Saturday, October 29, 2011

Princesses, Puppies and Paying Attention

            Right after my youngest turned three I took her shopping for the first Halloween costume she would choose for herself. It was also the first year none of them were wearing home-made costumes. As we browsed the isles at Party City looking at all the pictured costumes she was certain of one thing: she didn't like the scary stuff. Finally she settled happily at the end of one row and stared at a costume bag for a long time.
            "I want to be that," she said pointing at the costume.
            I  bent down to see the picture. It was a dog costume; pictured on the front was a yellow cocker spaniel dressed in a pink princess dress with a pointy hat. Ok. A Princess. We can do that. I lead her back to the people costumes and started looking for an affordable princess. The best ones cost too much for a one night event but I found a pink one with a tiara and pulled it off the rack.
            "Here's one." She frowned and shook her head. "Let's see what else we can find. They have Belle. Do you want a yellow one?" She examined the picture on the front of the bag and shook her head. I showed her three or four others and she started to look sad. The corners of her little mouth turned down and her big brown eyes looked at me like I was crazy. She walked back to the dog costume and said again,          
            "I want to be that."
            "Ok. But that one is for a doggy. You need a little girl costume." She sighed heavily and looked like she was going to cry.
Ok. Time to try something different. "What do you like about that one? Is it the pointy hat? I can make you a pointy hat." She shook her head.
            "I want to be her." 
            Suddenly the whole thing was clear.
            "You want to be a puppy?" She nodded her head and started to smile. "You want to be a puppy princess?" Her whole face lit up and she nodded with a dreamy look in her eyes. She could see herself as that Cocker Spaniel princess.
            I explained to her that the puppy costume was FOR a puppy, and not a costume OF a puppy, that she could be a puppy, or a princess, or some combination of them both, but that it would not look like the picture. She would still be a little girl dressed as a puppy/princess.
            She was slightly disappointed and abandoned the idea of being a princess if she wasn't going to look like the dog in the picture. She eventually settled on a little Pocahontas costume. When Halloween came she happily carried her bucket around and gathered her candy and never thought twice about her disappointment, but I have always recalled how sad I was that I couldn't make her into a puppy princess.
            We've had a lot of rough times over the years and the kids have often had to deal with the disappointment of not getting the things they want most. But they have always recovered quickly. Quicker than I have. As some sort of compensation I have always tried to make them whatever they wanted to be for Halloween. This year, she came to me and asked me to make her and a friend Native American Indian costumes. I ended up making hers and three others-- they're a  whole tribe now.
            So you might think the lesson of this little tale is about dealing with life's disappointments, but it's not. What I learned most that day was that even though you think you know exactly what is going on inside your child's mind, you never really have a clue. I learned it's important to slow down, take the time, listen, and not assume I know what's going on, just because it seems obvious. How many times has a teenager told me "You don't understand!" And they are right. I probably think I do, but really I haven't got a clue.
            Two weeks ago an acquaintance of the kids tragically committed suicide. Another friend ran away from home (and thankfully returned after several days.) I have been reminded to remain vigilant-- to pay attention and listen better, because sometimes the princess is really a puppy and I don't want to make that mistake again.


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