By Sarah Bregel
I have a child who doesn't sit still -- ever. Over the years, I've watched her peers learn to sit long enough to draw pictures (some could do this since the time they were 2). I've watched others learn to stay seated for an entire meal. I've seen most plop down in the school hallway to put on their shoes, then walk into class in a matter of minutes. My 5-year-old girl operates quite differently.
I have had to learn to pick and choose my battles, because when you have a mover and a shaker, everything can be a battle. Each night as we sit down for dinner, I find myself asking her 30 times to put her bottom in her chair and her knees under the table. Yet every time I look up from my plate, she's 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.
Getting ready for school in the morning is often a lesson in patience. "Please put on your socks," "brush your teeth" and "eat your breakfast" are instructed over and over again until my husband and I are blue in the face. Turn your back and she's gone -- having a tea party, pulling out books or covering the bathroom sink in toothpaste. It's so constant, it's almost laughable. But it is also immensely challenging at the same time. If red wine sales have been booming since 2010, I'm likely to blame.
The same lack of focus is evident when we arrive at school. There are simply too many distractions for my distractible daughter to pull her shoes on and head into class with her schoolmates in a reasonable amount of time. A friend walked by, a stranger walked by, a mom has on a purple hat, it smells like popcorn. No matter what time we get there, I'm almost always the last parent sitting on the floor of the hall, gently redirecting, waiting and taking deep breaths.
I used to find myself getting angry ("Why can't she sit still when other kids can?"), but then I realized she wasn't doing it to be naughty. She's not even purposely trying to disobey me. When I bring it to her attention, nine times out of 10, she doesn't even realize what she's doing or that her attention had been lost. Focus is simply a genuine struggle for her. Sitting still long enough to ingest an appropriate amount of food, put on her shoes or color a picture is a challenge for my girl. Sitting still long enough to do almost anything is a challenge for her, at least right now.
From time to time, I'll see another parent having a similar battle. But usually, the child is younger or the situation is more stimulating, such as a birthday party or a visit with friends or relatives. But for many of my peers with young kids, the daily battles of redirecting and refocusing have faded away with the terrible twos and threes. I'm still knee-deep in them.
I've found a few things that have helped my daughter to focus. Parent to child ratio is crucial. For some reason, when my husband and I are both present, it's a losing battle. But when one parent is in charge, giving instructions or offering to help, things go much smoother. Spending plenty of time outdoors is key, as is limiting screen time. Being out in the world seems to serve her much better and she is always more content to be outside rather than in. But overall, no matter what I do, I have a child who has a lot of difficulty settling down in order to complete even a small task and is easily distracted by her surroundings at all times, no matter what they be.
I'm learning to be okay with it. While there are many frustrations that come with having a very distracted child, there's equally as much amazingness. Once I stopped asking why -- "why doesn't she listen?," "why can other children seem to focus more easily?," "why is this so hard?" -- I was able to bask in the glow of her creative, free spirit. There is simply too much good to only focus on the difficult things about my child
While my kid can't focus on a lot, when she's in her imaginative happy place, she becomes hyper-focused. 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.
Every day at our house, there is a show -- many shows, in fact. Ballets, dramas, comedies and operas. And on the rare occasion she does sit down to draw or paint, I hardly ever get a nice little picture to hang on the fridge. Princesses and princes and little brothers and houses do not stay on the page. They must be cut out and turned to performers, as well. Likewise, paint doesn't stay on a palette or on the paper and water doesn't stay in the cup. My kid isn't creating a pictures. She's creating experiences. If you can get past the other worldly mess, her creativity is pretty incredible to witness.
Attention is not my child's strong suit, and that's okay. You don't get to choose your child's strengths. While I hope with time she's better able to sit still long enough to eat a meal (soon, please), I also recognize that children have varying attention spans. Comparing her to other kids her age is not going to help either of us. Asking "why?" or getting frustrated a thousand times a day won't either.
I hope she keeps letting her energy soar and discovering who she is. And instead of battling with her, I'm going to help her embrace her many strengths, which will undoubtedly serve her immensely in the future. The cleanup might near kill me, but childhood is messy and you can't fix what isn't broken.
Photos courtesy of Sarah Bregel
This piece was originally published by Sarah Bregel on Mommy Nearest. Sarah is a freelance writer based in Baltimore. She is also a yoga teacher and self-proclaimed "Mediocre Mama." Join her growing Facebook community or follow her on Twitter.