This might be one of the last articles I can write about my daughter (hereinafter “the Hurricane”). She is now eleven and no longer finds it flattering to be the subject of my work. However, I decided that this information might be helpful to someone so please don't turn me in.
To be quite honest, I have spent the spring and summer months mentally bracing myself for her grade six year and thanks to some research, my dread has been reduced to a dull fret.
The Hurricane is giddily optimistic about going back to school but I can't as easily forget her tumultuous grade five experience. Starting in late September, I made a cup of strong tea each school day at 2:30 p.m. and tried to harness my strength for the coming storm. The rolling, dark cloud would come bursting through the door at exactly 3:10. Flinging her bag to the side, she would angrily recount hours spent locked in yet another catastrophic group work project. Wildly gesticulating, she could not understand why her ideas had not been embraced or her instructions followed without question. Drowning in daily waves of perceived injustices, I would clench my teeth, smile weakly and try not to freak out.
As the year went on she methodically managed to alienate her peers one by one. By March it was clear that no one wanted to work with her. My husband received his daily briefing but remained calm. We prepared for the school librarian to be the only guest at her May birthday party. Finally in late spring, she arrived home with an invitation to join a group for a class dance project. My heart swelled. On day two the Hurricane stormed in to report that the group would not respond to her suggested choreography. I promptly exploded and told her that she needed to zip it and fall into line. I reminded her that last I checked she hadn't danced since junior kindergarten and that nobody wanted to see those moves. I also loudly informed her that a loss of power was way less socially suicidal than a solo dance routine.
Like most parenting dilemmas, I felt tons of guilt for handling this so poorly. Most days I did listen patiently, providing her with counsel and strategies, but on others I would lower my head onto the wooden island and wail, “Why can't you just get along?” I really tried to empathize but she is so different from me. I would l have flunked out before risking social alienation. My parents would sadly concur that grades were always second to my desire to please friends. I would have eaten a home perm kit to have Alex Costello at my side for the duration of grade seven. My mother would never have had to say to me, at a birthday party drop-off, "Bye honey! Have fun and please don't try to organize anything."
Clearly it was time to reflect, evaluate and strategize. There are a few rules of child related combat that I cannot waiver on. I try to insist that my children be respectful and polite even in times of disagreement. I also think that hitting below the belt, verbally or physically, is never acceptable or a replacement for intelligent argument. The rest of relationship management can feel a bit murky. I want our daughters to become women who can communicate directly and demand equality. I know they will need to have strong negotiating skills for success.
My bedside books teach that society fails girls by telling them to be nice but also that female aggression amongst teen girls is a growing concern. Assertive is supposed to be the middle ground but what does that look like and what does it mean? I hate the use of terms like bitchy and bossy to describe strong women but am I a dinosaur and a hypocrite for wanting to ensure that the Hurricane remains likeable?
Remembering that my friend Jane had to call and apologize to each member of her group during her first week of MBA, I realized that my inner circle might have some insight. Starting in June, I made the decision to get uncomfortably honest. Whenever someone would ask me how the Hurricane was doing I would blurt out, "I am so worried about her! She simply cannot function in a group and may have socially alienated herself from most of her classmates." This exercise was challenging for me because I find it hard to admit that things aren’t always okay. Whether protective instinct or pride, I feel wary of exposing my children’s vulnerabilities to others. Privacy definitely serves a purpose but in hindsight, I should have shared my fears way earlier. Each response I received was like an amazing little birthday present.
My first stop was the porch of my friend Jennifer who, when presented with my blurt, smiled serenely, pressed the tips of her fingers together, and said, "She will be fine once she becomes the CEO of her own company. Like me."
On a following trip to North Carolina, I expressed my angst to a dear and delicate southern belle. Her words were poetic and assuring: “What the FUCK! Are they still making kids do fucking group work? I fucking hate group work! They are just little kids for fuck’s sake!”
Next I served up the dilemma to our friend Sean following a lengthy summer feast. He paused, leaned back in his chair and spoke: “I am with the Hurricane. Sometimes you just have to take over.” Rod agreed and looked like he had been poisoned even thinking about having to get along in a group. Perhaps the sweetest, most gentle advice I received was from James. He looked at me across the table with big brown eyes and said, "Sometimes kids aren't meant to be kids. They are adults trapped in kid bodies."
Taking my little experiment on the road taught me some great lessons that I wasn’t even looking for. I now know that is better to be vulnerable and honest than to stew alone. Real friends know you, love you and are in your life for a reason.
Secondly I have discovered that the Hurricane has her people and I have my people. We share similarities but are also very different. I am embarrassed that I spent the year trying to use only my experience to guide her. Interestingly a large number of the friends I love the most are her people. These bullheaded children of yesterday stayed strong but also became incredible, loveable adults. In the heat of this mess, I completely forgot that the man I share my life with chose his vocation mostly because he likes to be in charge. And while we cannot assemble a piece of IKEA furniture together without court ordered mediation, there is no one I love more. Working this through has greatly dissipated my dread that she will live alone, watering her plants with tears.
September is looming and I still haven't really figured out the perfect sixth grade survival strategy. Perhaps I might try to sneak back with an update. I will continue to insist that she is kind and fair but then I should likely get out of her path. Who knows? Maybe I could actually learn a thing or two.