I’ve had an image playing over and over in my head all weekend. In it my 6-year-old daughter is standing on the beach amidst a rough-and-tumble tag kind of game. Her little chest is heaving and tears are welling in her eyes. She is trying desperately to fight back the tears.
It was a gorgeous, balmy late Spring evening 2 weeks ago when I signed Sophia up for Nippers: the children’s arm of our local surf life-saving club. I felt so excited and privileged. Excited that Soph would be taking part in this active and exciting club; something that’s a rite of childhood passage for many Aussie kids who are lucky enough to grow up near the water.
She would be exerting lots of energy ands having fun in the sand and water at her own local beach while beginning the process of learning all those important things future surf life-savers need to know. We and the parents of the other kids, many of whom are friends, would sit with our toes in the warm sand as the sun sank and chat and laugh as our kids ran around in front of us yelling happily as they took part in training.
Only my little babe wasn’t yelling happily. She was kind of struggling.
In the first activity, a relay race, she had dissolved into tears half way through a lap after some boys behind her had yelled at her to go when it wasn’t her turn. Confused and flustered she started running, realised her mistake, and then upset and embarrassed caught sight of her dad on the sidelines and made a bee-line for his arms, sobbing.
After many tears and protestations that she just wanted to go home, my husband managed to coax her to rejoin her team. And she ran a good race.
On the beach this first day with the wind making it impossible to really hear any of the commands being yelled at them, she struggled with the bigger and rougher kids pushing her out of the way in a later game as they all tried to grasp one of the few flags at the other end of the beach. She ran fast but then she stood back, unsure and willing unto just dive in when it came time to “fight” for a flag.
Sophia was behind some other kids with her gross motor skills at kindergarten. I put that down to being a first-born to a slightly protective mother. She has improved in leaps and bounds and, when we gave her a two-wheel bike that was really much too big for her last Christmas (you know, better that she grows into it than out if it in a flash and all that), she stunned us when she hopped on and after 2 minutes of tuition took off down the road on her own. She looked like a pea on a pumpkin.
So she’s certainly got the physical wherewithal. But while she’s as active as any other little 6 year-old-bundle of energy, she’s a book-worm and is happiest drawing or making things.
But she’s also brave.
In the tag game I mentioned at the start of this post, I could see she was flustered and unsure again. She stayed put though. After checking with the parent who was directing the game as to where she should stand. And that’s the other image I keep coming back to. My little girl amid the chaos, her arm raised politely as she follows the Age Manager in charge around the melee trying to get his attention to ensure she is doing the right thing. Making sure she’s in the right spot.
I coped with all of this until I saw her little shoulders heaving and making a supreme effort to keep her tears at bay. She had finally attracted the attention of the Age Manger and been shown where to stand but she was like a tiny island of worry and upset in an oblivious whirlpool of chaos. Her distress was palpable to me and it took every ounce of my strength not to run and rescue her. To wrap up that little body in a warm towel and make her feel better. To reassure her. To make it all ok.
Which is exactly what I used to wish for in similar situations. An anxious, shy kid, I was involved in any number of things in my childhood that made me feel the same. Yet, I survived. And, dare I say it, have ultimately thrived.
I am terribly guilty of speculating about how Sophia is feeling based on what I would have felt in a given situation. I try very hard not to assume Sophia is feeling the same as I would have. I fight against my instinct to rescue her from those situations; situations where she is safe but unsure. Safe but upset. Upset but learning.
Afterall, arguably Nippers is really a microcosm for life and I would do her no good whatsoever if I just ran in and made her feel better every time. I would, in fact, be doing her a disservice.
But when I saw that worried little girl, tiny finger up trying desperately and failing to get the attention of an adult to ask what she was supposed to do and then her tear-stained little face and panicky look I started crying. And I’ve cried every time I’ve thought about all those moments of desperate vulnerability all weekend.
After the beach games it was time to take to the water. Despite the chilly wind and choppy water, even the smallest of kids were expected to lie face-down on a board and with the help of an older more experienced Nipper, use their arms to paddle out to a marked point.
I saw Sophia hop on her board, saw her start paddling and then take a face full of salt water when a wave splashed over the tip of her board. I saw her start to cough and splutter and had to look away. I couldn’t watch anymore. My heart was in 1000 tiny pieces all over that windy beach.
Nonetheless, I looked back. And when I did I saw my girl had reached the mark and turned her board for the shore. Only unlike all the other kids who were being escorted back in by their older guardians, Sophia was paddling back on her own. Smiling, she sped up as she caught a wave on her board, then another and another until the last one delivered her back to the sand. Ecstatic she jumped off her board and ran over to me to finally be wrapped up in that big, warm towel.
She can’t wait for next Friday.