Wednesday, January 29, 2014

When the Innocent Are Guilty

When we watch our children dance through the early years of their lives, we often view them as tiny pieces of perfection. It’s tempting to see them as harmless blank slates, kids who love their parents and want nothing more than a hug and some ice cream.
But what happens when they take a step beyond the naïve innocence, and make a real mistake? What happens when they do some real damage? To be more specific, what happens when your nine-year-old plays too rough with her guinea pig and seriously injures her own pet?
So far, our younger daughter has wanted little more from life than a good book, some music, a family to love and a blanket to hold. She’s been “an easy kid,” as they sometimes say. But she’s just nine, so we know we’ve got unseen challenges ahead. On a recent day, one such challenge revealed itself. With a new friend over for a playdate, Chelsea was showing off her beloved guinea pig, a mostly white-furred animal named Marshmallow. For some reason, Chelsea decided to drop Marshmallow on her bed, letting the animal bounce off the mattress. On the second or third drop, the guinea pig didn’t bounce up, but instead crumpled down and rolled over.
Chelsea saw this, and immediately put her guinea pig back in the cage. She told us that her pet had been hurt, but it took some time before she gave us the full story. Her fear of getting into trouble superseded the need to give her parents vital information. Once we figured it all out, we saw a guinea pig that was dragging both back legs behind her, unable to walk normally. My wife cleaned the animal up, and made sure she ate some hay and drank some water. Chelsea, now fully realizing what she had done, cried herself to sleep.
The first thing my wife and I decided was that there was no need for additional punishment on our part; the girl’s pet was suffering, and that provided more than enough consequences for Chelsea. But we did see a need for some real conversation, about how and why this had happened, how Chelsea could prevent it in the future, and why we need to tell the truth when we’ve made a mistake, even if it does bring with it some feelings of guilt. As we talked this through, my wife and I shared with Chelsea some mistakes we had made at her age, to make sure she knew that her parents were not speaking from on high. She listened, nodded, and talked with us, aware of how much we respected her decision to tell us the truth.
It’s been a few days now, and Marshmallow is slowly using those back legs more and more. They don’t appear to be broken, and we’re hoping she is on the mend. It’s going to be tough if the guinea pig doesn’t recover, as that will haunt Chelsea for some time. The knots are there in our daughter’s stomach, and we can’t make them all go away right now. What’s done is done.
Our daughter feels a little less innocent today than she did a week ago. But when that happens, perhaps the best way to grow from this is to communicate about it. Chelsea has decided to write a story, about a girl who is learning how to tell the truth more. She’s mapping out her story web and her characters, and she’s been sharing the outline with her parents. We’ve praised her every step, telling her it sounds like a great story.
 I can only hope that when she finishes this story, Chelsea will have the chance to read it to a sprightly white guinea pig, who will be motoring around her cage in a state of healing. 

Friday, January 24, 2014

Frozen in Time

              Considering the fact that I have watched, played and written about sports throughout my life, you’d think I might feel more regret over the reality that I have no sons. But for the past 12 years, I’ve honestly found it fascinating to be a father to daughters. My two girls have brought me on an eye-opening cultural journey that has covered Elmo and Dora, Disney princess dresses, American Girl dolls, pretend-school lessons, pet guinea pigs, and performances of Wicked both on Broadway and in our living room. Katie and Chelsea are not really interested in sitting down to watch a ballgame with me, but they have brought a world of new experiences to my life.
                Lately, their activity has focused on some songs from a movie soundtrack. It is, of course, the soundtrack to Disney’s Frozen – the album that stands behind only Bruce Springsteen’s new record among the best-selling LPs in the nation. For the past month, children and their parents have waltzed out of movie theaters singing the songs from Disney’s latest animated feature, then quickly downloaded the album from iTunes upon their return home. The songs, which sound more Broadway-ready than the typical multiplex fare, are bolstered by the voice of Idina Menzel, the actress who originated the role of Elphaba in Wicked and Maureen in Rent. Menzel’s rendition of the song Let it Go from Frozen is one of the Oscar nominees for Best Original Song.
                In our home, the girls have been blasting the Frozen songs from our little Bose speakers and lip-synching their way through the whole show. In the car, even with no music on, they’ll practice certain lines together. They’ve seen the movie twice, and are clamoring for thirds. When our youngest turned nine three weeks ago, she asked for a cake in the shape of the film’s snowman character.
                Now I’m no cheerleader of Disney’s traditional portrayal of young female characters. The funny thing about this movie, though, is that even though all of the typical princess set pieces are there – the castle, the gowns, the big eyelashes, the handsome love interest – this film is ultimately about none of those things. It’s about two sisters, and their overriding love for each other. It’s about how far you’ll go to protect and save the best friend you have in the world. In our house, that’s a story worth some attention.
                As my girls sing along to the film’s song Do You Want to Build a Snowman?, we hear the story of a younger sister who is being pushed away by her older sister, and can’t understand the reason for it: “We used to be best buddies / And now we're not / I wish you would tell me why.” The younger sister asks once more for some play time, but after being told to go away, she hangs her head and sings, “Okay, bye.” As I hear my girls singing this together, I recognize that we’re getting close to the time when this exact scenario will play out in our home. Katie is 12, and she’s spending more and more time in her room trying on makeup, watching YouTube videos and, yes, texting. At nine, Chelsea is more interested in playing with her older sister than in spending time alone in her room. More often than not, Katie still plays with Chelsea. But those moments of rejection are nearing, like the gathering of dusk before night falls.
                When it comes to music, I find it incredibly annoying to hear the same song over and over. But as my girls sing the Frozen tunes together countless times – and, to be honest, they’ve got a third singer in their group in the form of my wife – I can’t help but feel some relief amid the repetition. Because it seems that Katie and Chelsea have found something that transcends age differences and hormonal swings. They share a love for music and performance, and that love may connect them when other things do not. My brother and I are three years apart, just like my girls are. As kids, we had our stretch of time when I needed my space from him. But we always had our sports, be it a Yankees game on the TV or a 1-on-1 basketball game in the backyard. Even when we shared few words, there was still plenty of communication in the form of a last-second jumper on the patio, or a Dave Winfield home run on the basement TV.
                My brother turns 40 in two weeks; I just turned 43. We talk about a lot of things now, as adult siblings do. But we still have a soft spot for the sports stuff. Years from now, I can see Katie and Chelsea spending an afternoon together, perhaps at one of their apartments, or maybe out shopping. There comes a point when they turn on some music. For fun, they click on the Frozen album. They smile, and start singing. Together. 
               We only have each other / It's just you and me / What are we gonna do? / Do you wanna build a snowman?