This was the year that you fell headlong into princess culture, which is not something that I had encouraged. I wanted to be sure that you had room to discover your own interests, and not just have the default expectations handed to you by your parents. I’ve never called you “my little princess,” just Aletheia, Allie, or A.J.—sometimes Monkey Lips or (and I swear this is meant with all the affection in the world) Nerdface McGillicuddy. At three you were a pick-up truck and dinosaur girl—in some ways you still are. But the other little girls in your preschool class, Anna and Kennedi, are precious pink princesses, so now you are too. It’s been interesting watching you start to feel your way into the world of school, and negotiate the pressure to fit in while still trying to hold on to a sense of your own individuality. That conflict starts early, and it’s only going to get trickier from here, at least for the next thirteen years or so. I’d be lying if I said I was looking forward to you starting Kindergarten this fall. I don’t think I’m ready to hand you over to someone else’s care five days a week. But you are growing up and learning to face new situations bravely, and so must I. All I can say is that I’ll be around every night to hear how things went, and if a tricky situation comes up, we’ll craft a strategy together. I remember those years better than you might think.
Actually, now that I think about it, just running headlong with the princess stuff for a while might be a good strategy in itself. A lot of people around here aren’t sure what to do with dinosaur girls, but princess girls are a known quantity. It doesn’t hurt to fit in on the surface, to know what the other kids are talking about. Your princess T-shirts and Rapunzel lunchbox might be an excellent kind of social armor. Maybe you won’t need it very often, but it’s good to be prepared.
I wish I knew what school you were going to be at so we could both start to get acclimated to the idea. But Mommy and I are hoping that we will move soon—just as soon as a better job comes through for one of us. I’m tired of being a minister, and I’m looking for something new to do. I’ve been teaching college part-time, and I might be able to do that full-time somewhere. Or maybe get one of those jobs where you sit at a desk and write reports for a big company. I discovered that it was difficult for me to be a minister and really be myself, and it gets very tiring always trying to be what other people think you ought to be. Even if who you are is 85% of what they want you to be, trying to adjust that other 15% all the time is a steady drain on a person’s energy. Much better to find a place where you can be you. This, I think, is happiness: someone asks you a question and you say what you honestly think, and they tell you what they honestly think in return, and both of you are still friends when the conversation is over. If you can find that, you’re doing well.
You don’t know yet that there are some ways in which you are going to be different from most of the kids in your class. Not everyone starts Kindergarten able to read as well as you can. Not everyone can do simple addition. Very few of your friends will start off knowing that the Statue of Liberty is in New York City and the Eiffel Tower in France. Some will recognize a picture of the planet Earth, but I’d be surprised if any others can recognize Saturn or Jupiter from a picture, as you can. It’s been clear for a long time that you are the sort of person who learns certain kinds of things very easily, and who is interested in many different things. I’m that kind of person, too, and I know that it can be a tricky thing to deal with. Some days it feels good to be able to learn easily, and some days it feels lonely to have interests that so few others share. You might be tempted to feel pride about something that you didn’t actually earn—it was just the particular gift that was given to you. Or you might wish you could trade in your ability to learn things quickly for the ability to know exactly the right thing to say when someone is upset, or the ability to always know what kind of clothes are going to be popular this month. And those are things we can work on together, if you think there’s something you’re not quite getting. For every person on Earth some things are easy and some things are hard. I can deliver a speech to 1000 people and feel completely at ease, but I hate to read my email. That doesn’t make sense to me, either, but you learn to play to your strengths and shore up your weaknesses.
I already know one thing that you and I are going to work on this year: you, kiddo, are a champion worrier. I hope by the time you read this you will have developed into such a confident young woman that it’s hard to imagine that you were ever like this, but if they gave medals for unnecessary anxiety, we wouldn’t have room to display all of yours. Your big fear is that we will leave you alone. Every single time I buckle you into the car seat, you say “are you going to get in your seat now, Daddy?” Every. Single. Time. And if I have to run back into the house to get something, even though I tell you I’ll be right back in a minute, you’ll have started to cry by the time I return. This is my goal for your interpersonal development in this next year: you can wait by yourself for three minutes, certain that I will return and everything will be okay. I just started reading Raising an Emotionally Intelligent Child: The Heart of Parenting by John Gottman, which seems like it will be very helpful for both of us. That’s my birthday gift to you: learning how to coach you better in those situations. Well, that and a scooter and a Tangled playset and your princess knee pads.
