My 7-year-old daughter has trouble sitting still. Over the years, I’ve watched her peers learn to focus. First, it was just long enough to draw pictures, then sit at a desk to absorb lessons. I’ve watched them do schoolwork without crumpling the corners of the pages and leaving the table in tears, or follow and instruction from start to finish. I kept waiting for my kid to do the same.
When she was 5, each night at the dinner table, I found myself asking over and over to put her bottom in her chair, then begging and pleading. Yet every time I peered up from my plate, she was on the move again. Pirouetting across the kitchen. Trying to stuff something in her baby brother’s mouth. Making the vegetables on her plate talk to each other or have a broccoli race.
At the start of public kindergarten, what was more of a minor inconvenience became more clear cut. Getting ready for school was another lesson in patience. “Please put on your socks,” “brush your teeth,” and “eat your breakfast” were instructed over and over again until my husband and I were throwing up our hands, asking one another what we were doing so horribly wrong. No matter what we did to try to help her focus on getting ready, we’d turn our backs and she’d be gone — having a tea party, pulling out books, or covering the bathroom sink in toothpaste.
The daily battles were so constant it was almost laughable. But it was also immensely challenging at the same time. If red wine sales have been booming since 2010, I was more than likely to blame.
The same lack of focus was evident when we arrived at school each morning. There were simply too many distractions for my distractible daughter to simply hang up her things and head into class. A friend walked by, a stranger walked by, a mom has on a purple hat, it smells like popcorn. No matter what time we’d get there, I’d somehow end up the last parent sitting on the floor of the hall, gently redirecting, waiting and taking deep breaths. In preschool, I was told it was age-appropriate. But in kindergarten, her distractibility wasn’t met with such understanding.
Soon there were bigger issues than my own irritation. At home, she’d complain of getting in trouble for fidgeting or chewing her hair in class. At parent-teacher meetings, I was told my kid wasn’t meeting the standards, which I knew were perhaps unreasonably high for a kindergartner in the first place. But it still stung that my smart kid who’d been doted on and read to every day of her life was far from hitting the mark in certain areas. On a handful of visiting days, I’d watch her gaze out the window during lessons. Sometimes I’d excuse myself to dry my tears in the bathroom and glue on a smile before heading back into the room.
I used to find myself getting angry. Why can’t she sit still yet when other kids can?, I wondered. But finally it hit me — it isn’t under her control. Focus is simply a genuine struggle for her. My daughter has ADHD and sitting still long enough to ingest an appropriate amount of food, put on her shoes, or color a picture is still a challenge for her. Sitting still long enough to do almost anything is a challenge for her, at least right now. And while those issues might make public school, and the increasingly intense demands of early education an issue, at home, I don’t have to fight it.
While my kid can’t focus on a lot, when she’s in her imaginative happy place, as she almost always is, she becomes hyperfocused. At 7, my daughter is serious about dance. Watching her flit across the stage with no fear makes me understand her a little bit better. She almost never stops singing, dancing, or performing, and when she’s doing these things, it seems like she’s home. She could put on the most extravagant performance you’ve ever seen and play this way for hours on end. Ask her to paint you a picture of an elephant, and you’ll be there all day. Ask her to be an elephant, and you’ve got yourself hours of entertainment.
Attention is not my child’s strong suit, and that’s okay. She has so many other amazing gifts. When I stopped trying to press her into a hard mold and let her shatter it, everything fell into place. Life got easier when I decided to accept my child for who she was and helped her become the best version of that person. As a family, we’ve decided to embrace this aspect of her personality and treat it as a blessing.
We opted out of telling her she was wrong. And after a year of homeschooling, where dancing and adventure-seeking were more than permitted, next year, she’s headed to a nontraditional school where desk-sitting is optional and you don’t get called down for chewing your hair. Needless to say, my child is more than relieved that she won’t have to feel like she is always doing something wrong simply by existing.
You don’t get to choose your child’s strengths. But you do get to choose whether or not you let yourself see them. I hope that my distracted child keeps letting her energy soar and discovering who she is. And instead of battling with her, I’m going to help her embrace that person. The cleanup might near kill me, but childhood is messy and you can’t fix what isn’t broken.