Last week at her riding lesson, my 7-year-old daughter fell off her horse. Another rider’s horse had nipped and charged at my daughter’s horse, causing it to pivot and gallop away. It threw my daughter off balance and onto the hard ground. Thankfully, she was not hurt, but she was shaken up and embarrassed. As she wiped hay and crusted dirt off her clothing and tried to hold back tears in front of the onlookers, her lower lip quivering in a clamshell shape, she choked out, “Mommy, maybe I should take a break from horseback riding.”
I sighed, bit my lip, and hugged her tight. It was not the time to argue with her. Although I hadn't expected those words to come with such a dramatic experience attached to them, I knew I would hear them one day. Just like I’d heard them about soccer, and gymnastics, and Daisies.
Soccer was too fast, she said; she much preferred creating dandelion crowns with her friend, Julia, on the sidelines. Gymnastics leotards left her feeling too cold, she said, and Daisies was boring. But perhaps she felt some guilt about her misgivings, because she always agreed—albeit somewhat begrudgingly—to finish out each season. And each time, I held out hope that perhaps this sport or that activity would stick. That one of these would become “her thing.” And that the copious amounts of bright pink soccer shorts or glittery leotards or Girl Scout art projects would convince her to finally feel passionate about something. Anything.
My husband and I both found passions early on in our lives. He went from shooting basketballs into his garbage can at the age of five to playing basketball all throughout high school. He even earned a college athletic scholarship.
I loved books and writing from an early age. I would cozy up in my family’s hammock and read for hours on lazy summer afternoons. Soccer was another passion of mine. I played from the early beehive days of rec and continued wherever I found the chance until I was 20 weeks pregnant with our daughter. My soccer number was 14—a number I had hoped I could pass to my daughter. But after that first season, the bright pink jersey sat discarded in her closet, alongside barely used dance costumes and dusty cleats.
After I hung up my own cleats midway through my pregnancy, I’d rub my growing belly and daydream about all of the adventures I’d have with my baby girl. Obviously, I thought, we’d take turns reading the Little House books to each other when she got to elementary school. And I would bring sliced oranges to her sports games, just like my mother had done for mine. And maybe her father would be the coach.
But I soon learned that real life doesn’t always turn out like my dreams.
Balancing the push-and-pull between gently supporting and guiding your child and completely bowling her over with your own opinions is a struggle for all parents—even celebrities. We naturally want to introduce our kids to things we love, but we need to give them room to find their own loves as well. When we stop trying to direct our kids or do too much for them, they're able to see and experience in whole new ways.
In her book The Happy Kid Handbook: How to Raise Joyful Children in a Stressful World, author Katie Hurley discusses strategies parents can use to support children in their pursuit of their own individualized passions. And they are helpful reminders to us all. Here are some of the takeaways I try to practice with my own two kids.
Start with knowing your child’s unique interests and listening—really listening—when they share them with you. (Passions come in more shapes and sizes than just sports, I’ve learned.) Then be optimistic when talking about these passions with your kids. Support that “can do” attitude, and really encourage them to explore the interest on their own. It should be fun for them, not stressful. The more your child associates happy feelings with something, the more likely it is to stick. And, finally, a lesson I took to heart: Don’t pass judgment. Even if your child’s passion is not your own, sit back and let her grow into the person she wants to be.
Looking back now at my own dreams as a parent, I realize that they were only setting me up for disappointment. Even as she grew from infant to toddler to young child with notions and dreams of her own, I was so engrossed in planning my daughter’s future. I was invested in shaping her into who I wanted her to be—and how I wanted us to be—that I couldn’t see her for who she was. I nearly missed seeing the amazing person she is.
My daughter loves getting fancy, just like one of her favorite book characters, Fancy Nancy. She likes dictating to her hairdresser (me) exactly how she wants her hair styled for the day. She carefully deliberates the perfect piece of jewelry to wear with her outfit. My daughter poo-poos team sports in favor of sideline cheering (she’s very good at cheering) and loves books about fairies and princesses. She has never met an art project she didn’t like. And she's curious and open-minded about the world around her. She is an adventurous eater—far more adventurous than I was at seven. An animal lover, she takes great pride in walking our family dog solo. And she is truly as she was born: sunny side up. Her smile is her best accessory, and she almost never leaves home without it. She, figuratively at least, always gets back on the horse. And she is, by all accounts, thriving—with or without horseback riding in the mix.
As for me, I’m learning to recalibrate, to parent the child I have, not the child I thought I would have. But it’s a work in progress. I know I’m far from getting it fully right, and I’m constantly checking myself, reminding myself to sit back and observe, to let go, to watch her grow and follow her lead. Sometimes I find myself getting sad about some of my pregnancy dreams. I allow myself to feel that way for a split second. (I do believe it’s okay to mourn the past you.) Then I remember what an amazing little girl I have growing so quickly before my eyes, and I’m grateful for the amazing relationship that we do have.
And, hey, as it turns out, some of the dreams I had during my pregnancy did turn into a reality: This past summer, my daughter and I cozied up together on lazy afternoons and read through the entire Little House series. And isn’t that what all of this was about anyway? Finding ways to spend time together?
I always thought I would be the one teaching her how to be. As it turns out, it’s the other way around. She has taught me so much more.