I must admit, I inadvertently made things worse. Early this spring, I took you to the movies to watch Tangled again. It was near the end of its run, so you and I were the only people in the theater that day. You said that you were thirsty, and I told you that I would go get us a bottle of water. I thought you understood that I had to leave for a few minutes. But when I got back from the concession stand—which was right outside our theater, I was watching the door the whole time, I promise–you were running up and down the aisles, weeping, and you cried out “Daddy!” and ran into my arms. It must have taken you ten minutes to stop shaking, and most of the time you kept saying “You left me all alone!” It felt like I was being simultaneously stabbed in the guts with a rusty spoon and pummeled about the head by someone calling me an idiot. Not my best parenting moment. Until then, I could say, “Aletheia, no one has ever, ever, left you all alone!” Now when I say that, you reply “You left me all alone when we saw Tangled!” In fact, I think you’ve told everyone you know that Daddy left you all alone at the theater. The story is out: I’m nice enough, but not to be completely trusted. Still, I wish you would believe that when I buckle you in, it’s because I am about to go someplace with you, not because it’s easier for the monsters to feed on you when you are in the driveway and restrained.
But here’s something that I’m going to work on in the next year: I need to remember that you are still a little, little kid. I know we tell you what a big girl you are, and it’s true that you are way ahead of two-year-old Aidan and seven-week-old Tessa. But a five-year-old, especially one who is precisely five years and forty minutes old, which is what you are as I type this sentence, is still a little kid by any reasonable measure, and I forget that sometimes. Too often. I expect too much of you. I think it’s because you’re tall for your age and you’ve basically talked like an adult since you were three—and I don’t just mean your grammar and pronunciation, although that’s part of it. I also mean your ability to deal with abstract concepts, your sense of humor, your verbal wordplay. Sometimes talking to you is like talking with another adult, and I forget how young you really are, how fresh and sometimes scary things are for you, and how hard it is to keep it together when life is challenging and you haven’t had a nap. Better awareness, more patience: my goals as a parent next year.
In spite of how little things can trip your worry-sensors sometimes, I am very proud of the way you have rolled with big life changes. Last year’s big move, your surprise little sister (she was a surprise to me and your mommy, anyway!) and having to share your room and a lot of your things with your little brother. Most days, most of the time, you have been incredibly gracious about it all, and you just adapt and keep moving in a way that I appreciate more than I can tell you, and more than you could understand if I tried. You are always so eager to help with Aidan and Tessa, and so happy to be a big sister! It’s a role that suits you well, and I’m glad you got the little sister that you wanted. (“I want a sister now, I already have a brother,” you said when we told you the news.) Aidan and Tessa are very blessed to have you looking out for them. I sometimes joke that we are raising you and and letting you raise the next two, but that’s pretty close to the truth some days. Watching you love your siblings is the most gratifying thing in my life, because I like to believe that you learned how by seeing the way that we love you, and it makes me feel like, overall, things are going okay in the parenting department.
Aidan could be a real blessing to you, too, down the road. He is fearless where you are anxious—always ready to jump in to a new experience, completely unaware that he is smaller than anyone else, at ease either by himself or in a crowd, and always ready to smile and say something funny. I hope the two of you find ways to work together in the future, because an Aletheia-Aidan partnership could be virtually unstoppable. If you can teach him how to be aware of potential pitfalls and he can encourage you to step out of your shell a little, you’ll both be better off for it. He’ll have fewer hospital visits and you’ll go to more dances. Your love for each other and enjoyment of each other is immense, and I hope it stays that way. I never had a sister, and sometimes I’m a little envious that you guys get to grow up with an opposite-sex sibling to help demystify the other half of humanity. That is another big advantage you’ll have.
What else might Future You want to know about the five-year-old version?
You draw princesses incessantly: sidewalk chalk princesses, notebook paper princesses, church bulletin princesses…it’s a never ending parade of young royalty.
