One of the great things about parenting young children is that every once in a while they hit one of those unmistakable developmental milestones – rolling over, sitting up, walking, talking – that marks their progress towards becoming fully functional human beings. Right now Polly is coming up on one. She is beginning to try out a whole series of new sounds and words. The words ‘dog’ and ‘frog’ have become consistently recognizable. ‘Purple’ and ‘mommy’ and ‘daddy’ are starting to round into shape. She used the word ‘home’ for the first time today. Each time one of these words comes out of her mouth I get a little thrill followed by a briefly flashing sense of accomplishment. It’s as if every word she speaks provides another bit of confirmation that I’m doing okay, that my parenting is getting her to where she should be.
While it’s nice, this sense of confirmation and accomplishment is way more substantial than is probably justified. Human beings walk and talk. They do these things regardless of how well or poorly they are cared for and largely on timelines that are their own. Certainly, the care I give them matters in a whole range of ways. But for me to take their new ability to roll or walk or talk as confirmation of my value as a parent is to grandly overestimate my role in their learning these particular skills.
(And yet, I can still barely contain myself whenever a new word comes floating out of either kid’s mouth).
On the flip side of this, there are a whole array of moments for which I tend to grossly underestimate the level of my influence on Pip and Polly. I was reminded of this recently when I took the kids to get passport photos.
Ava and I have been talking about taking the kids overseas for a while now and, after a couple of opportunities popped up on our radar screen, we decided it was time to start the process of getting passports for them. One of the more worrisome elements of this process for me was getting the necessary pictures done. Passport photos have to be arranged in a particular way. The subject has to be standing alone against a blank background and looking directly at the camera. Pip is old enough to follow instructions and not get freaked out by having some stranger with a camera standing between him and me. With Polly, I wasn’t so sure. I had visions of her being nervous and uncooperative. Then, I imagined, I would have to try and hold her while ducking down low enough to be out of the frame of the picture as the photo clerk struggled to get her to look directly at the camera long enough to get a good shot. It was not a situation I wanted to deal with. But, we needed the pictures so I packed up Pip and Polly and took them down to the local Walgreens.
Stepping inside the door, I grabbed a shopping cart and put Polly into the fold out seat. Pip hopped on the end, and we rolled over to the photo counter. When I told the hulking, 22-year old clerk that we needed passport photos for all three of us, he took a deep breath. Then, he dug a digital camera out from a drawer and pointed us over to the end of the counter where a small projector screen hung down beside a desktop computer. While we waited for him to set things up, I explained to Pip that he needed to stand up straight in front of the screen and look directly at the camera when the clerk took his picture. I then asked him if he wanted to watch me first. He said yes, so I stood in front of the little screen, looked right at the camera, and held still while the clerk took a couple of pictures.
Then it was Pip’s turn. His head did not quite reach the projector screen so the clerk set out a blue plastic milk crate for him to stand on. To my relief, Pip did exactly as instructed. He stepped up on the crate, stood straight and still, and looked directly at the camera while the clerk took a couple of shots.
After Pip hopped down, both the clerk and I looked anxiously over at Polly as she sat quietly in the seat of the shopping cart. She perked up some as I unbuckled her, pulled her out, and dropped her down on to her feet. Before I even tried to explain to her what to do, she walked over, climbed up on the milk crate and looked straight at the clerk. She didn’t move. She didn’t flinch. She stood there serenely, two small orange hair clips holding the wayward strands of her bangs away from her face. The clerk leaned over to get a level shot. She stared calmly at him as he took a first, then a second, and then a third picture. Then, she promptly stepped down from the milk crate and stuck out her arms for me to pick her up. I hauled her in, gave her a hug and kiss, and slipped her back into the seat of the shopping cart. My worries had been unfounded. Polly had obviously watched what Pip and I did so when her turn came, she knew exactly what to do.
This experience with Polly and the passport photos reminded me that it isn’t the big ‘photo-worthy’ moments to which I should be paying the most attention and for which I should be feeling the most satisfaction and/or blame. It’s the daily, quotidian situations like going to the grocery store or playing on the playground. While there are certainly some biologically given inclinations in Pip and Polly’s personalities, how they encounter, trigger, express, interpret, work out, and negotiate these inclinations are all learned through a process of constant observation and careful imitation. As the primary caregiver, I am frequently the initial data point in this process, establishing a precedent against which Pip and Polly measure and evaluate their subsequent observations. This requires me to be constantly aware of what I am doing and what I am saying because they are always watching.
I have slowly come to appreciate this and am learning how feel the same sense of accomplishment from successfully executing a passport photo as I got from seeing Pip and Polly’s first steps. In the grand scheme of things, I think I had much more to do with the former than I did with the latter.