At 4.5 years old, our daughter N is a lovely, outgoing child (much of the time). She is well-liked at preschool by her friends and teachers and plays very nicely with the other kids. She is fun and funny and has a sparkling sense of humor.
Except when we attend a birthday party. Or a school picnic. Or a day on the farm hosted by her preschool. In those cases — all of which happened in the past busy week — my sweet little daughter turns into a grumpy, antisocial old man, complaining about the heat, her boo-boo, being hungry, or even just walking determinedly off by herself while all the other kids are having fun at the sack race.
At the school picnic, while several of her close friends were playing at the bean bag toss, N refused to participate. Instead, she wanted to swing by herself.
Part of me was glad she wanted to do her own thing. I see her in my mind’s eye at age 8 or 13 or 19, still independent and not needing to follow the crowd. I’m glad she has that independence inside her.
But I don’t want her to miss out on fun activities either. So as I pushed her on the swing, I tried to walk a fine line between accepting her feelings (“You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to…”) and encouraging her to join her friends (“…but I really think you would have fun if you just tried it”).
She didn’t try any of the activities, and after about 45 minutes the games were over. But I was glad to see that N finally joined her friends for lunch on the grass — it was a relief to see her having fun with them, which made the whole expedition worthwhile.
On Saturday we went to a birthday party for a friend’s daughter who was turning 1. It was a lovely day in the park, right by the carousel. N has ridden on carousels before and loved it, but at the party she suddenly developed a serious case of merry-go-round-a-phobia.
It was quite hot and sunny out, which made N flushed and cranky. She was also missing her nap, which didn’t help matters. Again she walked off by herself, this time to find a shady spot where she could draw and color.
We tried to get her to interact with the other partygoers, but she kept complaining about every little thing. The tension continued to mount, so I tried making her a plate of food to at least take the “hungry” out of hot, hungry and tired. When I didn’t do it right, she flared up into screaming hysterics. At a party. In the middle of the park. On a beautiful Saturday. By the carousel.
We scooped her up, said a hurried goodbye to our gracious hosts and left. This time, I was mad. She had behaved terribly. I knew she was hot and tired, and also that she’s 4. But there were other kids there who were about her age (boys, of course!) and they weren’t complaining about everything or screaming like banshees. What the heck was her problem??
I scolded her quite severely and told her that behavior was unacceptable, but in my head, I was wondering — as I always do when there is a behavioral issue — is this because I went back to work when she was 3 months old?? I realize this is ludicrous, but I feel like sometimes that’s what people are thinking. (That’s a blog post for another day!)
We took our third excursion of the week yesterday, driving nearly an hour to a farm where N’s preschool was hosting a tour of the children’s petting zoo. Again N was uncomfortable in an unfamiliar environment, even with all her good friends there. She didn’t want to milk the cow (but I really can’t blame her, I didn’t want to do that either). She also missed the pony ride, which made me sad because I knew she was looking forward to it.
Exasperated, I exclaimed, “Why did we come all this way to the farm if you’re not even going to participate?? You’re being like the cowardly lion” (we’re reading the Wizard of Oz) “and you’re not being brave, like I know you can be.”
I wonder to myself if this is a little harsh for a 4-year-old. Yet I feel like if we don’t push her a little bit, she’ll always hang back and never try anything. I’m not sure if that’s true but I don’t want to chance it.
As the tour continued we came to the pigs, where she got up the courage to pet the piglets. I praised her and told her I was proud of her. Then she touched a chicken and fed a goat. Except for my fears of animal-borne diseases and goat dung on her shoes, this made me happy and I told her so.
Then we came to the hayride. Again, she didn’t want to go, but finally worked up the courage (with some prodding from us). She had a wonderful time and the hayride turned out to be her favorite part of the trip.
I guess our girl is outgoing when she’s in her comfort zone, but in a new environment she hangs back for a while until she gets a feel for it. The testing window seems to be about 45 minutes. She even told me about this, when we were coming back from the party — she said she has to “warm up” for a little while.
So I’ll try my best to be patient, while still being a little bit of a nudge, but not too harsh. And maybe plan to arrive on the early side, so N has her 45 minutes to “warm up.”
(And a glass of wine for mama afterwards never hurts!!)
If you hadn’t gone back to work, you’d be looking at a certain behavior and asking, “Is this because I didn’t give her enough interaction with her peers when she was younger?”… We can always find ways to question our parenting, but it sounds to me like you’re handling this very well.
It’s the same with my boy. He’s very outgoing with familiar people and places but when he is challenged by new surroundings or people, I tend to get frustrated. I also thing it can be a function of his age.
She gets it from her father.