Thursday, March 29, 2018

Dear Ellie - Six Years

My dear Ellie,

Today you are six years old, and I am beside myself. Six! It just seems so old. You're definitely not a baby anymore, and the toddler years are long gone. When you're five, I can still kind of lump you in with the preschoolers, but when you're six? No. Not a baby. Not a toddler. Not a preschooler. A KID. An actual, real-life KID. I can't believe it.

And your annual birthday photo just reinforces it. Look at you! Is that not the face of a kid? When I compared this photo to last year's, the difference was striking. Your limbs have stretched and thinned and that sweet baby face has melted away to reveal the beautiful girl you're growing into. Man, oh, man, kiddo. When did all this happen?

Adding to your "big kid" looks is the gap in your teeth at the bottom center - you lost your first two teeth this year! You and I made a special Tooth Fairy Mailbox that has worked wonderfully, and you've been saving your teeth earnings to buy something special soon (you've got your eye on a mermaid doll from our local toy store!). I was not emotionally prepared for the teeth-losing stage, and you have discovered that I don't have a very strong stomach for such things. You love to torment me with your wiggly teeth!

Another reason why I can't lump you in with the preschoolers anymore? Because you aren't one! You're in kindergarten now! You started at a new school in the fall and adjusted beautifully. You were pretty worn out at the end of the day at the beginning of the year (it's a long school day!), but you've settled in now and we've even finally officially dropped nap time. You're learning a lot - you excel at (and are excited for) math, and your reading is coming along so nicely! You do your homework without complaint (usually) and are always happy to go to school. You love your teacher, as is your way, and you've found a best friend (Sophie, both from your class and our church).

I love that your school is so close to our house, because we walk to and from school every day and I really enjoy that time with you. It's always a rush to get out the door in the morning, but then once we're on our way, we can chat about things coming up or what you're looking forward to in your day. When I pick you up, I can hear about the things you did without distraction. Also, I love that even though you're at the "big kid" school now, you're still little enough to not only want me to walk with you all the way to your classroom (even though you could totally do it by yourself), but you also want to hold my hand the whole way. As soon as we step out our door or you come running out of school to greet me, you grab my hand as we walk together. Every time you do, I feel such joy and I really try to treasure that. I know the day will come far too quickly that you'll stop reaching for my hand, so I try to make note of just how special it is every time it happens.

You still want to be an astronaut, and a doctor, too! You're still into all things space, and we even got annual passes to Kennedy Space Center this year. And oh, boy, I can't even tell you how proud your Daddy and I were when we walked into your VPK graduation and they were showing photos and quotes from each graduate on the projector screens, including what you want to be when you grow up. There, for all the world (of preschool graduates and their families) to see, under your adorable photo, was your answer: "I want to be the first astronaut on Mars." Good for you, baby girl. I really believe that you're the kind of kid who, if you've got your mind set on something, can make it happen. You've already said, for example, that despite being nervous about learning to swim this summer, you're just going to have to do it because astronauts train underwater. And because you've said that, I believe you will.

Your mind is a powerful, powerful thing. I mean, I know everyone's is, generally, but you seem to have a particular resolve that can only be broken by your own will. There have been a number of times where something has just terrified or upset you to your core, and nothing we said or did could give you any peace or confidence about it. But then, seemingly out of nowhere, you'll decide that you're okay with it, whatever situation or activity it may be that was causing you such anguish. And just like that, it's resolved, and it's not an issue again. It's baffling to watch, really. Whatever you set your mind on will be, until you decide otherwise, and we're really just along for the ride.

Naturally, I hope we can harness that skill to our advantage as you hit the teen years and prime "peer pressure" phase. As of now, you continue to be a rule follower to the extreme. For example, while sitting in the front pew with your church choir a few weeks ago, the rest of the children were all kneeling/sitting on the pew kneelers. However, before the service, your choir teacher had told all of you not to do that. So, you didn't. You were the only child still standing as you were supposed to, but so help you, you would not disobey and kneel. You did not care one bit that every other child was doing just that and nobody was getting in trouble. You would NOT kneel. Keep that resolve, kiddo! And please, use it for good someday. I don't want to be on the wrong side of that strong will of yours, that's for sure. Heaven help your dad and me if (when) you decide to use it against us.

This year, however, you have experimented with breaking the rules a little bit. There was some short-lived limit-testing at school, and you've started occasionally fighting back when E.J. gets after you. When that happens he is always taken quite by surprise! But really, on the whole, you stay out of trouble and do just what you're supposed to.

