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No Longer Toddlers, Not Yet Teens: That’s the Parenting Sweet Spot

Young boys

Just the other day, I read that the American Institute for Learning and Human Development, an organization whose mission is to provide teaching resources focused on neurodiversity and multiple intelligences, advocates a 12-stage model of human development. In it, the ages between 9 and 11 are defined as “late childhood.” Afterward comes puberty, and a child is no longer a child in developmental terms — he or she is an adolescent.

I gasped upon reading this — my oldest, my son, is 8 and a half. (And at 39, incidentally, I fall squarely within the Institute’s range for “midlife.” Double gasp.)

How could it be, I wondered, that the child whom I remember gestating and then nursing all night long — with the same clarity as if it happened yesterday — is nearing the end of his childhood? Does that mean that in which my opinion counts more than all the other opinions in his life are numbered? Will he soon refuse to snuggle with me? Could this really be happening?

My daughter, thankfully, is only 5, so she still inhabits the “middle childhood” zone. But even that surprises me. I feel as if I’m just emerging from the all-out oblivion that was breastfeeding, toddler tantrums, and living with two children who barely slept. (I’m not kidding.) She was a baby a second ago — and now she’s halfway through her childhood?

But if I’m being honest with myself, I can see that things have shifted for us; we’re in a new stage as a family. This past school year was the first with both of them in elementary school, which gave me loads more time than three-days-a-week preschool to develop my career and enjoy a couple of precious moments to myself between teaching, writing, and homemaking. I practically galloped away from drop-off every morning, amazed at the light and breezy feeling that took hold of me as I exited the school gates.

I’ve recently said goodbye to all butt-wiping. Goodbye (mostly) to middle-of-the-night vomit in bed. Goodbye to struggles over car seats. Goodbye to waking up at dawn with a kid every damn day. I will not miss any of that.

Instead, I’ve been celebrating independent toilet use and (mostly) consistent hand-washing. Hello to making it to the bathroom in time when they don’t feel well (again, mostly). Hello to booster seats! Hello to the fact that my kids can entertain themselves in the morning until I’m ready to get out of bed.

It’s true that some moments — OK days, or even weeks — are still tough. Eleven weeks of summer, for instance (but who’s counting?), with a budget for only three weeks of day camp. And just recently, I was feeling the stress of an impending work deadline while battling with the rat’s nest of my daughter’s hair for what seemed like hours. Meanwhile, when I said “no” to another gadget just like the ten he already has, my son ran down the hall and slammed the door. Good times.

And yet, I can look back at where I just was— always toting a diaper bag and changes of clothes for everyone while totally bound to (aspirational) naptime schedules — and recognize that the spot we’re in now is pretty sweet. My kids are growing more independent by the day. They’re fun and funny, up for adventures with their mom. They’re inventive and imaginative and playful. They still hug and kiss me in front of their friends. And — though we’ve had a few basic, proactive conversations — I’m not worried about drugs and sex (yet).

After all, from moms of slightly older kids, I’ve caught a glimpse of what’s to come. My friend Jill, mother of a middle-schooler and a high-schooler, recently lamented that she barely even sets foot on her kids’ school campuses because they prefer it that way. Her two kids went to the same elementary school as mine do now, and I know what an involved parent she was in our community. Now, however, she has to sleuth around for ways to be involved behind her kids’ backs. They still need her — just not in the same way, or nearly as much. For her, there are boyfriends and girlfriends and parties to contend with. Conversations about the tough stuff like sex, drugs, and alcohol are not just “proactive” — they’re for real. And need I even mention driving? I’m not ready for that.

The more I think about it, the more I realize I’m parenting in the sweet spot — post-baby and toddlerhood, but pre-hormone-fueled mayhem. Even though trips to the grocery store are still a pain in the butt. Even though we still can’t go to a restaurant without a kids’ menu. Even though summer can occasionally feel like some special version of hell. I’m taking a deep breath, looking back at where we’ve been, and feeling a little wary about what comes next, but appreciating where we are now as a family. Sweet.

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