Dirk Knemeyer

Elena 4.0

Elena’s fourth birthday was last week. Four…it is hard to believe she was born in Cambridge, MA as it feels as though we have been in Ohio far longer than that. Her entire life has been here, at least from the standpoint of place being discernible in pictures. She is four and I am 40; days roll by in an instant into weeks and Elena grows in ways small and remarkable.

For some weeks now Elena is able to engage in fairly sophisticated bargaining and manipulation. She has figured out to lie if the truth will prevent her from having what she wants – for instance, she will lie about picking her nose or lie about already having had a dessert early in the day to avoid a chiding or missing out on another dessert, respectively. I’m certainly teaching her not to lie earlier than I might have expected! That nuance aside, I can literally watch Elena’s mind move. That’s because I recognize it as like my own. Despite my rarely using those particular skills and tactics in life, and carefully not with the children, I see Elena manifesting the same kind of thought process and asymmetrical instincts that I have. It is so different from her mother’s guileless dealings but native to me. As in so many other things, it gives me a lovely opportunity to parent her from a place of understanding.

It is funny – not in a way I would actually comment or laugh about to Sigrid – how differently Elena is with both of us. When Elena wants something she’s more likely to ask her mother for it. That’s because she is likely to get it. She will carefully choose to persist or to whine or to use logic to wear Sigrid down and get what she wants. Sometimes, I interject in order to steer her away from what she is trying to get. She responds by saying, “Daddy, mommy and I are talking about this.” She knows my will overcomes hers so wants to stay with the easy mark! However, even though in her moment of impulse or desire she tries to bypass me to get what she will, she actually prefers being controlled even at the expense of what she wanted.

For example, today her mother wanted her to clean her room in order to the library. Elena did not want to clean her room and they were at an impasse. Elena surveyed the situation and decided to try and pout and cry. I watched Sigrid get more stressed. The familiar pattern would play out: Elena would continue refusing and shifting her tactics until Sigrid finally gave up and cleaned the room herself. Now it was my turn to exercise the manipulative muscles. I could tell that reason or threat would not make progress. What Elena needed was to see how ridiculous she was, on the ground and whining and fake crying over having to clean her room. Elena very much considers herself a “big girl” and gets upset when I call her “my baby”. So I started laughing out loud, telling her how ridiculous she looked and that she was acting like a baby. After all, big girls would never act that way. Pretty soon she was laughing too, then agreeing with me, and then cleaning her room. I don’t know how long I will be able to stay a step ahead of her, but so far I’m really glad that I am for her well being as well as Sigrid’s.

We continue to be incredibly close. Sigrid signed Elena up for a week of ice skating camp a month ago and Elena loves it. So now every Tuesday evening I take her to ice skating lessons. It is perhaps her favourite part of the week – because of the ice skating, not because of me! – but since she enjoys it so much she really appreciates my taking her there and watching. I’m also now taking her to ballet regularly on Saturdays which hearkens back to a year or more ago when we ran errands together on Saturdays, a routine that I definitely miss. She and I share such an easy understanding, I wish that she and Sigrid had the same. It is such a distinct reminder about how personalities and people have compatibilities and not.

Watching her ice skate has a powerful effect on my own memory and nostalgia. Seeing her learn to skate reminds me of when I learned; I go back and remember making the same moves: stepping, breathing in the cold air, being out of breath, starting to get the hang of it. Elena is so into it: next to the other couple of 4ish year olds in her group she is the only one really alert and engaged in a certain way when the instructor is showing them what to do. On the other hand, when they are turned loose to skate from one side of the rink to the other, Elena often loses focus looking at the older kids to her side skating. While she rarely falls during the structured activities her trying to watch her seniors and their more advanced activities will periodically land her on her butt.

Along with ice skating and ballet Elena continues with her violin. This is her triad of enrichment activities. Otherwise she loves to perform. At night before bed she gets dressed up in her big princess dresses and high-heeled shoes and crowns and other accoutrements and “performs”. A lot of it is just imagination and more noise than anything meaningful. But she relishes the experience of performing. She still likes being tossed around and tickled, but it is increasingly less of these things and more of her tromping around and performing.

Elena naturally views herself in the context of her brother. If I say something to her that she perceives as negative she then says the same thing about Soren. I say “Little El-e-na!” and she is sure to quickly say “Little Sor-en” or, to stay a peg about him, butcher his name “Little Sor-Ben”. She also likes to be first (or last), and that stretches beyond just Soren to Sigrid and I. Getting her food first; finishing her food first; getting tossed first; getting tossed last. Whatever. It is one of many things that we’re pretty sure she has gotten from her preschool. So many things, ranging from a little sounds she makes when she is preparing something “Dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh-dunh” to how she plays with other children. I really appreciate being able to pay attention and see the seams between nature and nurture, having a fairly good sense of what she was born with, what she is getting from us, and what she is getting from others. Much more than with my older sons I see her yearning for external influences, seeking out in the world new secrets and experiences that will make her whomever she eventually becomes. It’s lovely.

Elena does a variety of disgusting things that we assume are just normal for her age: picking her note and eating it, scratching her butt and smelling it, scratching her privates and smelling it. We try to discourage these things without being too negative about it, but not knowing whether things are age appropriate or just weird leaves us in an odd quandary about what to do. Easily the diciest is her liking to rub herself. From a long-term perspective we want to teach her to feel good about and in control of her sexuality. So we don’t want to be too intense or overbearing about it, but we also want her to not be conspicuously touching herself in front of other person. Of all the things we deal with in parenting, this is by far the hardest one for me to navigate. In a couple of years I will be able to explain it to her in a way that makes sense but for now…tell her it’s bad? Tricky.

Anyway, Elena remains a delight and I am grateful to have her as part of my life every day.

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