One thing that has been on my mind a bit is how to help you build your confidence to answer a question when you aren't completely sure of the answer. In particular, this issue has come up as we practice your reading. You often seem to be so scared of getting something wrong that you refuse to even try, and you sort of mentally check out and/or get upset about it. Your dad and I keep telling you over and over that we don't care if you get it wrong; we just want you to try! We also try to stress that scientists get things wrong all the time, and it's a great way to learn new things. But still, it's a struggle, and it's one that I understand. I would never raise my hand in class because I was always afraid I'd get the answer wrong, even if I knew I knew it. So I empathize with that. However, I wish you didn't feel that way around us. I hope we're able to find the perfect thing to say to let you know that it's safe to make mistakes around us (or, that your iron will will decide that on your own soon!), because I hope you know that we always love you, mistakes and all.

This year you traveled out of the country for the first time! We celebrated ten yeas of marriage for Daddy and me with a trip to the Cayman Islands for all four of us. We had such a wonderful week - we played on the beach a ton, swam in the pools, held starfish, turtles and stingrays and really just had a great time. You still talk about that trip a lot! I'm so glad we were able to take you back to a place that Daddy and I have enjoyed so many times before. You also attended your first wedding this year! We traveled to North Carolina to see my cousin Adam get married, and you had a great time staying in a house on a lake with some of our extended family, and dancing with your Hesterman cousins at the wedding.

Another big event for you this year was surgery. You had your adenoids removed and ear tubes put in over the summer. You were exceedingly brave and your health has been much improved this year, thank goodness.

You also had your third significant hurricane experience this fall (the first was Hurricane Sandy when we were still in New Jersey, and we evacuated for Hurricane Matthew last year). Hurricane Irma made her way up the entire length of Florida, and we decided to stay put. In the end, we fared pretty well, especially compared to a lot of our neighbors: the biggest issue we faced was that our huge tree in the backyard split in half and fell (backwards, away from the house, praise God) through our fence. Between that and a downed tree in our neighbor's yard, our alley and driveway were completely obstructed, so we were stuck at home for a few days. We also lost power for about 24 hours, and school was closed for a week. The night the hurricane hit was a very scary one, and we ended up spending the night all camped out under the stairs together, making shadow puppets with flashlights to pass the time and calm our nerves. Unfortunately a lot of our neighborhood ended up underwater, including the "blue house," where we lived before our current house. The hurricane happened in early October and the blue house is only just now back on the rental market, and many local businesses (and homes) nearby either closed for good or are still working on repairs. You guys were pretty spooked by the power outage, and were sad about our tree, but for the most part, you handled it in stride. You were eager to help with cleanup and when you returned to school you drew a picture about your experiences, including black windows in our house to show the power outage, and you sitting on the downed tree making sure Achilles didn't escape through the broken fence!

As for other interests this year, you still love books (the Pinkalicious series is a favorite), coloring and art projects, and science. You and Daddy do science experiments together and your favorite T.V. show is probably The Magic School Bus. You like to play outside (especially in the front yard), and can pump your legs to swing by yourself at the playground. You and E.J. play so well together now, and some of your favorite pretend-play games are "house" and "restaurant." You love bunnies, and play often with your stuffed bunnies, as well as twitching your nose at anybody who will indulge you. You also like to play with your dolls Sharri (my old favorite!) and Lily, and love to dress, undress and redress any and all dolls you have with removable clothes.

You still love music and dance, and often ask for me to turn on music (Disney Princess music, of course) so you can dance around the family room. You're still taking ballet lessons, though you have also requested piano lessons so we may look into that in the fall. You also do worship dance at church, in addition to the Littlest Angels choir. You also still enjoy running, and have run several mile races this year. You can run an 11-minute mile! Can you believe that? Impressive, kid. You also joined the running club at school, so you're running regularly.

I mentioned it briefly just a moment ago, but it bears repeating - you and E.J. have been playing so nicely together lately. In fact, you'll often just go off and play together for long periods of time, with nothing required of me! It's wild. I love that you guys seem to be enjoying each other so much now. Siblings are so special and I hope you two will always feel lucky to have each other.

You're just really growing up. You keep seeking out new responsibilities at home and are eager to learn how to do things for yourself. You have started making your own breakfast (and E.J.'s!) in the morning and are excited to learn how to pack your own lunch (that makes two of us!). You like to have "jobs," like getting Achilles out of his crate when we get home, and you always want us to show you how to do new things. I'm excited to start giving you more responsibility, but at the same time, let's not make me entirely superfluous just yet, okay?

