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On the way home from school recently Zoe told me that her teacher had discovered a trove of ants on the playground. Zoe took it upon herself to warn her classmates to stay away from the ants because they might bite. While those ants were probably harmless, it’s completely understandable that Zoe was concerned about the ants. Last week when we were visiting family in South Carolina, my aunt warned Zoe to stay away from a massive anthill containing somewhat angrier Southern ants than the ones at Zoe’s school’s playground. Regardless, I imagine Zoe’s classmates ignored her advice. Zoe said “my friends in my class are always getting into danger and I’m always trying to save them from danger.” Uh oh.

Fortunately or not, depending on your worldview, Zoe comes from a long line of rule followers. We try to teach her the right way to behave and how to take care of herself in the world, and she more or less does what she’s supposed to do. Of course she’s four and there’s plenty of running away and hiding and jumping on the bed, but generally she is pretty obedient.

So when other kids are not following the rules (at least our family’s rules, which likely have no bearing at all on what those kids think about how they should behave), Zoe gets upset. They are not doing what she knows she (and presumably all kids) are supposed to do. So she tries to set them straight. You can guess how well that works out. Recently at a friend’s wedding where she was running around with a pack of kids, she came back to me with a pouty expression, complaining that the boys were all running around poking each other with sticks. I suggested she play with the girls instead. She said the girls were doing the same thing. She explained that she had told all the kids they shouldn’t be poking each other with sticks (not an unreasonable request, really) but they didn’t listen. I told her that she couldn’t really make kids listen to her if they were playing and she should just try to find something else to do.

How do you explain the fine line between doing the right thing, trying to be a good person in the world and help others, and minding your own business when no one is going to listen to you anyway? I admire Zoe’s instinct to help and protect her friends (or strangers) and keep them safe from harm. I applaud the concern and empathy she demonstrates. I want her to keep following our rules to keep herself safe as well. But I don’t want her to feel like she’s responsible for everyone else (a characteristic that has plagued me for most of my life and been the subject of many hours with a therapist). If she sees someone really and truly in danger, I would want her to intervene, by telling an adult or doing what she could to help. But most of the time, if someone is climbing up the slide, or touching a bug, or poking his friend with a stick, she really doesn’t need to say anything. There’s a nuance there that even adults struggle with–when do we step in and when do we go about our business? When do we say something at the risk of embarrassing ourselves or annoying someone else because we think someone might need help? It’s something I’m still trying to figure out, and I just turned 37. I’m wondering how to teach it to someone who just turned four.

It’s good to know your offspring has a healthy mix of your and your spouse’s genes. While she’s only four and there’s plenty of time to develop, it is surprisingly clear how much Zoe has in common with each of us that is clearly derived from nature rather than nurture.

Yesterday Zoe got two vaccinations at her four-year-old checkup. To motivate her to be brave before the shots, I promised ice cream at the end of the day. We procured our chocolate cone and cup and headed outside to enjoy the warm weather. We found a table and Zoe sat facing the building. She started to eat but she kept squirming around to look behind her to see the various children and dogs and other passersby. I asked if she wanted to find a new place to sit where she could see who was walking by on the sidewalk. “YES!” she exclaimed, and we happily relocated to a low wall we could sit on and people watch. Like me, Zoe loves to know what is going on everywhere, all the time. She likes to observe and check things out. She even watches me and my facial expressions. In the car she’ll see me in the rear view mirror and ask what’s wrong if I make a strange face. “Are you ok? Or just tired?” she asks. I can’t hide from this girl. The upside of this trait is that she pays careful attention and she is acutely aware of the people around her and her environment. The downside is a compulsion to always know what’s going on that can sometimes distract you from what you should be focusing on.

Meanwhile, one project we have this week is sending thank you notes for all of the birthday gifts Zoe received. I created and ordered thank you notes online using a photo from her party. I wrote all the notes on the cards and addressed the envelopes. Then I asked Zoe if she would draw or write or put stickers on the notes to make them a little more personally from her. She started on this project and spent about 20 minutes drawing a thunderstorm on one envelope. She drew a scene with a bear on another card. Then she wanted to quit. She tends to spend a long time on any item she creates, working on it meticulously. This is a good thing. She is thorough and not careless. This way of working also takes a long time. Especially with a relatively short attention span. There were 25 cards. I asked her to pick up the pace. She didn’t understand why. This characteristic of careful and diligent work on a project is shared by Randy. He wants to make sure whatever he does is exactly right and done the best possible way. This is admirable. It also takes a long time. I am more likely to rush through something in the name of efficiency.

So it’s interesting to notice these tendencies emerging in Zoe. I am pretty sure we didn’t teach them to her, although perhaps unconsciously anything is possible. My hunch is they are hard-wired. I hope we can see ourselves in her when she’s demonstrating these behaviors and be patient, since they’re really our fault.

So Zoe’s swimming lessons finished yesterday. After being terrified last week by the substitute instructor, she was much clingier than usual to the regular instructor and would let go of him under no circumstances. After class he gave everyone’s parent a certificate detailing their accomplishments. There are about 25 skills listed on the sheet. He checked off that Zoe can enter the water using the ladder and exit the water using the ladder. Well, we have plenty of opportunity for growth.

