My daughter Greta is 6 and three-quarters. It is very important to remember the three-quarters part - she is much older than her 6 and-a-half year old friends. Conversely, she looks up to her 7 year old friends - they are older, wiser, and in her words "way cool". Take her friend Abigail, for example, who is about 7 months older. We had a nice day at Hanover Day yesterday - our town's annual fair. Greta patiently helped me man our craft table for the first hour or so, but when Abigail showed up, her day really got going. Its funny to watch her demeaner change - her eyes light up, she gets a little swagger in her step. Suddenly I am really not way cool, and the two of them rocketed around the fair together like a couple of teenagers. It is a bittersweet thing to see - she cocks her little hip out and the two of them giggle and whisper secrets to each other. "See ya, Mom" she says, and they are off. They look just like the pre-teen girls I see walking by - they are literally pressed together arm-to-arm, and they navigate around like a school of fish ... never more than a millimeter apart, somehow one knows exactly which direction the other one is turning.
My friend Kate is Abigail's Mom. She is also about 7 months older than me and, trust me, she is very wise. I would totally walk around stuck to her arm-to-arm, if she would let me.
Kate and her husband offer to take the girls swimming at the local Y. I have been trying to teach Greta to swim, or at least to take lessons, for the past three years. I figured she wouldn't want to go, because of her professed fear of the pool. Greta didn't hesitate for even a nano-second. "I'm going swimming with Abi, Mom, see ya later!" she said happily. I pulled Kate aside and whispered that she is afraid of getting her head wet, that she needs arm floaties, or a swimming noodle and prepare her that Greta may think she wants to swim, but that she doesn't really know how yet. I watched them leave with some trepidation, hoping Greta wouldn't have a melt down of fear while they were there.
Later that afternoon, Kate's husband Mike drops Greta home. She is beaming. "MOM! Abigail taught me how to swim!!!" she says. "I used four noodles, then two noodles, then one noodle and I wasn't afraid!!!"
"Greta did great" Mike says. "I was watching, of course, but Abigail showed her what to do."
Abigail accomplished in three hours what I couldn't do in three years. She has way more street cred with Greta than I do, and that is exactly how it should be, although it is hard to let go. It is the double-edged sword of parenting: keep them close, raise them, protect them, nurture them and know when to back away. It is the knowing when to back away part that I find hardest. The temptation to do things for her is always there. To protect her from failure, to cushion every blow. I forget that I'm not sending her into the world alone: she's got friends.
To celebrate Father's Day, my husband takes Finn out to the beach camp for an overnight, and Greta and I have a girls' night in. We eat ice cream sundaes, we watch "Bolt" and stay up too late. Heading upstairs to bed, she says "Mom, lets tell secrets until we fall asleep", but when we climb into bed she wants to talk about her day. "I went swimming today" she says, smiling, her eyelids getting heavy. "I thought I was going to be scared, and I didn't want to use the noodles because I thought people would laugh at me. But Abigail was there, so I wasn't scared. And nobody laughed."
If I had been there, I would have overdone it. I would have talked to her in the car on the way over, told her not to be scared, not to care about what other kids think. I would have told her she doesn't have to do it if she feels frightened. Because I'm her Mom, and I can't help it. Because it is hard for me to let her just be. That is what friends are for.