This is my third time parenting a preschooler so I ought to know better. I have already experienced the remorse and shame of expecting too much of too young a kid, but somehow I tend to forget these lessons.
Porter's class was performing Christmas songs in the chapel for all the parents. We were told they ought to wear Christmas colors. I pulled out a red polo for him the night before, let him sleep in a little bit too long the next day, and lost all grasp on preschool reality that morning when Porter had other ideas about what to wear and eat and how quickly to get out the door.
I remember taking far too seriously what Andrew wore at this age. It reflected on me, I thought. I wanted him to look groomed and cared for, and he wanted to wear dirty tracksuits. I died on hills in battles that injured him, too. I felt so bad about this and thought I had reformed but I guess when it comes to a program with photos involved I slip back into old ways.
Porter wanted to wear his Marine Corps t-shirt. Its red. I deployed some reasonable tactics to dissuade him but none worked. We were going to be late so I gave up and told him to wear whatever he wanted, I did not care, and I didn't anymore. But I had already planted seeds of doubt: I had told him everyone else would be dressed up, that he wouldn't look nice stuff like that. That was ok to do, but I was mad and that made him feel upset. We got in the car and I spent the drive scolding him for making us late (when I ought to have awakened the four year old kid earlier). He often looks at the bright side of things, noting that "its better than being dead" about most negative consequences, and tried to do the same here ("at least we won't miss it!") but I was having none of it. We arrived and I hurried him into the chapel where the program was well underway. I walked him all the way up to his teachers--he was obviously nervous at this point to be late and in front of a room full of parents, but I just kind of deposited him.
As soon as I sat down with Claire I felt instant regret that I had once again taken something way too seriously. My typically confident, joyful little crazy man looked a little stooped of shoulder and nervous as he tried to sing with his class. He wasn't even smiling. The whole point of all of this is that he have fun and feel a sense of pride and accomplishment and I had made it about me. All I wanted now was for him to feel good up there, to smile. So I began acting like a different kind of crazy person, waving my arms around and even daring to loudly whisper his name to get his attention. I gave him big smiles and thumbs up, which he returned. He started to look more confident and happy.
Then another little boy, just turned four and until a month ago the only child in his family, began acting a little silly. He spotted his mom and all he wanted to do was leave the stage and sit with her. She wanted him to remain and it turned into a big struggle ending with him crying in her arms while she told him how disappointed she was. She was right next to me and I wanted so badly to tell her that it didn't matter but I knew I would just sound judgmental rather than so fully empathetic with her plight. So I stayed out of it, but I wished there was a way I could tell her that we can't expect too much. That some kids aren't ready to perform for us, that all we want for them is to find security in figuring out who they are. That its ok if they just want to sit on the sidelines with us, so long as they are happy there. There will be so many years and opportunities to venture further when they are ready.
Maybe I am wrong. Maybe its good to have certain expectations in the context of public performances and also to enforce them, and maybe there are lessons kids need to learn that I am failing to see in these situations. But for me, I know that when I am acting from a place of thinking about what others think of me or my kid or from fulfilling a personal parenting fantasy vision of what I think "ought" to be happening or what the other kids seem able to do, I am generally not going to end up handling my child well and things will probably end up in tears and frustration on both ends rather than laid-back, easy happiness. One look at Porter's uncertainty and nervousness told me all I needed to know about what really mattered when it came to the preschool singing program. If we were late, if Porter were wearing the slightly wrong shirt, well, at least we weren't dead.