He was three, Elliott, my middle child, standing at the base of a trunk as wide as a hula hoop, feet on the ground, eyes gazing up, equal parts envy and wonder, at the bigger kids climbing high into this tree like giant squirrels.
“I want to do that.” The words came out in a whisper as if it was a dream he only just realized. He turned quickly and made eye contact with a grin that somehow every child comes out of the womb prepped and ready to argue their case like a lawyer fresh out of law school.
“Pick me up, mama!” My response was a quick refusal. We have a standing rule that if you can’t climb up on your own, you aren’t ready. Besides, I was nine months pregnant with his little brother, and going into labor at the playground was not on my itinerary that day.
“Next year, maybe you’ll be big enough for that, too,” I say, offering up my compassionate smile as a counterargument to his plea.
“Next year” to a three-year-old is further than the moon. It’s further than Christmas or their next birthday. So it might as well just be a no.
And yet, as in all parental folklore, “next year” came quicker than I expected.
“Hey, mom!” A shout from behind me turned my attention from his little brother, now almost one, playing in the sandbox at the same playground the following spring.
Well, look who is up in that tree.
This is where I could say, “kids grow up so fast.” It’s true; they do. But that’s not what I was thinking as I looked up in that tree.
I was thinking how little he looked.
Here I was watching him do something that only “big kids get to do,” and yet in that towering tree, with his tiny hands gripped around the branches, his sweet face set and determined to watch his balance, shaggy blond hair dangling over his ears and eyes, he looked so little to me.
A four year old is in fact very little. But how quickly we forget that.
It becomes especially true when we bring in a younger one into our family. Suddenly, next to these tinier beings with their very obvious needs and vulnerabilities, we will our medium-size children into being bigger than they are.
We advertise “big kid” roles to them like a social media influencer. Wow, look how cool this big kid thing is! Don’t you want to be big? Look at all the things you can do when you are big!
We then expect them to behave a certain way, to pick up on the lessons we seem to be drilling into their little minds on repeat. And when they don’t, when they make a mistake, when they have a setback, we feel discouraged.
He had another accident. She never remembers to turn in her folder.
He is STILL not crawling.
Grow. Grow. Grow. Get big. Move on. What’s next?
In all our rush we forget to leave room for small.
It was dinner time, and my husband and I took turns cutting up food for the two bigger kids and redirecting the baby in his highchair from his new favorite game of food throwing. Suddenly my daughter, Caroline, gasped, dropped her fork on the plate, and grinned with the anticipation of reporting very important news.
“Mom. Dad. Guess. What. I have something to tell you.”
I froze mid-cutting of chicken nuggets. My brain instantly hit a time warp where I traveled forward in time; my seven-year-old was now 27 home visiting from her very exciting life, prepared to announce she was engaged. Or moving to South America. Or publishing a book.
” We are learning how to do…division.”
Oh, thank God. I’m back in the room again, and Caroline is still seven. And I’m so relieved.
For in a brief moment, she had traveled away from me. I literally blinked, and she was an adult doing adult things. And I had missed all the little parts of life.
Yes, division is a very big kid thing to do. But still, she is little.
They all are.
As I said, this is not me feeding the mantra “they grow up so fast.” There will always be parts of parenting that I am okay wishing to move on a little more quickly than they are. But, I’m also not going to feel bad about looking with envy and wonder, much like my four-year-old at the big kids in the tree, at the mom who seems to have so much more sleep and doesn’t have to wipe as many bottoms because her kids are grown and independent. I’ll be there before I know it, maybe even before I’m ready for it.
But I am going to try to remember that they are little.
Everything is still so new to them. They deserve the grace and the time to be little. Grow at their own pace. Try again and again and again.
So do I.
With tippy tiptoes slowly gliding down the branches one by one, I watched Elliott make his way back to the ground where I sat.
“You must be so proud of yourself! You couldn’t do that last year and now look at you!”
He glowed with accomplishment. But under that smile, I saw his eyes, the ones I used to gaze at while we rocked to bed at night when he was as little as the brother sitting at my feet.
Ah, there you are little one. I’m glad you’re still here.