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Sunday, September 25, 2011

Follow the Leader

          I am following his lead up the hill and around the monument. I am positioning my walking stick the way he has instructed, being careful to do so the right way. I am looking up at his stride, matching mine to his as he marches around in a square and towards the steps. I am listening to his commanding and assured voice as we make our way up the wobbly makeshift steps, dodging the insects below and surmounting the vast hill. “This way, everybody! Follow me. OK! Here we are, plant your walking sticks in the ground!” he advises as we approach the overlook, panting from the exercise. We’ve made it.
          I am not on a hiking excursion or following a tour guide in the wilderness. I am journeying up the big hill at our favorite park in town following the leader - my tiny three year old son. His slightly younger friend is with us, and though we’ve traveled up this hill a thousand times since moving here, today, something is different. My son has taken charge of the two of us in a way that makes me surrender to his guidance and strength, as if I am the child, the vulnerable and eager tourist. Although I know this hill, this park, this historic monument where George Washington’s mother came daily to pray and mediate like I know the route of my own home, I find myself looking up to Aidan for direction and reassurance as he makes us track our spots with walking sticks and pretend to go camping. My eagerness and subordination to him is authentic this time, not some make-believe role reversal that parents often engage in. I am mesmerized by the confidence in his leadership, and I surrender completely to him. “OK,” I respond to his commands, legitimately putting my trust in Aidan as he directs us to the next part of the venture.
          Aidan is a natural born leader. I literally gave birth to a brand new infant that swayed his arms about with animation, as if he was conducting an enormous orchestra or managing an entire theatre of puppets by himself. His newborn eyes roamed the room eagerly, as if to say, “what can I control in here?” His defiance of strollers, car seats, seat belts, shopping carts, swings, bouncy seats, and everything else that other babies seem to enjoy, we learned, was not an attempt to drive his parents crazy, but rather Aidan’s way of obtaining mastery over his own life. “So what if I’m two months old? I’m not going to go in that stroller and there’s nothing you can do to control me!”
          Over time, we learned to follow his young lead, and the more power Aidan was able to earn, the more he seemed to chill out. When he started cruising furniture at seven months, we approached the walking stage with relief rather than anxiety. When the little thing did start walking then running a few months later, we followed his lead, trailing behind him as he decided where he wanted to go. We always respected Aidan’s independence and need for freedom. Later, as his verbal skills and personality traits grew and became more nuanced, we realized that his extroverted and theatrical personality plus his strong will made the way for innate leadership quality. A choreographer. A teacher. A politician. An entertainer who can draw you in with humor and subtle tone. Aidan can be all these things in one day.
          But with the gift of leadership comes the disappointment and frustration when things don’t go as planned. After awhile of pretend camping at the top of the hill, Aidan’s friend grows bored and drifts down to find his mother near the playground equipment. Aidan grows perturbed that someone in his crew would jump ship, ruining his whole master plan. His nostrils fume in irritation and his normally mature voice grows cavechild-like again. “Come back here!” he demands. I offer to stay at the plateau of the hill to look for treasure near the evergreen tree. But when Aidan orders me to crawl under the branches to search for acorns and I cannot fit, I continue the mutiny and tell him I’m going to start heading down too. He fumes, he shoves his small pointer finger in my face, he turns angrily demonic for a few seconds as he expresses his anger at me. “But I want you to go under the tree!” he emphatically roars at me. He continues to bully me angrily. His tone approaching the realm of unacceptable behavior, now I need to turn into Mean Mommy. Lecturing Mommy. We are suddenly lost in the wilderness again, my confident tour guide turned savage bully. I explain about respect when someone declines to do something Aidan wants. I remind that we can’t tell others what to do, we can only ask. I threaten discipline for nasty tones. But we’ve veered too far off course from fun, respect, teamwork, and even leadership. In Aidan’s place is his recent alter-ego, Mr. Bossy. I look for an internal compass within to steer us back, but am suddenly dumbstruck at how to handle this little guy, as well as my own feelings about his Jekyll and Hyde pendulum swings.
          I want Aidan to be liked. I want him to always have friends. With his inborn gregariousness, I never worried about this before. But lately, it seems as though my son’s need for control and dominance can turn very, very ugly when he is unable to organize the people in his life they way he sees fit. No one likes a bossy kid. A bossy kid with boundless intensity, high emotions, a flair for drama, all fitting into 27 pounds of small body. It’s an overwhelming combination. I read about bossiness in kids. I discover I am doing exactly what experts say not to do with such a child - tell him that no one will like him if he is bossy. I can’t believe my mouth can utter that phrase, so opposite of the confidence-boosting things I try to instill in Aidan normally. But it seems to just come out when Aidan is in the midst of his freak outs.
