The night of Lily’s first-ever dance class, in early September, she was so excited that she spent nearly an hour dancing around our kitchen in her tap shoes, watching herself in the oven’s dark glass.
And since then, she asks me nearly every day, “Do I have dance class today?”
So color me shocked when she came out in the middle of her most recent ballet/tap lesson – dressed in her pink, skirted leotard, and this week’s appointed class “leader” – and asked to go home.
Huh? Did I miss something?
Oh, yes. I had no idea in the moment, but yes.
This all really began during the class’ transition period, when Lily’s supposed to come out to the waiting area and change from her ballet shoes to her tap shoes. (Ten minutes earlier, she’d come out claiming to have to go potty, but the trip yielded nothing, and I didn’t think much about it.) So while I’m seated with Neve on my lap, ready to help Lily with the switch, she came out and said, with a hint of a whine in her voice, “I want to go home.”
“I miss Daddy. I want to see Daddy.”
“Aw, sweetie. We’ll see him really soon. He’s just making dinner for all of us right now. After you tap dance for a few minutes, we’ll all go see him.”
“But I’m hungry, and I want to see Daddy.”
I pause, processing this. “How seriously do I take this?” I wonder. She’d had a snack on the way from preschool to class; and she pretty consistently eats very little at dinner. But still, there’s not a mother on the planet who isn’t deeply vulnerable to her child’s claim of hunger.
Nonetheless, I tried to convince her to stay. “We’ll go home really soon. Let’s put on your tap shoes, and as soon as class is over, we’ll go see Daddy and eat.”
“I don’t want to wear my tap shoes.”
OK, the first request was strange, but this one is downright bizarre. Lily wants to wear her tap shoes all the time at home. She loves them. What on earth is going on? (Since there’s only a small window through which to watch the class, I’m not able to observe much of the class for myself. So that option was out.)
“Do you want to just keep your ballet shoes on?”
“Yeah,” she nods.
I shrug. “OK. I don’t think it will matter that much.”
So after this odd exchange, she finally runs back into the studio, and I hope whatever that was about is behind us.
Just a few minutes later, the door opens, and Lily’s back out in the waiting area, sitting on the floor and saying that she wants to go home, and that she’s tired.
“Sweetie, there’s only a few more minutes left in class.”
“My legs are tired. I just want to sit down and watch.”
My impulse is to say, “Maybe the teachers will let you do that,” but I stop myself. That’s probably not right.
“I want to go home. I’m tired. And I want to see Daddy.”
With Neve still on my lap, I came down to the floor to look her in the eye. “Are you sure? The class is almost over.”
“I want to go home,” she repeats.
Sigh. Of course, I’d gone through all the logistic craziness of feeding Neve at daycare, getting Lily changed into her dance clothes, packing everything we might need, and carting everyone to the studio. And I knew Lily had previously adored her dance class. Nothing about this made sense.
But then I remember, two weeks earlier, overhearing another mother in the studio waiting room who mentioned that her 4 year old wanted to quit dancing, but the parents were making the girl finish out the year. Though, in retrospect, this is likely because the parents paid for the whole year outright, in the moment, I thought to myself, “Why make a kid stick with something they don’t enjoy? There’s so many activity options out there. If they don’t like one thing, move on to something else.”
So my own little moment of parenting truth had come (conveniently, it arrived moments after I cut a check for this month’s lessons). And when faced with Lily’s insistent pleas to leave, I spoke quietly with her on the floor for a few minutes, trying to figure out what might convince her to stay, before saying, “All right, then. Put your tennis shoes on, and let’s go.”
She did, and we stepped out into the evening, pushing Neve in her stroller toward home.
Lily perked up immediately, on to the next thing. “Is it nighttime, Mommy? It’s dark out.”
“Yes, it gets dark early now, because it’s fall,” I said, my voice tight and deflated. Not just because it appeared Lily’s love affair with dance might be over (though that in itself was a bit of a bummer, since I’d loved watching her flit about the house in her leotard and tap shoes); there were lots of other activities (soccer? gymnastics?) that Lily could try. No, I found myself mostly frustrated because her 180 on this issue was confusing and whiplash-inducing, and I had a sense there was a better way to handle it. It was just eluding me.
“I think the moon is following us,” Lily chirped, happily.
I was wracking my brain when it hit me: the one thing that made this class meeting different from past lessons was that at the start of class, the teacher announced that it was Lily’s turn to be the class leader.
Exactly what this meant, I don’t know, but I suspected it meant she was the first to try various steps they were teaching. So as we pushed Neve’s stroller across the street, toward home, I asked, “Lily, was it being the leader? Did you not like that?”
“No, I didn’t,” she said.
While you’d think that solving this riddle would make me feel better, I felt strangely more flustered and angry. Even if we turned around and explained things to the teacher, the class would pretty much be over. And what was I teaching Lily by getting up and leaving? That when things get difficult, you should just quit?