Next month I’m participating in the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life to raise money to fight cancer and help people with the disease. I am doing it to honor my dad, who was treated last year for prostate cancer and is doing great. I am doing it to honor my aunt, who died of breast cancer. And I’m doing it in honor and support of many other friends and family members who have confronted cancer in their lives. If you want to help, and if you have someone who has had cancer who you want to honor or remember, or if that person is you, now is your chance to contribute.

My team’s fundraising goal is $6,000 and we’ve raised just shy of half that. To give, please visit my Relay for Life page.

Thank you.

Zoe with Eve (fully recovered from the flu)

Tonight after Zoe’s requested birthday dinner of pasta with meatballs (she says it “meatbawls” with a New York accent and laughs) topped off with chocolate chip fudge cake, we played Kids on Stage, a charades board game she received for her birthday from a friend. It is a perfectly designed game and exactly on target for a 4-year-old. She could easily follow the directions and act out what was on the cards and guess what Randy and I were doing when it was our turns. And unlike with Candyland or Chutes and Ladders (which I hope to discreetly remove from the house in the coming weeks), Randy and I did not get bored or go insane. After Zoe won she wanted to play again and while getting ready for bed kept improvising actions and objects she could imitate and we could guess.

The science experiment kit we gave her today was popular too. We used eye droppers and test tubes to mix water and oil and detergent and little colored tablets and observed the results. I felt like the explanations in the instruction manual were somewhat lacking, but Randy and I are also somewhat lacking in our scientific knowledge, so it is what it is.

Today Zoe received her own library card. This is a relief because I won’t have to worry about maxing out my card checking out items for both of us. We’ve recently expanded our literary horizons from exclusively little kid books to include chapter books that we read to her and she pays attention to even though the pictures are fewer and farther between, and I’m sure there’s a lot of words she doesn’t know. We’ve been reading Charlotte’s Web at bedtime, which all three of us have enjoyed. Zoe can read some words, and I am probably unnecessarily impatient for her to be reading fluently so she can entertain herself more easily. But she’s getting there. We’ve also listened to some chapter books on cd, as well as picture books on cd where you can read along. I like the variety that is available to us now, although there are certainly favorites we return to frequently. Most trips to the library Zoe whispers to me, “Let’s find books about a mommy having a baby.” And the book can’t just be about a mommy or a baby. It has to actually be about a mom who is about to give birth and then does, and then what happens. Often she can spot such a book from 20 paces, but if there aren’t any on display, I now know enough of the better titles and authors in this genre that I can find them for her on the shelves. We are also huge fans of Mo Willems and everything he has written.

In recent months I have had more frequent migraines, and Zoe has eagerly stepped up to the role of nurse and comforter. I do not want her to think she has a sick mommy or that I cannot take care of her, but at the same time sometimes I have to lie down and invite one of our friends from PBS Kids or Nick Jr. to keep us company. Surprisingly, she isn’t rattled if I’m not feeling well. She immediately comes over, unsolicited, to hug me or rub my back. She brings me snuggly animals and covers me with a blanket. She says “Don’t worry, Mommy, I like taking care of people.” And while most of her caretaking focuses on her baby dolls, she is extraordinarily conscientious. Randy went into her room the other day and found her sitting on a stool next to her bed, looking completely discouraged. He asked what was wrong. “Eve [one of her favorite dolls] has the flu. She’s been sick for days and no matter what I do, she won’t get better.” And it was true that for days she’d been telling us that Eve had the flu, putting her to bed when it was time to leave for school each morning, and instructing us to be quiet so Eve could rest.

We have not escaped the princess years entirely, as I had once naively hoped was the case. But we are still not fully immersed. Zoe is drawn to princess things and knows most of the Disney princesses by name but we haven’t seen any of the movies. Way too scary. She likes to dress up and be glamorous, but royal beauty often morphs into ballerina chic as well. At preschool she will often arrive and head to the dress-up corner, slip on a princess gown or a tutu, and then go about her business of the day–pounding nails while wearing safety goggles, dictating stories in her journal, doing puzzles, or making non-Newtonian substances out of household products. Don’t ask me what this means–it’s what her teacher told me. The class made something called gak. They had fun, whatever it was.

In ballet class last Saturday we were invited to observe the last few minutes of class to see what the girls have been learning. This proves challenging every time the teacher attempts it because the girls all seem completely thrown by the presence of their parents (and always some younger siblings who feel compelled to careen around the studio). During the 10-minute demonstration Zoe was sometimes beautifully attentive and sometimes completely focused on the little kid running around and totally tuning out the teacher. But when she was dancing, she was joyful and possessed a grace that does not come from my side of the family. She is also a little yogi in training, and her birthday party on Sunday included a mini-yoga class taught by my own yoga teacher. Her friends were wonderfully engaged for most of the 30 minutes and then escaped to eat cake and explode across the playground. Zoe loves to move, whether it’s creeping like a turtle or hopping like a bunny. Except when she goes drama queen and says she’s tired and needs to lie down. After a long day she says quietly, “I’m feeling a little fragile.” And then suddenly she is jumping onto, across, and off the couch. Thank goodness for quick recoveries.

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