Last week I was a chaperone for my 5-year-old’s class field trip—a walking tour of the neighborhood for the children to snap photos of local businesses and talk about the bunny story they had been reading. It was a rather dreary day, but happily the rain held off and our journey was only to last an hour and a half.
The idea seemed sweet and simple enough. But, holy moly, were they a mess!
Ronald pretty much cried immediately. Sarah started just as quickly to make silly contorted faces at Chloe. Marni was zoned out, chewing on the collar of her jacket. I lost count how many times Tyler wandered away from his partner. It took several blocks and several of us to figure out what Brian was saying. And almost every picture anyone took looked like the shots accidentally fired when your camera slips from your hand and bounces on the concrete a couple of times.
I don’t say this out of meanness or judgment. In fact, I feel I can say it because each and every one of those 18 kids falls somewhere in the range of “normal” as far as I am concerned. They are all in a regular public school pre-k class and all look, talk, and act more or less like how they developmentally should, which is very much my purpose in writing about this field trip, to talk about what “normal” is.
While I had visited my son’s class before, this was the first time in which I was privy to the whole gaggle trying to move around in the real world, and it was just ridiculous and funny and frustrating all at once. But as inefficient and unexceptional as the experience was, for days after I kept thinking of the strange comfort it gave me.
It was a much-needed reminder of what normal is when it comes to kids—that it is an extremely broad category, and that all versions are messy and slightly dysfunctional. At the risk of sounding like I had found company for my misery, I walked away feeling better about all of the times I (incorrectly) deem some quirk or momentary fuss or inability as potential “problems” in my children, and ones I am so sure are particular to my children only. That is, I am sorry I often do this, but happy to know that my children are perfectly fine.
Perhaps because my older son is being raised in New York City; perhaps because kids in general today lean towards the precocious; perhaps because I pride myself on being “with it” and there’s some genetic component that I believe made its way to him; or perhaps because he is in fact an older brother and my husband and I consciously and unconsciously compare him to our 2-year-old, I often forget that he is only 5. And forget what “being 5” means.
This comes out in different ways. Sometimes my husband and I are simply too analytical about children and child rearing, or we are too impatient, or we make assumptions about what he knows and wants (or what he should know or want). Sometimes we just don’t savor the charmingly naïve thoughts that can only come from a person who is not a baby and not yet an adult (Does the real Spider-Man still live in Queens? Who is the real Elsa—the one who sings the song?)
It is so hard to understand how and why these tiny human brains work as they do, and as parents we are either left to laugh at the absurdity of everything, or, too often, we are driven near mad with frustration—when even one or two kids, let alone 18, can’t stand still for a millisecond, won’t respond to a simple request, or are seemingly incapable of not touching every disgusting surface in the near vicinity (Must you really drag your hands along the scaffolding like that and then touch your face?!).
Seeing my son’s class in all its misfit glory gave me a context for my son in particular and as a 5-year-old, as well as some perspective on my own ability (or inability) to believe that my child is doing just what he should be doing. It was also a gentle nudge for me to calm down and stop being so critical (something that is not limited to my role as a mother).
I won’t pretend that it is possible to ever relish your child, say, fully palming a public toilet seat with both hands, but I do welcome reminders to try to accept the many ways in which kids show their innocence. It is a very short time we have with these mysterious little creatures.