The music you listen to most often comes from the princess movies you love: the soundtracks to Tangled, Beauty and the Beast, and The Princess and the Frog. But you also like some of my music, especially “Kick Drum Heart” by the Avett Brothers and “Atheists Don’t Got No Songs” by Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. You call it “the song with the yelling,” and you like to repeat the part where they “watch football in their underpants.” You think that’s funny. I do, too.
You still like Dora, although not as much as you did when you were younger. I think you’ve learned about everything you can from that show. Current favorite shows are Fresh Beat Band, Wild Kratts and Bubble Guppies.
You and Aidan play a lot with the kitchen set in your room. Recently you’ve started pretending that you are running a restaurant together. When I walk in, you’ll pretend I’m a customer and ask Aidan to take a plate of food to me.
You also got into Lego this year, and you are really good at following the directions to build specific items. You’ve had an airport set for a while and you just got a set for your birthday that makes a castle and a dragon.
Your preschool this year was at the big Baptist church downtown. Your teacher was named Mrs. Erin. Her husband is the youth minister there. The boys in your class were Toby, Sammy and Reed. You might have some memories of Reed—he was kind of a bully, and he somehow picked you to focus most of his attention on. I know it bothered you to be around him too much. Part of it was because you aren’t used to kind of violent imaginative play some kids enjoy. It upset you one day when he and some other kids were pretending to kill people on the playground. But other times he was actually picking on you, and in some very unacceptable ways. After one bad incident, Erin had a big talk with Reed’s daddy, and we didn’t see Reed at school again for the next two weeks. I was glad to see that the other adults were taking his behavior seriously.
You’ve always been fond of your cousin Coben–after Aidan was born, you used to say “Now I have two baby boys, Coben and Aidan!” This year you’ve gotten even more attached to him, and he feels the same about you. Living in the same town with other family has been good for you. You and Aidan and Coben were all in Kindermusik together last fall, and that was a lot of fun for everyone.
You’re sitting right beside me now, so I’m going to ask some questions and see what you say.
What’s your favorite song? My favorite song is the one at the beginning of Tangled.
What’s your favorite movie? Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella–the one that I don’t have yet. Cinderella and Jasmine are the two princess movies we don’t have yet. I want to have Cinderella, Daddy! We already have Cinderalla cups, but we need a Cinderella movie. Can we go to the store and buy a movie called Cinderella? (You don’t normally sound as greedy as it looks like here, and you weren’t upset when I said we weren’t going to buy Cinderella today.)
What is your favorite book? I like the Rapunzel one.
What will Aidan be when he grows up? Maybe he’s going to be a doctor.
What will Tessa be? A police officer. I wonder what she’s going to look like when she’s big?
What are you going to be? I want to be a princess—an actor in a princess story. I want to be Cinderella.
What’s your favorite game? My favorite game is soccer.
What’s your favorite toy? My favorite toy is a Tangled playset.
What’s you favorite food? My favorite food is spaghetti.
What do you like to play with Aidan? I like to play with blocks with him.
What do you like to do with Memaw? I like to hug her.
What do you like to do with Grammy? I like to help her cook.
What do you like to do with Granddaddy? I like to…I don’t know what I do with Granddaddy! I think I like going on a trip with him to the store.
What do you like to do with Mommy? I like to wash Tessa with her.
What do you like to do with me? I like to…I like to…I like to play games with you. Like Doors and Max the Cat and the Rhyme Time game and I like playing the Dora game with you. [“Doors” is “The Secret Door.”]
What do you like to do with Coben? I like to play with my Tangled playset with him. But I actually like playing on his playground.
What do you like to do with Uncle Kasey? I like to hug him.
Do you like to hug me? YES!
Can I have a hug right now?
Time to end the interview. Tessa just started crying, so you found her bottle and started feeding her. No one asked you to do that—you help her because you want to, because you love her, and maybe because it makes you feel grown up.
You are very aware of your own growth. We were talking about birthdays this morning, you and I. Next year, I’ll be six, you said. And then seven, and then eight and nine. Someday I’ll be fourteen.
And then you paused. How many birthdays will I have?
“Oh, a lot,” I said. “About a hundred.”
Right, a hundred. And then after that, I won’t have any more birthdays.
“Probably not. But a hundred is a lot of birthdays. A hundred would be good.”
I hope you do get a hundred birthdays, and I hope they’re all happy days. I am very happy to have shared this one with you.
I love you.