, really) is a such work in progress. I resist the way some parents might say “she loves this! and she is *this* way!” because I think children will respond to what we perceive in them, and tell ourselves and tell others. I don’t want to put any pressure on her. I want to work hard to see clearly what she is showing me and to love the wonder of discovering her unique self, every day.

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