Elise ZiegenbeinComment

Big Friendships with Tiny People (The Best Thing I Learned that Wasn't in the Parenting Books)

Elise ZiegenbeinComment
Big Friendships with Tiny People (The Best Thing I Learned that Wasn't in the Parenting Books)
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During the last twelve months, as my toddler and I have been traipsing around the country for various projects and adventures, I've thought a lot about this question: is it possible to forge a friendship with a tiny person? And what if friendship is actually the thing that makes adventures possible? 

Well, if you're looking for an answer on this, don't consult the parenting books; you won't find much. When it comes to babies and toddlers, there are a few main topics of conversation in the literature: sleep training, discipline, and tactics for meeting physical needs. Very practical sorts of things, which are, of course, critical to the life and health of a small person and his family.

But what about friendship? 

Sure, you need to prioritize sleep and discipline and potty training and all that good stuff. And by focusing on the idea of friendship here, I don't mean to diminish the importance of those other aspects of raising kids. But I think that friendship is the secret element that really gives life to our days, a spark that makes everything into an adventure. And yet it's rarely discussed. No one ever told me that building camaraderie with Sam would be the biggest factor in keeping me sane as a stay-at-home mom, or that it was the secret to being able to continue the travel that I love with a toddler in tow

Frequently, people ask me about the logistics of adventuring with Sam: what we do about naps, how I keep him busy in the car, what stuff we pack for airplane rides. And I have lots of ideas about those things. But here's the answer I really want to give: if you want to have adventures with your kid, nurture a friendship with him

"Having adventures" can mean many things, but no matter the scenario, adventures involve tackling things outside the norm. Taking on a challenge. Overcoming an obstacle. And - think about it - it's way easier to do that sort of thing with a friend. When you're in a tight spot, it's easier to manage when you're in it with someone whose company you enjoy, someone you've built up some trust with. I know that most people intuit this, because folks are always telling me that adventures with kids are easier with friends...by which they mean adult friends. And in some situations that's true, of course: sometimes it's nice to run around with another grown-up and herd the kiddos together. However, I don't see that as a substitute for adventuring one-on-one with Sam. What I want to say in response is, "I am adventuring with a friend! He's just shorter and squeakier than you might expect." The more my friendship with Sam grows, the more I am building up relational currency with him, so that when we get stuck in traffic, we can make faces at each other or tell inside jokes, because we both have a sense that we're in it together. 

All those years, before I had Sam, people would drop hints to me that I wouldn't be able to do the traveling I love after having kids. I thought, "It's possible. I see people doing it... rarely, but I see it. There has to be a secret for how to accomplish it." And there is. It's not the answer I expected, but when we're in a tight spot, it's not discipline or even structure that gives us the umph we need to get through. It's camaraderie. Friendship. And this has been true for me and Sam ever since he was old enough to grin at me in the rearview mirror. 

It didn't start at birth, though. In one sense, circumstances gave us a head start during Sam's first flight, at the ripe old traveling age of six days old (a story for another day): as Sam and I loaded into that medical Lear jet and took off over the Atlantic Ocean, I thought, "Here we go, little dude. Our first adventure." And so it began. But, man, it was slow going from there. Grumpy midnights, nursing battles, and the fog of the first couple months didn't exactly make for a burgeoning friendship. For some people, the magic happens the first moment they see the baby, or with the first grin, or the first time the baby says "mama." And, sure, those moments are priceless. But for me the magic developed slowly, a cumulative effect over time through having shared experiences--the time the car broke down on a weekday afternoon at Ikea, for instance, when Sam was two months old. After an initial major freak-out moment, I looked at him and realized it wasn't so different than that first plane ride: "We're in this together. Me and you, dude. No one here but us."

At some point, I realized that I didn't have to wait for my car to break down in order for us to share that sort of moment. I could make that happen at home. I could plan adventures for us. I could treat Sam as my friend, my adventure buddy, and realize that the whole difference was in my attitude toward him. Rather than seeing him as an obstacle to overcome, or a tagalong to drag along, I could see him as an equal adventure companion and as my partner in crime...my friend. 

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You might be reading this and looking at the photos above and thinking, "Well, aren't they lucky to get along so well." The truth is, Sam and I don't always get along. We're not always as cheery as we look in that picture; we get grumpy and sometimes I yell and sometimes Sam yells and sometimes I resent having taken on this challenge. It's rarely easy to befriend someone who's different from you. I'm 5'3", Sam is 3'. I'm 30, he's 3. I'm a girl, he's a boy. I have a full range of vocabulary, and until recently Sam has mainly spoken in vowels and bathroom noises. I love all kinds of music, and he wants to listen to Rondo Alla Turca on repeat for hours on end. I've had to adapt to spending my days and sharing my adventures with this interesting and slightly foreign tiny person who has immediate needs, sometimes has to be carried, and, in recent years, wields a weapon of mass destruction--the toddler scream. Serious friendships take real effort, sacrifice, and patience. But serious friendships also grow and improve over time, through shared experiences, daily challenges, mutual respect, and great adventures of all kinds. 

So, if you're wondering why I love going on adventures with Sam by myself, it's not simply because they satisfy my chronic wanderlust or my confirmed introversion, although those things factor in. It's because our adventures are helping me develop a meaningful friendship with this small person: a nearly-three-year-old guy who is, in many ways, my opposite. And, in turn, our developing friendship gives us the wherewithal to go on more adventures, tackle bigger challenges. And our friendship grows as we go.