One of Katie's classmates had a birthday party in her back yard last week. It was so cool. They had one table set up for the kids to tie-dye a shirt, another table set up for the kids to create their own picture frame, and another table set up with the grandma doing face painting. But the coolest part of all, I thought, was the tree house. The dad built it himself and it's a glorious thing. I never had a tree house growing up and my inner six-year-old gasped when I first saw it. They filled up water balloons with paint and let the kids place canvases on the ground and then climb up to the tree house to drop the paint balloons on them. My inner Jackson Pollack gasped when I saw the first paint balloon drop. It was so freaking cool.
Katie would have none of it. She did think the tree house looked cool, from down on the ground. And she enjoyed watching the other kids drop their paint balloons onto their canvases below, but after a few half-hearted attempts to climb the ladder, never getting past the second rung, she gave up.
"Don't you want to drop a paint balloon onto your canvas?" I asked, trying to sound more encouraging than critical.
"Nah. I'll just put my canvas down there and let the other kids splat paint on it for me..."
Katie is terrified of heights. She's always been on the cautious side physically--she was "late" to roll over, sit up, crawl, walk, toilet train, swing, slide, roller skate, ride a bike--but she always came around to these activities in her own time. We read the book Leo the Late Bloomer together a lot when she was younger. Mostly as a reminder to me to stop worrying, that my sweet cub is perfectly fine just the way she is.
When Katie was three she fell off a four-foot wall at the park. She wasn't physically hurt, but it freaked her out. Maybe that event made her extra cautious about heights. She'd been chasing after another girl about her age. Back then other kids' activities-- even fearless things like walking along four-foot walls--could make Katie forget her worries and join in, but now her temperament seems more fully developed and she's less inclined to follow others into what her brain interprets as imminent peril. My kiddo might be a scaredy cat but at least I know she's no lemming.
Katie's acrophobia might come from the early trauma of falling off that wall at the park. Or maybe it's just the way her particular brain is developing. Maybe it's genetic and it just skips a generation. My mom is also terrified of heights. Not only for herself. She can't even stand to watch others in situations where they could fall from a great height. Mom hardly ever bossed me around or corrected me. The word "scold" is not in Mom's dictionary. But whenever we'd go to the mall, if I came within a foot of the guard rail that protects people from falling off the opening to the floor below, Mom would yell, Get over here! like the most overprotective parent on the planet.
So when Katie and Will decided a few days ago that it was time to get a bunk bed for her room, just in time for summer sleepover season, I countered, "But what about your fear of heights? Are you going to be able to climb up to the top bunk?"
"Mom! I've been to the top bunk on Jonathan's bed a thousand times already! A bunk bed is not as tall as a tree house," she insisted.
So I dropped it and we got her a bunk bed. I doubted seriously if she's really been to the top of her cousin's bunk bed a thousand times, but if that's what it took, telling herself this white lie to get over her fear of heights, that's fine with me. I lie to myself as a form of encouragement sometimes too.
Will installed the bed and Katie slept in it all night. She loves it. She didn't even get out of bed at 4AM to crawl in bed with us like she usually does if she hasn't just fallen asleep in our bed from the start. Long after Will went to work, when I woke up sprawled out in our king size bed, alone, I smiled and thought to myself oh our big girl is growing up!
Then I heard her calling for me in her room.
"Mom! I think there's a bee in my room."
"It's just a fly, Sweetie. I saw it last night," I assured her. I was surprised our big dog Earl hadn't hunted it down and eaten it yet.
"Come check," she said.
I heaved myself out of bed and walked into her bedroom. I heard the fly before I saw it. "I can tell it's a fly by the sound it makes," I said.
"How do you know?" Katie asked.
"Forty-two years worth of experience with summer flies," I said.
She smiled and sat up. She slept all night in the top bunk, unafraid. She had even crawled up the ladder all by herself like she told me she could.
"My big girl! Sleeping in the top bunk all night!" I said.
"Uh, Mommy. Where's Daddy? I need help getting down." She smiled like she was asking for a gift she knew we couldn't afford, like the time she told me she wanted that child-size car that runs on batteries and costs $600, more than my first real car, a 1974 Super Beetle we paid a friend of my mom's $500 bucks for because it had a bad catalytic converter and made my clothes smell like rotten eggs.
"Daddy's at work. You need help down?" I asked, trying to sound encouraging and not critical.
"Yeah. I can get up by myself but I'm too afraid to climb down."
"How did you get down at Jonathan's?" I asked.
"Well, he put some pillows and blankets on the ground and I just jumped down," she explained.
"A thousand times? You did that?" I asked.
"Well, no. Just once. It was too scary to do it again."
"I see. Well, do you want me to put some pillows and blankets down for you to jump onto?" I asked.
"No! Can you just hold me while I try to climb down?" she asked.
We tried that for about fifteen minutes. Finally, she gave up. It was either trust in her mother's strength or a full bladder, but she let me hold her by the armpits and pull her down.
"Wow, Mommy, you're strong!" she said.
"Yep, I can be if I need to be, " I said.
"I'm sorry I can't get down myself," Katie said, looking down at the floor.
"Oh, Sweetie," I said, touching her chin to raise her eyes to mine. "You don't have to be sorry for that. I'm sure as you practice and get bigger and more used to it you'll learn to climb down by yourself in your own time."
"Why can't I do it now? Why am I so scared?" she asked.
"Ah, Sweetie, you just have a special brain that thinks a lot. Your brain warns you about danger faster than some other people's brains do. It's good to have a brain that thinks a lot. You come up with great ideas all the time. The flip side is sometimes you think about scary stuff a lot. Just try to take deep breaths and you'll get there with time, like you always do."
"But what if my friends tease me because I can't do it myself? Millie made fun of me yesterday because I'm six and I still have training wheels on my bike and JC is only four and his bike doesn't have training wheels!"
"Well, I feel sorry for Millie that she doesn't know people learn things at different rates and that we're all special and we all do things differently. She's going to have a hard time making and keeping friends if she keeps making fun of people for doing things differently. She's got a lot of learning to do."
"But why can't I ride my bike without training wheels but JC can and he's two years younger than me?" Katie buried her head into my armpit.
"Sweetie, I bet JC can't read as well as you can. But it's not a competition. We all learn things at different speeds. Do you want to take your training wheels off your bike and try to ride it without them?"
"No! I want to ride my bike with training wheels until I'm a grown up!"
"Ok," I said.
"Really?" Katie took her head out of my armpit and looked up at me. "I can ride my bike with training wheels until I'm a grown up?"
"Yeah. Why not? Some people never even learn how to ride a bike with training wheels. We all do things differently. In order to be a happy human being you don't have to learn how to ride a bike at all, or climb down from bunk beds. I mean, if you want to do those things you have to practice a lot to get good at them and giving up won't help you learn them, but no one says you have to do those things to be a happy person."
"Well, I'm going to be a happy person who rides a bike with training wheels til I'm a grown up," Katie insisted, with confidence in her voice.
Five minutes later, after a bathroom break, I heard Katie calling from her room again.
"Mom, can I have breakfast in bed today?"
I walked into her room and she was sitting, smiling proudly, on the top bunk again.