My seven-year-old daughter knows exactly what she wants in life, and when she wants something she’s nearly unstoppable. As a parent, this makes me proud. It also exhausts me. It’s my job to keep her safe. I’m the water to her fire. I get tired of being water.
Sometimes Eugenia follows the rules. Sometimes she doesn’t. I never know which it will be. Some of her boundary-testing is harmless: using scissors during a “beauty salon” playdate that left her with a ragged mullet, sneaking cough drops to school, eating all the strawberries intended for dinner, pretending she doesn’t hear me call out “Time for bed!” the first few (or 10 or 11) times. But she’s also wandered off in stores, has opened our door to a stranger, and, once, tried to ignite the window shades with matches. (“No, I didn’t,” she corrected me, exasperated, when I confronted her. “I was trying to light the TV on fire!”)
When I’m looking her pointedly in the eye or watching over her shoulder, she usually does what I ask. It isn’t that she’s blatantly rebellious (though, like every child, she has those moments, too); it’s that she completely trusts her own instincts and desires over mine. Understandable — and admirable — in a child who survived a difficult early life in Russia, who mostly had to take care of herself, right up until the day we brought her home from an orphanage in western Siberia, four months before her fourth birthday.
Some people see her as a problem child. Some call her a strong, brilliant miracle. Day to day, my own perception of my daughter’s strength and hardheadedness shifts, depending on the week’s difficulties: how much sleep I’ve had (or lost), how many sopping bed-sheets I’ve changed in the middle of the night, how many time-outs I’ve given, how many sick children I’ve tended. How many times I’ve hollered: “Are you guys listening? I shouldn’t have to say this more than once!”
The truth is, the qualities that make my daughter hard to parent are the very ones that will serve her as an adult, that will make her a woman capable of changing the world. “I’m very, very, VERY worried about Eugenia,” one of her teachers said some months back, in response to my daughter’s habit of talking in class, despite constant reminders to focus on her work. That same week, my first-grader’s new piano teacher shook her head in amazement: “Eugenia is the most open, most confident child I’ve met in 20 years of teaching.” You say to-may-to…
Many days, I struggle with knowing how to best deal with my oldest child. Do I honor her strength? Or do I set boundaries? Obviously, the answer is “both.” But how that can be accomplished is far less clear. As with many other awkward pairings in my life — work and home life, marriage and selfhood — trying to help my daughter balance independence and self-control often feels like an exercise in futility, a set-up with broken scales.
Too often, out of exhaustion, I find myself automatically saying “No,” corralling my daughter within the boundaries of what I know is safe, without even stopping to consider what she wants or needs. Recently, Eugenia and I stopped at the neighborhood market on the way home from school, while my parents babysat her younger brothers.
“No,” I said, in response to my daughter’s endless requests. “No, you can’t have candy.” “No, you can’t have that toy.” “No.” “No.” “No.” “You can’t.”
How easily I’ve become a control freak. I remember what it was like to be a child, to want something I didn’t have the power to get. When, exactly, did I become The Establishment?
Finally, I paused long enough to hear what my daughter was asking, really looking at her for the first time since we’d entered the store. “Yes,” I said. “Of course we can buy flowers for Grandma.” Beaming, Eugenia skipped out the glass front door, to the sidewalk flower cart. When she wasn’t back in ten seconds, I ran after her in a panic. She held out a fistful of gerbera daisies and greens. “I picked these,” she said.
I smiled back. “They’re beautiful.”
In the car on the way home, Eugenia said, almost as if she couldn’t believe it: “I asked you. And you said ‘Yes’!” Her response reminded me of my favorite poem: “God Says Yes to Me” by Kaylin Haught, in which a feminine God is sassy, affectionate, and full of approval for the female narrator. I wondered, How much more likely is my daughter to believe in Someone or Something who says “Yes” to her if she has a mother who does? I’ve known a lot of little girls who believe in God. It’s far more rare to find girls who think God, or the Universe, believes in them.
Not long ago, a friend of mine raised an eyebrow when I said, “When Genia’s a teenager, she’s not going to listen when I say ‘Don’t take drugs’ or ‘Don’t have sex.’ She’s going to do what she wants.” What I meant was, my parenting strategy in ten years can’t be about getting my daughter to do what I want. God knows she isn’t primarily concerned with what her mother thinks now. Why would she be then? My parenting approach will need to be about encouraging her to understand and want for herself what’s truly best for her: to stay safe, not to harm her body, not to let herself be used by other people, sexually or otherwise.
Most days, I wish my daughter would just do what I tell her to do — no arguing, no challenging me — simply because I told her to do it. But while that might make her easier to parent, it won’t move her any closer to being the independent, discerning, free-thinking woman she’s well on her way to becoming.
I’m fond of the bumper sticker that says, “Well behaved women rarely make history.” The same can be said of children. Despite what my grandparents’ generation taught, my daughter speaks — loudly — even when she isn’t spoken to. Sometimes it hurts my ears. Sometimes it sounds like music. And sometimes, it even sounds like prayer.