Sitting with, not solving, problems

I wrote this article on Friday the 13th, which is traditionally unlucky…but not to worry, this particular Friday the 13th is blessed as it happens to be the 55th wedding anniversary of my parents in law, Grace and Andrew. Happy Anniversary and congratulations to you for your example of lasting love and care!

This Friday the 13th also caps off a full and adventurous week for me…thankfully, the tremendous rain and wind that has been present in Southern California lately did not do any damage to my home or neighborhood (and I hope that is the case for you, too), but it did change things up for me. Normally, I’m a fan of holding class in the rain…it’s such a rare thing for this area, I think it is a true gift to children to let them be out in it and experience it with all of their senses. I have many fond memories of rainy walks in 2020 and 2021 where we either forwent equipment entirely and just wandered in the rain…or we were surprised by a gale and quickly swept up the toys and equipment…but lingered to play in the rain.

But this year’s rain has been a little more…persistent than rain in the past, leaving our parks not only a little damp, but sometimes quite muddy. So, when I got a couple of texts last weekend from parents who reported major mud in the park we usually meet in, we unanimously voted to take shelter in someone’s home for our class. One family volunteered, and it was fine by me, fine by the rest of the families, and fine by the family that volunteered…the one person it wasn’t fine by? The child whose home was volunteered. Yep, I showed up a little early to set up the space and was met by some wide eyes and a very tight grip on Dad’s hand. I acknowledged it was strange to see me in his home, and he pulled his Dad away to another room as I began to transform his playroom into a small RIE space. I thought things would get better for him as his RIE-mates arrived.

It did not.

This poor guy was very distressed to have his routine Sunday morning turned on its head. He knows that RIE happens in the park, and that I do not belong in his house. Something was clearly wrong. He cried and cried, clinging to his Dad…who very patiently and gently held him and reassured him, letting this son work through it… allowing him to cry, holding him, walking away to regroup, then allowing him to sit in his ‘safe space’ (his high chair) and eat a little…And then I realized they were sitting together on the couch, and then a little later he slid off and stood on the floor next to his Dad…and then he joined in with what he saw the other children doing and was soon blended back into the group. It was simply beautiful. His Dad didn’t cajole or dismiss his son’s feelings: he walked that tightrope of providing comfort and security while also allowing his son to be a little uncomfortable. And then gradually, gradually, he eased off the comfort as his son grew more and more comfortable.

Of course, it went the other way for some children when they came to class in my house…again: RIE happens in a park, Melani is always outside. So I got several long looks from children as families arrived to the classes I held in my home this week. Generally, though, seeing the familiar toys and inviting set-up, and feeling their parents’ comfort, children would warm in…some quickly, some slowly. There was one child, however, who actually had been in class in my home once before…out on the deck, not inside, who was very much her mother’s shadow for an entire class this week. “I miss you, Mommy,” she’d say, from 6 inches away, and then would fling herself into her mother’s arms. Granted, she was coming off a long holiday break, where she and her whole family had been sick…her whole family including her brand new baby brother. And it was the first week back to school…so some separation anxiety could rightfully be expected. Unlike the boy from the first story, though, she wasn’t crying…but she was definitely mildly distressed; whimpering a little and never venturing from her mother’s side…not even for snack! Oh, and her stomach was upset…she needed to use the bathroom, but wanted to go home to do it. Mom listened and let her daughter hug her, but also gently pointed out other children and objects, walked with her to the bathroom, went outside to let them have some private time there, came close so she could have snack…but it wasn’t until the very end of class before her daughter was able to separate and play…even venturing as far away as through my kitchen and out to the back to collect a lemon to take home, leaving her Mom behind in the playroom. Kudos to Mom for sticking it out and being comfortable with her child’s discomfort for as long as it took.

The more comfortable we become with children’s discomfort…the more we normalize struggle and effort, the more we empathize rather than rescue, the more resilient and communicative children will grow up to be. But it isn’t easy…not at all. It goes against our instincts (well, mine anyway)…we want to rescue and to pave the way, to be the snowplow, to smooth all the ruffled feathers, to just do it for them when they want it done…and that’s what we want, too, as adults, right? To sail through life with no obstacles or conflicts, to never have to struggle or strain…is it, though? A life without challenge and change is boring! I feel like I’m tempting fate by saying this on Friday the 13th!(!), but persevering through tough times and creating something or changing something is so very rewarding. And even failing after trying gives us knowledge and perspective.

Honestly, the older I get, the more I aspire to have the mindset of an infant…

I’ll leave you with just one more on this topic…

And then there’s the child who was in my RIE in the Wild class for more than half her life…her class has graduated for all intents and purposes, as their lives are filling up with preschool and soccer and dance and gymnastics and birthday parties…life. But we still get together from time to time, and we’ll probably be getting together again soon and when we do, we’ll be meeting in my home and yard. When this child heard the news, she paused and then asked if there would still be banana and water (🍌!). When she was assured there would be, she asked “what’s it going to be like? I’m nervous!”

And that’s the payoff (well, one of MANY) …she can talk about her feelings! She can admit vulnerability. And when she talked about her feelings, her Mom was able to address her fears (most people are nervous when doing something new, but it often leads to something amazing).

Sitting with, not solving problems…raising empathetic, communicative, thoughtful children. That’s RIE in Real Life.