Op/Ed

Faith Gong: Of toddlers and teens

I am writing this at Vivid Coffee, just off of Church Street in Burlington. It’s an ideal writing spot: hip, but also spacious, with plenty of tables and couches where one can settle in for the afternoon. And many people have settled in on this frosty afternoon; mostly UVM students, from the look of things. The drinks menu is basic, but all I need is coffee. My final coffee shop rating criteria is baked goods, and when I arrived there was a single salted chocolate chip cookie waiting in the case, just for me. Clearly it was meant to be.

I would never have found Vivid Coffee were it not for Genevieve, my daughter’s friend. I’m in Burlington today because I drove a group of four teenagers up here and turned them loose on Church Street as part of my eldest daughter’s 15th birthday festivities. 

Fifteen. We’re in a whole new parenting sphere now. She made a short but expensive birthday list, consisting of clothes, shoes, and a donation to help sexually exploited girls worldwide. Tomorrow, she plans to take the online test for her learner’s permit so that she can spend the next year driving in the company of her parents. She’s sure she’ll pass, although she hasn’t spent much time studying the 140-page driver’s manual online. I remind her that it costs $32 just to take the test. She offers to pay for it, which is thoughtful, but I know that she has only $19 in her checking account. She works as a page at the library and next week will add a second, seasonal job making wreaths at the Christmas tree farm next door; still, the money seems to flow out quickly, spent on books, accessories, and coffee shops.

Which brings me back to this café. Classic rock is playing over the speakers, but I look up the lyrics to Taylor Swift’s song, “Fifteen,” which features the line, “This is life before you know who you’re going to be.”

As it turns out, our family — minus our toddler — is going to see Taylor Swift in concert in Massachusetts this spring. My daughter was tipped off about a lottery for pre-sale tickets, and in a stroke of early birthday luck she won the chance to spend large sums of money on advance tickets. Because she was in school during the sale, my husband took an hour of his workday to navigate the tortuous Ticketmaster process and emerged victorious with six tickets. This will count for Christmas, birthday, and graduation gifts for years to come, but it seems a fitting way to celebrate the end of a challenging couple of years of pandemic isolation and anxiety, during which Taylor Swift’s music was often instrumental to my children’s mental health. 

“This family would celebrate a leaf falling off a tree,” my 13-year-old remarked wryly, after I offered this justification for the expensive ticket purchase. I figure there are worse things to be known for.

Less than a month before the 15th birthday, we celebrated our youngest child’s 3rd birthday. I think everyone with teenagers should also have a three-year-old in the house; it provides an interesting contrast. 

Three-year-olds and teenagers, as it turns out, aren’t all that different. They are both on the cusp of becoming something more, moving on to the next stage, pushing for independence: toddlers because they now have solid walking and talking skills, teenagers because they have hormones and learner’s permits. As a result, parenting teens and toddlers is a push-pull dance. “GO AWAY!” they shout at me; then, a moment later, “No, wait, come back! I need you!” They also both cause sleep deprivation, my teens late at night (which is the only time they’ll open up to me) and my toddler in the pre-dawn hours when he wakes up and thumps around his room.

All of which is a helpful reminder that children go through stages — or the same stage repeated at different ages — and that no one stage lasts forever. 

But while parenting teens can sometimes feel fraught with dangers and the potential for big, lasting mistakes, the delightful thing about three-year-olds is that they can’t make really big mistakes yet — and when they’re doing something dangerous, you can just pick them up and move them. Three-year-olds are also walking reminders of all the wonders in the world, as our son reminded me just this week when we had our first snow. 

It wasn’t his first snow, of course, but it was the first time he was conscious of the potential fun to be had. After we woke up to a frosted world, he ate a few bites of breakfast and proclaimed, “I want to go outside and play in the snow!”

One phrase he’s mastered this week is, “I can be patient!” Because we’d had an unseasonably warm autumn, our snow gear was still stashed away in the closet. But once he’d waited — patiently — for me to retrieve his snow clothes and put them all on his body, he toddled out into the winter wonderland of our yard to build a snow penguin with his sisters, eat sugar-on-snow, sled down a small hill (which doubles as our septic mound), and make snow angels. He did this for three mornings in a row, proclaiming, “I love playing in the snow! I love sledding! I’m going exploring!”

On the fourth morning, a Saturday, his newly 15-year-old sister slept in, checked her texts, did her hair and makeup, and then took him out sledding. It was the best morning of all, for each of them. How grateful I am to have both of these ages in our house, and all of the ages in between. 

Faith Gong has worked as an elementary school teacher, a freelance photographer, and a nonprofit director. She lives in Middlebury with her husband, five children, assorted chickens and ducks, one feisty cat, and one anxiety-prone labradoodle. In her “free time,” she writes for her blog, The Pickle Patch.

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