May 3, 2013
By Ekta R. Garg
Normally during the week the girls only have Wednesday after school free. During the rest of the week they’re either in dance class or swimming lessons. So two weeks ago when Six and Four’s swimming instructor said she had to go out of town, the girls suddenly found themselves with two additional free afternoons and took full advantage of their time together.
Six goes to dance class on Mondays, which means Four stays at home with their grandfather. With the weather so nice, Four got to play outside and couldn’t wait for her “di-di” to get home. By the time Six gets home from dance class, she’s usually too tired to do much but still manages to humor her little sister with Legos or coloring or one of their imaginary games.
On Tuesday and Wednesday of that week, the girls spent all of their free time after school together. At one point I remember thinking how quiet it was around the house because the two of them were squirreled away in one of their rooms.
By the time Thursday—Four’s dance day—rolled around, Four had decided she didn’t need to go to class. I told her she had to go, and she decided to take her anger out in a new way.
When she got up from her afternoon quiet time (our family’s term for a nap, since she’s only napping once every two weeks or so at this point,) she told me she didn’t want to go to dance. This debate happens every week, so I didn’t think too much of it. She always tells me she doesn’t want to go, that dance class is boring, and then she goes and has a great time. She walks out of each and every single dance class all smiles and proudly displaying her stamp of ballet shoes or butterflies or hearts or whatever else the teacher has chosen for that week.
As I said, I didn’t think too much of it. I probably should have, though.
We got to dance class and I helped Four change into her ballet shoes. I had an errand to run, so I told her that I would be back in ten minutes, watched her walk into the classroom and saw the teacher shut the door, and then left.
About 10 or so minutes later I came back and I settled myself close to the viewing window. I saw Four acting less than enthusiastic, and a prickle of worry crept into my heart as it always does. Was Four okay? Was she not feeling well? Did something happen?
The answer to the last question was a “yes.” During the class break when the kids have to change from their ballet shoes to their tap shoes, I went into the classroom just as Four pulled off her little pink slippers.
“Are you okay?” I asked her, more to humor my ultra-sensitive daughter than anything else.
“I told Ms. B. that she’s lazy.”
“What did you say?” I asked her.
“I told Ms. B. that she’s lazy.”
Now, you have to understand, even though my daughter is only four years old, she’s incredibly aware of herself, her surroundings, and other people. This is the same child who, at the age of almost two, actually told me she needed to take a nap—and then fell asleep within 10 minutes when I put her in her crib. She has a keen eye—she’ll spot things and people on the road when no one else on the car will, and she makes unbelievable connections. Just earlier this week as she watched the little pollen fuzzies floating through the air from the trees, she said, “It looks like snow.” And, wouldn’t you know, it did.
So when she told me that she’d called her teacher lazy, I knew she couldn’t possibly make something like that up. But why on earth would she say such a thing? And this, too, to a teacher who has a lot of experience with young children and who has always had the sweetest disposition?
For a minute I thought Four’s imagination had finally gotten the best of her.
The kids are practicing for the recital in the summer, and even though neither of our girls will perform in it the teachers at the dance school make sure to include everyone in the dance and structure it so that everyone gets to learn it without altering the final performance. Ms. B. invited all of the parents into the classroom to watch the children practice their recital piece, but Four stayed resolutely by the wall. She wasn’t going to dance the recital piece.
In order to avoid disrupting the rehearsal portion of the class, I quickly took Four out of the classroom but I didn’t know what to say. Her statement baffled me, and I still felt like maybe I’d either misunderstood what she’d said or that maybe she’d just thought it in her brain (as she’s wont to do.)
But, no. Once again my daughter had called a spade for what it was.
When the other students had finished rehearsing the recital piece and the parents started filing out to wait for the remainder of class to finish, I walked Four back inside.
“I’m sorry for what she said to you,” I told Ms. B.
She expressed her shock, as much at what Four said as the fact that she’d said it. And I apologized again.
After class my mind began to race. What was I supposed to do? How should I punish Four to make sure the lesson stuck?
“Now I know I’m going into the storage room,” she called from behind me as we drove out of the parking lot. “Right? I’m going to the storage room, right?”
“I’ll have to think about it,” I said, trying to add enough mystery to scare her.
The tactic worked. I looked in the rearview mirror, and I could see her become increasingly nervous. Four hates the storage room. She’s only had to go there once or twice, and she’s never had to go all the way in for her punishment. Just standing close to the storage room door—or even on the stairs—made an impression on her.
She and Six also know that I seldom make empty threats. If I say I’m going to do something, I give them a chance to fix the problem. If they don’t, they get punished. No questions asked, no long-drawn arguments. The punishment goes into effect immediately.
So sometimes the threat of a punishment works just as well as the punishment itself.
I didn’t say too much to Four on the way home. She tried to engage me in idle conversation, but I didn’t really respond much. It increased her anxiety, but my mind still searched for an appropriate punishment.
By the time we got home, I’d decided what to do.
The next day after school I made Four take out a piece of paper and write an apology note. We talked through what she needed to say and what she wanted to add on her own, and then I told her that she would have to give it to Ms. B. herself. She agreed reluctantly. I’d let her off the hook the previous day by giving her a pass on the storage room, so she knew she’d have to pay the piper at some point.
Last Thursday as I dressed Four for class she looked at me with a wavering smile.
“I’m nervous to go to dance class today,” she confided.
“It’s okay to feel nervous,” I told her. “You just have to remember that you’re doing the right thing, and that’s what is most important.”
We got in the car and went on our way, and she managed to keep her confidence up by commenting on inane things. When we parked the car outside of her class and I helped her out of her car seat, she looked at me once again with seriousness.
“Will you come with me?” she asked, and I assured her I would be right by her side when she went to apologize.
By the time we got to the door of the dance studio, she felt less enthusiastic.
“Do I have to?” she asked, continuing her truncated conversation.
“Yes,” I said firmly but gently. “When you do something wrong, then you have to apologize.”
We entered the studio, and Ms. B. stood by the front desk chatting with the receptionist. Four clasped my hand tightly and approached her teacher.
“Do you want to give it to her out here or in class?” I asked, noticing the empty classroom.
She didn’t say anything, but by then Ms. B. had figured out that Four had something to say to her. She followed us into the empty classroom and knelt down. Four handed her the note.
“What is this?” she asked in a kind manner. Four just grabbed on to my leg.
“Do you just want me to read it?” Ms. B. asked. Four nodded. So Ms. B. read the note and then beamed.
“Thank you, [Four,] I really appreciate this,” she said, giving Four a hug.
Four hugged her teacher back and then looked up at me.
“I’m proud of you for doing the right thing,” I said to her. She continued to look at me with those solemn eyes framed by her seemingly-endless lashes, so I immediately turned the topic to her dance shoes and where she wanted to put her dance bag.
I hope my daughter remembers this lesson. I explained to her before and after her giving Ms. B. the note that even though we might feel scared to do it, it’s always better to apologize for something. I’d told Four that I understood she was mad about having to go to dance class when she wanted to play with her sister instead and that everyone makes mistakes sometimes. The difference comes in those people who own up to their mistakes.
I think she got it, and she realizes she can’t just take her anger out wherever she feels like it. But here’s a moment of truth: if I need to run errands during dance class again, you better believe I’m going to hold my breath when I come back.