Ellie, you're such a special girl. You're so smart - you ask such insightful questions and are so excited to learn. You're so loving, giving us hugs and kisses and cuddles all the time. You're thoughtful - you're always thinking about what other people like, want or need and, for example, drawing us pictures of our favorite things. You love spending time with your family, and the feeling is very, very mutual. It is an absolute pleasure to watch you growing into the woman you will someday be. I am in awe of the girl you are now and can only imagine what is to come for you. I'm so honored to be along for the ride.

I'm so proud of you, Ellie. I'm so proud to be your mama. You are so precious to me.

I love you always, baby girl. Always, always. No matter what.

Happy birthday, bug.

All my love,

* * * * *

My dear Ellie,

Happy birthday! Six years old, and what a sixth year it has been! You finished preschool and started kindergarten, ran an 11-minute mile on accident and then did it again, travelled outside the country, started learning how to add, subtract and read, and drew and colored thousands of pictures! Oh, and you lost two teeth and all of the "baby fat" I didn't realize you had.

Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, you still don't really get the difference between noticing when something is cooler than average and absolutely freezing. You still love to act like an animal (especially a bunny) and use baby talk, which is really just noises and repeating single word answers. We also have to remind you to keep your room from becoming a disaster and to find more kind and constructive ways to correct your brother. While I have to admit it feels a little strange to point out some of the less exciting things about you at this age, it occurs to me that these might also be fun for you to read about someday and should make it clear that no-one is perfect.

That said, you, sweetheart, seem awfully close for your age. Obviously, I love you - you're my daughter, but I don't just have the words to express how much I really, really like you. It feels like you and I have a really special thing going and I honestly look forward to spending time with you. For example, we are math and science buddies. We have multiple science experiment books and have done a handful of them this year. We build space-themed Legos. As a kindergartner, you get excited about the math homework that we do together each week and are legitimately disappointed when yo don't learn any science at school. The Ellie slide at your preschool "graduation" said that your favorite thing about school was "Learning about space" and your future plans are to be the "First astronaut on Mars." In fact, after we read about how the training to become an astronaut includes wilderness survival, you and I camped out in the backyard. We stayed up really late looking through your telescope, did an experiment to understand the phases of the moon, told stories and went to sleep in a tent that was equal parts hot and small.

We also did a lot of other fun things together, like got to a daddy-daughter dance (where we had a great time even though the restaurant lost power), attended a TedX panel called "Rediscovering Space," went for runs around the block, out to dinner multiple times, and shared our very first bucket at the driving range.

Before I move on, I want to put in writing that you should consider "A Whole New World" when it comes time to pick a daddy-daughter dance at your wedding. As you may recall, we used to sing it to each other as a bedtime song when E.J. was a baby and it was just you and me. Well, it came on the radio while we were driving to one of our dates. We spontaneously started singing our parts and I had myself a decent man-cry in the front seat. If that's the kind of thing you're going for, it will probably be a decent option. Take it or leave it.

There are also some big things we're working on, the most important of which is that you sometimes get physically anxious about trying new things. Some of this is age or personality and you may grow out of it, but it also seems to include a fear of being wrong that makes you hesitant to, for example, try sounding out some new words. I am fairly persuaded by recent research on something called "growth mindset." It was coined in a book by Carol Dweck and it says that people who believe they can get better with practice actually grow more than people who believe skills, like intelligence, are fixed. The latter thinking means that while getting things right can be validating, the opposite proves you aren't as smart as you think you are which can be crushing, depending on how much of your identity is tied to that trait. I know I want to help you develop a growth mindset, but need to do a better job encouraging your effort and not always praising you when you get things right (which is almost all of the time). I know I was afraid to get things wrong growing up and that it kept me from pushing myself to be as smart as I could be. You have big dreams, baby girl, and successful people are the ones that make mistakes so they can learn from them.

Similarly, I have been thinking a lot about practicing what I am preaching. It's really easy to be afraid of falling short, or even to use family or other commitments as excuses for not setting big, ambitious goals for myself. However, I have been wondering if it would be better to seriously pursue something at which I could fail and whether I might learn something I could share or you might be getting old enough to learn vicariously. For me, this might be something like running fast again, becoming a good golfer, or writing and sharing my thinking on social and political issues. I am not prepared to commit to anything here, but I wanted to note how interesting it is to me that I might be learning from  what I am trying to teach you.

Ellie, I can't wait to see what this year has in store for us. You are such an amazing little girl, and I am so incredibly happy that you are mine.

I love you so much!

All my love,

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