          How can I find an equilibrium for Aidan - gently balancing his gift for leadership and his imperfection in being too bossy? Over his three years, I’ve come to develop such high expectations from this little man due to his overwhelmingly complex language and imagination. How could I not expect emotional maturity from someone who wants to discuss life and death and relationship issues ad nauseam? We’ve never struggled with hitting, kicking, biting, extreme sharing issues, or the like. Instead, my challenge has always been reining in his intensity, holding the delicate gift of Aidan’s fiery spirit in my palms and finding its power, dispelling its toxicities.
          The current Mr. Bossypants matter has thrown me. How can I control someone who wants control? Instead of stroller and car seat protests, this has to do with personality, spirit, and a sense of self. How can I let Aidan’s leadership strengths shine brightly enough to overshadow his dominance and grouchy disappointment when things go wrong? I hear the gentle whispers of truths blowing through my mind. This is not my balance to find.
          Two days after following Aidan up the hill, we are walking downtown with friends, having just taken the boys to watch trains go by at the small station. On our descent from the ramp, Aidan wants to lead the way back. His eyes gleam with the opportunity to pilot our crew, his elbows bend in right angles as he speed walks precociously down the street. “Come on everybody, this way!” He is in his glory. Soon, other mothers lost in conversation begin to stride faster than him, innocently moving their way in front of the miniature tour guide. Left behind and stunned by another mutiny, Aidan regresses to young toddlerhood again. “No one else can be the leader!” he growls from his gut. He stomps his foot on the cement, eyes white with possessiveness.
          I kneel to the ground on Aidan’s level and, embarrassed by his snarling bossiness, I snap. “Aidan, you may not speak like that to anyone! Ever! Everyone is allowed to take turns being the leader.” A reasonable parenting response. “You are going to lose all your friends if you keep being bossy to them!” I add impulsively, hoping the shock value will finally drive home the point. Aidan crumbles to the dirty ground, tiny palms over his shut eyes. Hmmm, maybe that was a not-so-reasonable parenting response. At first I think he is just upset I have snapped at him.
          It’s only when we drag ourselves a few blocks to the heart of downtown and Aidan sinks again to a heap on the cement sidewalk crying that I realize what’s happened. My social son, the boy who saunters out of preschool casually tapping his friends on the back to leave as he says, “’bye Jack, ‘bye Matthew,” like a mini John Travolta walking the streets in Saturday Night Fever - my little extrovert whose livelihood relies on the attentive ear of others has just heard that he is going to lose all his friends. He’s taken it literally. His heart has been broken, trampled not by a first girlfriend or the inevitable void that grows within friendships, but by his own Mommy’s gloomy prediction. I’ve been so worried about others breaking the strong spirit of my son that I have unknowingly crushed it myself in the process.
          Our friends head on to get home for lunch and naps, frowning sympathetically at us as Aidan and I sit on the sidewalk in the midst of midday downtown business. I look up to say goodbye, as I know I will be there for awhile, holding my tiny guy, trying to undo the mistake I’ve just made with tender touch and soft words. The two of us hold each other, and my mouth begins to redraft a warm, appropriate response to Aidan’s domineering intensity. As I talk, apologize, modify what I said into what I should have said about being a leader and being bossy, I think back to all the times since Aidan’s birth that we’ve found ourselves here in this place of forgiveness, humility and rebuilding. For every time I snap, bitch, control, and act impatient with Aidan, we inevitability find that these routes never work, and only lead to trying again with love and understanding. And perhaps Aidan’s leadership issues are not at all dissimilar to how I parent him. Perhaps he needs to make the mistake of bossing people around and dictating and demanding, if only to pave the way for better leadership and communication. And perhaps this is something he needs to do without my management.
          We sit on the pavement of the sidewalk as mail carriers, businessmen, and tourists walk by us and time stands still as we mend our bond of trust. There is only Aidan and me. After awhile, we rise and make our way south towards the river. We’re hungry, and need a reprieve from intensity. I’m struck by how my historic town reminds me so much sometimes of the little towns in Europe I‘ve strolled through. Today the sky is overcast and the air smells of French fries, musty historic architecture, and exhaust fumes from passing buses. The combination is sweetly nostalgic for me, and brings me back ten years ago to the first time I made my way across the Atlantic completely on my own. As Aidan and I wander through the streets of our little tourist town I’ve come to know so well, my upper lip sweats with the afternoon humidity and I somehow feel lost as I search for a café that can satisfy my child’s craving for a simple grilled cheese sandwich. Ten years ago, wandering through the hilly streets of Europe, feeling at the mercy of Italian street names I could not understand, alone - I felt the same drifting anxiety. I was where I was supposed to be, but yet didn’t know it at the time. I returned from my journey a slightly wiser young woman with a better sense of direction, knowing that it was not exactly the trek to a foreign country alone that allowed me to find myself, but the drifting through humid streets, the dead ends and wrong corners that paved the way for me to figure it out on my own. Today I am a tourist yet again, this time with a young child walking in synchronicity through the dense air. I am disoriented, but Aidan is assured, his little arms pumping his body down the cobblestone streets towards his goal. This is his journey towards self-discovery, balance, flaws and strengths, not mine. And these are his streets to walk and to lead. I slow my pace and follow the leader. He already knows the course.

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