Dirk Knemeyer

Elena 7.0

My daughter turned seven recently. Her seventh year of life was one of the best years of my life. Our closeness is a source of tremendous joy. I know at some point in the next few years she will pull away from me, as children do in their development into adulthood, and this looming transition makes me appreciate these years all the more. Let me try to memorialize some things from this past year:

Shortly after the release of Civilization VI, the latest version of my favourite PC game, I took a chance and introduced her to it. Somewhat to my surprise she took to it with tremendous enthusiasm. It is now her favourite thing to do every day – even more than the crack-like video watching on the iPad for an hour in the evening – and the learning she is absorbing is amazing. As we discover things in the game I use Google to bring them up and show pictures of them in real-life, whether they be rulers, cities, wonders…whatever it is. Now, some months later, she speaks easily about a wide-range of topics such as Cleopatra, Stonehenge, and the Great Barrier Reef. While I enjoy our playing together, of course, I particularly appreciate how she is learning and growing in a natural, joyful way. It is a stark contrast to school which, while I think she enjoys on a day-to-day basis, she generally dreads going to beforehand and sees it as work and the learning there as not fun. Sad!

Speaking of school, Elena struggles with recess. Each day we talk and she gives me a thumbs up, thumbs down, or thumbs sideways on how recess went. If it is up, it means she had someone to play with. If it is in the middle, she had someone to play with for a bit but they left to do something else. If it is down, in her words, she just walked around sadly with no one to play with. Ultimately, her problem is one of inflexibility: she doesn’t want to do the things the other kids are doing such as playing tag, also avoiding larger groups and not wanting to spend time with an oscillating set of people. She wants to play the things that she wants to play, with who she wants to play with. I advise her to be more flexible to make more friends and have things to do – which helps a little – but more recently her mother set up playdates with other girls she likes. A great idea, this deepened those friendships and has led to a lot more “thumbs ups” in recent weeks. Hopefully this is a permanent change.

Otherwise, Elena is doing well in school. She is successful with the academics and is kind and considerate with her peers. Her favourite subjects are art, music, and computers. Unfortunately, in the shambles that are the public school system, she only gets each of these for one hour a week. In some alternate reality they actually enrich our children properly. Someday, perhaps…

Elena’s interests in school translate to things she enjoys at home. She continues to play the violin remarkably well. She has also started singing this year and, without lessons, I actually think she’s better at singing than at the violin. I am an awful singer, but in the past when I would sing lyrics Elena would always ask me “Why do you look so sad?” when singing. While “sad” wasn’t quite the correct description for my look she, now, has that same similar soulful look when she sings, which makes me smile. But what makes her great as a singer is how well she sings, and the only thing I know for sure is she didn’t get it from me or her mother!

Her art and drawing continues to develop and, in projects such as a two-class-long self-portrait she did at school, is already better than I could do. As with singing I am a miserable artist so the bar is perhaps low, but seeing her childlike execution of things continue to mature is always a wonder. I have no frame of reference to comment on the quality as compared to some objective norm but from the standpoint of my personal perception it sure seems remarkable.

Elena continues to want to sleep with either me or Sigrid. This is a result of a general fear/discomfort with being alone at night. I was a little concerned about this, but thanks to Google it appears that this happens with other children and, sometime between now and the time she is 10, this should change. I hope it does not translate into her not wanting to be alone as an adult, and the myriad of bad life choices that come from that particular insecurity.

Before Elena goes to bed – wherever she might be sleeping that night – we usually spend anywhere from a few minutes to an hour talking. One of the things I’ve tried to use that time for is to help her understand the world better, in terms that attempt to straddle being age appropriate for a 6/7 year old, but sophisticated enough for her to tangibly benefit from. The most successful of those, and also the most potentially nettlesome, relates to how her mother is sometimes mean to her. Sadly, when growing up, my wife’s mother was often mean to her – presumably unintentionally – in ways such as unfavorably comparing my wife’s appearance to her own. Now, with our daughter, my wife is periodically more harsh and even mean to Elena in comparison to her brother. As one might expect this can be confusing, hurtful, and disorienting for Elena. Explaining this multi-generational pattern of behaviour helped her to understand the origin and even have empathy for her mom. I hope I am planting seeds that lead not just to her health, but a new and healthier multi-generational pattern with her own children.

Elena has always gravitated toward “girly” things. This is in spite of my actively trying to reinforce that different toys, activities, and things are not gender-specific. And, in spite of my wife not being very “girly” at all. While it doesn’t bother me for her sake – I want her to be her own person, her way – it makes me question my parenting that she is so into Barbies and other traditional female tropes. At least she loves her Legos – albeit the pink, “girly” types.

I think Elena is going to be a creative, like her mother and myself. Along with her art and music activities she loves to act, she has taken to writing – including her first “novel” – and loves to do crafts as well. Her writing is funny as it belies the fact she does not read much; her spelling reflects how words sound, not how they actually are spelled. For example, she has a sign that reads “Librare” posted on the bookcase in her room. Cute!

Elena’s biggest challenge is jealousy around her brother. While it seems to be fairly typical for a first child, it is nonetheless unfortunate. When we are playing a game of Uno, say, and she may make a comment like “I’m happy if I win, or mommy wins, or daddy wins.” notably leaving her brother off the list. This is particularly vexing in juxtaposition to how her brother acts toward her, as he is as warm to her success and enjoyment as his own. But, she tries. It’s almost like a compulsion, the classic angel-devil on the shoulder with the red beast taking over for a moment.

I jokingly call her “Elena Complana” from time-to-time, because she is quick to complain about just about anything. She is picky and takes a posture of discontent. For example, she often wants to eat something different than the rest of the family eats for meals which Sigrid typically enables much to my dismay. I’d like to try and get her to be a little more flexible while she is still young and presumably more moldable.

For her birthday this year I gave her a two night vacation, with her and I alone together, to Amherst, MA. A two hour drive from our home, the plan is for Amherst to be the first annual trip that we take together. She shows a great interest in travel – Japan is her dream destination – and my plan is to take her on journeys in ever increasing concentric circles: driving, then driving farther, then driving to Canada (international!), then flying close, then flying farther. Until, eventually, Japan! She loves to talk with me at night about these adventures.

Consistent with her love of Japan, sushi remains her favourite food. I think she would eat it every day if she could; it is always what she wants if we are going out. Her tastes are similar to mine in that she gravitates toward proteins and desserts as opposed to starches and vegetables. We’re always working on getting her to eat more vegetables though…

Beyond the closeness and friendship she and I have, from a parent’s perspective, I am proud of the type of person she seems to be. At school and in social situations she is kind, thoughtful, and inclusive. At home she is sweet – albeit sometimes not to her brother – and she wraps herself in a world of creative imagination, where she is making and playing and dreaming in so many happy ways.

Happy 7th birthday Elena! The last year of your life was one of the best of mine, in some large part due to my affection for you and the love we have together.

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