Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Waiting for Leo



When my children were small we read a lot.  It passed the time and there was less guilt involved than watching Teletubbies. (Not that I’m down on Teletubbies, mind you. Tinky Winky, Dipsy, Po and Laa-Laa will forever be the Fantasia chapter of my early parenting days.)

We started with the classics – Big Red Barn, Pat the Bunny, Peter Rabbit, and our five copies of Goodnight Moon.  Note to any future baby-shower invitees – the Margaret Wise Brown book is charming, but as a gift it is not exactly original.

Over the months and then years, our shelves sagged with board books, Shel Silverstein collections, pop-up books, and the requisite Spanish picture books – because it’s never too early, just ask the marketing team at Baby Einstein.

We owned one book that irked me every time I read it.  Leo The Late Bloomer.  Sure, it was amiable enough. A book about a tiger that can’t read, can’t write, doesn’t speak and is a sloppy eater.  While all of the other cubs are hitting their developmental milestones, poor Leo is a late bloomer.

I remember thinking that this might be a comforting addition to the libraries of other parents, but it was taking up valuable space on my shelves from more sophisticated fare. My toddler spoke in paragraphs, would best any adult at jigsaw puzzles, and could hit a pitched ball while still in diapers. A first grade teacher recommended that he read books for blind children because his fluency and enunciation were so strong.

So when it came time to weed our shelves, I gave away our copy of Leo The Late Bloomer.  Little did I know that ten years later I’d be checking the book out of my local library – having learned yet one more lesson from a picture book. “Be careful what you think of others because it will turn around and bite you in the ass.”

Sure our little games of competitive parenting start small with comparisons of gross motor skills, potty-training, and baby teeth. And then one day, every kid can roll over but the comparing and judging don’t stop. It just gets more insidious. No one says to you on the soccer sideline, “Wow, his enunciation is really good for a 14-year-old.” 

No, instead the acquaintance next to you asks, “Do you think he’ll really be able to compete, with his size?”

I resisted the temptation to reply, “Do you think reading will always be difficult for your child?” And instead said nothing at all.

She’s right; my child is small. And so am I. I’m not even big in the places it would be fun to be big. Slim is slim, but tops out at almost 6’3”. So if I want to take credit for my son’s agility with the English language, I’d better be ready to own up to my hindering his stature as well.  But the potential is there.

When you are a 14-year-old in our body and sports obsessed culture, potential doesn’t get you very far. There are mustache competitions for boys and bra shopping parties for girls.  And then there are the countless tales of the kids who skip the showers after gym and sports to avoid showing that they’ve nothing to show.

We try to be patient and wait for Leo to bloom. Recently, my son came home with his measurements from a school health assessment.  I held my breath waiting for Slim to say, “wow, I was over 6 feet in eighth grade.”  Yes, it is an interesting observation, but not a helpful one.

And my husband said to our son, “I was bigger than my friend Jamie all through high school. And now he’s taller than I am.” My son’s eyes grew huge and all he could say through the smile was, “Really?” I nearly welled with tears of pride. It was a parenting moment of clarity.

And I was served my moment while crawling on my knees in the children’s department at the library this week. Leo The Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus is of course shelved next to his sequel (who knew?) Little Louie the Baby Bloomer, which is next to The Growing Story by Ruth Krauss.  Seriously, I was just in the K’s – I was not specifically in the late bloomer section!  (And why are all these stories shelved with the picture books, and not in the juvenile and young adult sections?)

And there, next to The Growing Story was Krauss’ masterpiece, The Carrot Seed. Even though our copy was packed away in the attic with my other favorites, I immediately took the book off the shelf and read it. A simple story of a seed that no one but a little boy believes will grow. He waters it, he weeds it, and one day a carrot comes up, “just as the little boy had known it would.”

Leo and The Carrot Seed are essentially the same story. So why did I hold on to one and quickly shed the other? Granted, I don’t usually care for anthropomorphic tales, but it was more than that. The answer is in the colorful pages of the books and the competitive games parents play on the sidelines.

The little boy actively nurtures his seed and gets results. Leo simply waits with an expression of increasing doubt for 23 pages. “Then one day, in his own good time, Leo bloomed!”  He can do nothing to move the process along. More importantly, Leo’s mother can do nothing to force the bloom.

As a parent of a young child, it is easy to take pride in and credit for an early aptitude, rote memory or even a taught or purchased skill. But as our children get older and grow – or don’t grow – that competitive parenting game on the sidelines becomes one in which there are no winners. Every parent and child is waiting for something, or nurturing a seed of some sort. I can only polish my watering can and tend to my own weeding.

And just so you know, if Harper Collins publishes a new release, Leo’s Constitutional Growth Delay, it is not actually a new book. Or a new story. Or a new diagnosis. It’s just Leo.  And I’m trying to be patient.