Right around Lyle’s fifth birthday in August I was organizing the kids’ books. I came across our copy of “It’s Hard to Be Five: Learning How to Work my Control Panel” by Jamie Lee Curtis and Laura Cornell, and I did a double-take. Five?? Really? I asked myself, thinking of Lyle who was quite mellow at that moment. Five is hard? I mean, we all know ages 2 and 3 can be tough, and my vote for hardest year (not having raised teenagers yet) is age 4, but somewhere along the way I forgot about five. When I stopped to think about what prompted the purchase of the book for Baxter some years ago, I shuddered and pushed it to the back of the bookshelf, telling myself, That was just because it was the year we moved here – you know, all that life upheaval he had to handle. It was out of the ordinary.
Well, this past week with my five-year-old has been just a bit challenging, my friends, and I’m ready to say that perhaps I can’t attribute all of Baxter’s former five-ishness to the transitions he went through that year. Lyle’s been cranky and ornery, controlling and weepy. He’s excruciatingly jealous of Baxter’s 9th birthday, which was last weekend, and handled each and every gift and card that wasn’t for him like a dagger to the heart. (This when he’s got a brother who shared every gift with him immediately and even let Lyle open a couple of his presents for him.) On multiple nights afterward, Lyle cried at bedtime because it hadn’t been his birthday that day, and then sobbed at breakfast when he awoke because there were no gifts for him on the table. He did, in fact, receive a gift from us on Baxter’s birthday because that is a family tradition, and he even got a $5 bill here and there from kind relatives who stuck something in Baxter’s birthday cards for him. His needs have been quite well tended to. Furthermore, he has a full understanding of just how far away his own next birthday is; this pining for each day to be his special day is all fantasy, a way to relieve himself of his jealousy towards Baxter on all of us, an outlet for the tears.
But, oh, the drama!
Unfortunately, the crankiness has extended beyond our family at times (but only when I’m around, he’s been just fine elsewhere, I’m told). He was so nasty to the girl we carpool with, pushing her aside and shouting that he had to get into the car first after school because THAT’S JUST THE WAY IT IS, that, well…let’s just say that quickly became the way it WASN’T. He’s lost immediate, highly-desired privileges left and right for being mouthy and rude to others since Saturday. Which happened to be Baxter’s birthday.
Fast-forward to this afternoon’s violin lesson. Due to his general mood, Lyle walked in without his usual sunny smile for his fabulous teacher. She couldn’t get much eye contact or a real answer about anything from him. And remember, she is that magical combination of early childhood teacher every child dreams of and incredible music teacher. But there was my son, responding to as little of it as he could get away with. His mood actually turned aggressive when it was time to do some games that he perceives as more challenging for him. At one point, she happily sang something to transition them to a new activity, sat down, and asked him to sit with her on the floor; Lyle stood at eye level with her, sent a cold, steely gaze at her, and said cruelly, “You know… you’re not very funny.”
Yes, he did.
I’m not positive if this was before or after the time when she asked gaily if they could put his puffy coat on the floor between them as a “cloud” in case one of them dropped their violin bows in the game they were playing. I could tell he didn’t understand what she wanted to do with it, they’d never done this before, and so he became wary. He stiffly refused, pointing to her coat and saying in a rude tone, “No. Yours.” And then proceeded to step on it with his boots on when she laid it on the floor.
Yes, he did.
I know there was at least one other really awful moment but I’ve already buried it in my mind. I was beginning to feel like I was in a live episode of “No, David!” Wicked, wretched child. If there’d been a hotline to a child psychologist in the room, I’d have been on it.
It seems to me that the majority of young children get extra shy and quiet when they feel anxious in a new situation; Lyle sometimes does the exact opposite. Normally a quieter guy, he goes on the offense and attacks anyone who makes him feel even slightly threatened.
I’m not going to say there were no good moments in this half hour, but I was having trouble getting past these mortifying, where-can-I-hide moments, so I’m not sure what they were. Of course, I seriously reprimanded him in the moment and she didn’t take his nonsense either, but nothing felt like enough. And, honestly, without being able to transport him ahead 9 months to August 27 and letting him have a birthday all his own, and erasing all challenging tasks from life, I guess there isn’t really a way to do enough this week. This appears to be one of childhood’s struggles that has to play itself out.
And so after a lot of conversations about expectations, kindness, and Santa’s elves (so sue me!), and a pretty sweet apology card (posted above) that is going into the mail to his teacher tomorrow (to which he added “I love you” all on his own at the end), we relaxed into a normal evening and I no longer wanted to throttle the kid. Not much at all. He sat with me after dinner and asked to do some great fine motor work on his letter and number writing. He focused and listened and was proud of himself.
When he went down to get ready for bed, I pulled the book about being five from the corner of the bookshelf where I’d stuck it a few months ago, and brought it to his room with me. He’d never seen it and was intrigued. He loved listening as it shifted from pages about anger and difficulty controlling one’s mouth and body to the pages celebrating all that’s wonderful about being five. It acknowledges the ups and downs, the complexities of being bigger, and the greater adult expectations that go with that. And it helped me, as well, to read phrases like:
It’s hard to be five. Just yelled at my brother. My mind says do one thing, my mouth says another.
At five I can lie down alone in my bed and dream of my past and my future ahead. And when I mess up or do right, it’s a start, ’cause I have my own mind and I have my own heart.
I need remember that it’s only one day in one tough week – just one part of a day that had many high points, too. But there is no doubt: it’s hard to be five.