Again, this was a situation where there was no clear answer or solution. Each choice I had seemed dangerously booby-trapped with potentially bad consequences. And this drove my stress level through the roof.
“Sweetie, I don’t understand. If that’s what was bothering you, why didn’t you just say that when I asked? We could have told the teacher you didn’t want to be the leader, and the problem would have been solved.”
“Because I didn’t want to,” said Lily.
I set my jaw as we turned into our driveway and entered the house. Lily ran up to the door, bounding in to greet Joe, while I muttered and brought Neve inside. I knew I needed to keep it together and not lose my temper, because I knew, in part, I was more angry with myself than with Lily. Why weren’t my instincts better? Why didn’t I figure out right away what was going on? Why is it that, in so many parenting situations, every answer seems equally wrong and damaging? Why couldn’t I ever, just for once, feel competent as a parent?
We sat down to dinner, and I curtly told Joe what had happened, making it plain, to him and to Lily, that I wasn’t happy about the whole thing. “She lied to me,” I said. “She told me she was hungry, even though she’d had a snack; that she was tired, though she seems not remotely tired now; and that she missed her Daddy, though it would only be a few minutes before she saw you.”
I had to leave the room to feed Neve, but I overheard Joe carrying on a calm, rational conversation with Lily. She confirmed that each of the initial things she’d told me weren’t true, and Joe explained that lying to us wasn’t OK, and as a result, she wasn’t going to be allowed to watch her 30 minutes of “Sesame Street” that night.
Lily moped about this for several minutes, but when she pulled herself out of it, she came to me and asked if we could read books together. We curled up together in our big yellow armchair and snuggled while reading book after book after book. And just like that, the wound was healed.
But the second guessing came even then: would punishing her only make her hold faster to her lies in the future, rather than coming clean? Did she even mean to lie, or was she just trying on various excuses because she didn’t know herself what was wrong?
Ugh. It hurts my head, the circles we drive ourselves in as parents. There’s no end to the questioning of every micro- and macro- judgment you make, every day, because the stakes seem so ludicrously high.
And this particular issue is one I know I’ll probably have to face again. The likelihood is that Lily will try lots of things she doesn’t particularly love. And how will I handle each of these? Will I try to talk her into sticking with some of them? Or let her flit about, delving lightly here and there?
This is partially hard for me to grapple with because I was never much of a quitter. (I started playing trombone at age 11, for instance, and I still play now.) The only thing I remember consciously making a choice to quit was my Girl Scout troop, which I thought was kind of lame, in fifth grade.
I remember that my mother made me promise go to the first organizational meeting that year, because she thought I should stay with it. I knew my mind, though, and after the meeting, I said, “I still want to quit.”
My mom gave me the cold shoulder that evening, clearly not pleased with my decision; and I’d never quite understood why. I’d thought, I know with bone certainty what I want. And it would only make her life simpler, since she wouldn’t have to drive me to meetings. What did she care?
But I understand a bit more now. That particular year was the probably the loneliest, toughest one of my childhood, and my mother was probably pretty worried. My body was developing far more quickly than I could handle or understand; this, combined with my less-than-stellar hygiene regimen, resulted in B.O.; and I had few to no friends. I’m sure my mom saw the Scouts as a positive, simple means of keeping me circulating in my little world, so that I didn’t just close myself off in our house, watching television and reading books – which is precisely what I did, of course.
So I get it. When it’s your child, every tiny shrimp fork in the road gets blown up to exponential proportions, and we’re paralyzed by decisions – because none of us feels we know what we’re doing. The reason parenting books seem to contradict each other is that every choice has its good points and bad points. So sometimes, everything you do, despite your good intentions, feels wrong.
So this past week, when Lily has said she doesn’t want to go to dance class, I’ve said, “Well, let’s just see how you feel on Tuesday.”
On Tuesday morning, I mentioned it was dance class day, and Lily jumped up and down and said, “I’m going to dance class?”
And in the middle of this week’s class, when she came out to change her ballet shoes to tap shoes, a friend of hers in the class told her mommy, “I want to go home.” And minutes later, Lily said the same thing to me. Who knows what’s going on. For all we know, all this could be the girls repeating what someone else in the class is saying. There’s just no telling.
“Lilybug,” I said, “all that’s left of the class is about 10 minutes of tap dancing at this point. Could you just go back in for the last 10 minutes?”
“OK,” she said, neutrally.
And she did. On the walk home, I asked her what her favorite part of class was, and she said tap dancing. I said, “Well, it’s a good thing you stayed for the last part, then.”
“I don’t like the first part,” said Lily.
“Then maybe we should find a class that’s just focused on tap dancing for you when you get a little older. Does that sound good?”
“Yeah,” she said.
I almost felt competent – for just a minute there. But where things go from here, of course, is anyone’s guess.