Following a Child's Lead

MY daughter, Hallie, has always preferred nontraditional bedtime stories. At four years old, she would veer to the left of the low shelves that held children's books and aim for the pile of magazines on the round table where we ate and paid bills.

Four out of five times, she would slide the latest National Geographic from the pile and slap it against her thigh as she headed for the only comfortable piece of furniture we owned, "the blue chair." We would squeeze in together while my son, Dylan, lounged lankily across one of the uncomfortable pieces of furniture, "the old brown sofa."

As I read aloud about historic villages situated north of us, I was sure every third word was perplexing to the children. Sometimes, I would stop and explain a phrase. So it was that my daughter began to use words like "interpret," and "archaeology."

"It's a perception," she said, "that you don't like to cook."

"It's my perception, too," I said.

Hallie has taken our family along with her through habitats so cold and damp that we scarcely could believe anything would be able to live in such conditions. Yet, some newt or reclusive crayfish was always there, apparently satisfied and healthy.

Last week we read about bats from a book on mammals. The author speaks tenderly of the creatures, making it difficult to believe these are the same mammals that have populated horror shows for generations. We finished the chapter and went outside, where we became another shadow among the fir and hemlock images that cut the clear sky into pieces.

We watched the familiar dives of our resident bats with new vision.

At some point, most teachers become students, learning from those pupils they are hired to instruct. I suspect it is similar for a parent when he or she begins to let a child be the leader. People have encouraged me to sign Hallie up for gymnastics. "She's so agile," they say. Because she seems to dance to some inner music, friends have suggested piano lessons.

To the offer of formal instruction she says, "No thanks, Mom," and proceeds to bury her hands in the garden, looking for earthworms and soldier beetles.

I'm increasingly drawn into my daughter's world of dirt and insects. I'm intrigued by the spider who patiently and persistently builds her web. Should it be torn or destroyed, she begins again. I watch the ants labor over crumbs of food, often larger than their own bodies. They move almost imperceptibly forward. I resist assigning human emotions to them, but I am encouraged by their tenacity. I use it as a model.

Last weekend, we hiked our favorite trail on a promontory in the Pacific. My daughter was in the lead. She spotted a small potato bug. Usually, she would bend to examine the markings. The potato bugs on this trail have a different pattern than those in our garden.

But this day she had already examined several. She only paused to look back to Dylan and me. "Bug," she said and pointed with such authority to a certain spot in the dirt that it would have felt like intent-to-kill to step on that area.

As much as being a family is about support and instruction, it also seems to be about identifying common ground and learning to appreciate differences - about knowing when to teach and when to get out of the way of learning - when to give up the front to someone with a new way of seeing.

A friend calls parenting a "humbling" profession. I would add to that description "educational." Recently on a guided nature walk, the leader told us that slugs have a natural anesthetic quality. Hallie and I often have debated the relative value of slugs - usually after a slug attack on my vegetables. She tends to win the battles and carries the offending slugs back to the woods where, she says, they will stay.

"My mom would like to kill them," she tells the leader and all the gentle people who have accompanied us on this walk. "Humbling?" Most certainly. "Educational?" Without a doubt.

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