The Time My Child Schooled Me, on Life

The tears poured down my face, hot and wet. I think it was my most proud moment as a parent. Yet, my 8-year-old daughter’s achievement could not be measured by a sports ranking or a letter on a report card. Her wisdom on the drive home from gymnastics that night so far surpassed my expectations that I was jarred, nearly speechless.

Walking hand in hand out of the gym, she started to tell me something but stopped herself with a quick “Nevermind.” When I persisted from the front seat, she took a deep breath and said, “Mommy, you can sell my iPod because I know you are looking for a job right now and we probably need the money.” Her voice cracked halfway through the sentence and she cried the rest.

My heart plummeted to my toes. The gravity of that offer was not lost on me. A month prior, the iPod was THE top birthday gift on her list. It was a much discussed compromise since we weren’t ready for her to have a handheld gaming or texting device. The wrapping paper was ripped in record speed and through squeals and spazzy jumps, she proclaimed it “the most awesomest gift ever.” The two have been inseparable. It’s clear she views it as a symbol of maturity and privilege and a surefire way to tune out her two younger siblings. Every unoccupied minute, she bops through the house like a bona fide teen belting out pitchy lyrics over her top volume headphones.

Emotions in response to her selfless proposal came in waves. First, I was angry with myself. I DIDN’T want my daughter to worry about adult things. I must have used the “essentials, not extras” message to rationalize more “no”s than I realized. Then, sadness, I DIDN’T want my daughter to feel my stress. The trickle-down effect was probably inevitable, but I still felt like I’d failed my girl. The waves stopped when I paused  to consider what I DID want for my daughter. Above all, I wanted her to be honest, empathetic and kind. She showed me those qualities and in exchange, I owed her transparency.

Her assessment of our situation was accurate. I was looking for my next consulting gig and my husband was building a new business. We were under some financial strain. But she was missing the critical context.

So I laid it all out. When she was born, we decided having one parent work a more flexible job was ideal for our family and along with that came some trade-offs, like less stability. And, while these types of jobs can be harder to find, in eight years as a freelance communications consultant I’d been fortunate to have many jobs and few breaks. This break was the first one when her Dad was also self-employed and, that meant for now, we’d have to do more with less. I told her these are the times that test faith and family and I was glad we shared those things.

She didn’t flinch and said, “Mommy, I just want you to be happy. I want you to have a job you love.”

Stunned, I wondered why I hadn’t shared more of the “why” with her, sooner. I knew it wasn’t pride. My child already knew I was not perfect and we never avoided tough topics. Maybe it was protection or maybe I was just too exhausted. One thing was clear, I’d drastically underestimated her ability to “get” the whole truth and to synthesize what’s most important.

What she didn’t know (nor do I want her to know) about the iPod was that we already owned it and simply dumped the data, refurbished and loaded it with her favorite songs. It had zero monetary value to us. But her willingness to trade her most prized possession to relieve some of her family’s burden was of immeasurable value – pure social-emotional gold.

She got it. People over things. A truth I hoped she knew based on our conversations and family choices, but never imagined she’d grasp so tangibly at such a young age. A truth I’d always talked but perhaps temporarily stopped walking. In the scramble of providing for and serving my family, my mindset may have become more practical than personal.

But my sweet second grader nailed it. She gave me a gift I’ll never forget in that brief car conversation. One day I’ll tell her how she re-calibrated my heart and mind to what really matters, when I needed it most. I won’t wait to tell her that I already have a job I love, and it’s not one she’ll find on my resume.

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