Saturday morning I walked into the kitchen just in time to see T. lugging an enormous and very full carton of Trader Joe's vanilla soy milk out of the refrigerator. She was staggering under the weight and I caught the carton just as it was about to tilt precariously out of her hands. Next to the cabinets above the dishwasher stood a kitchen chair. On the kitchen table was her plastic Shrek bowl. The utensil drawer was wide open, as was the pantry door, and next to the plastic bowl was a box of Vanilla Almond Clusters cereal. Judging from all this accumulated evidence, it was clear that she had decided to fix herself a midmorning snack.
"T.! What are you doing?" I asked her, when I had rescued the milk carton in the nick of time.
"I making myself cereal," she replied proudly and confidently, hands on hips. "All by myself!"
The above scene has been played out several times over the past week or so. Sometimes we catch her just as she's opening the pantry door; other times we walk into the kitchen and find her dragging the chair over to the cabinets. One time last week Scott caught her in mid-pour, and spent quite some time mopping up soy milk. It's hard to know what to do with this budding independence. It's difficult to fault her for wanting be a big girl; for wanting to meet her own needs by herself, thank you very much. And it hasn't been just about cereal, either. Instead of asking for help to climb onto the potty, she now rushes into the bathroom, slamming to door firmly behind her like a teenager. She's also decided she can take care of all her "personal" toileting needs herself, with sometimes less-than-desirable results.
"I a Big Girl! I a Big Girl!" Has become T.'s mantra. Gently (or not so gently, if our response follows a big spill of soy milk, or the contents of a cereal box upended over the kitchen table), we tell her that even big girls need some help--sometimes. She has always had this independent and stubborn streak; she has been teetering for some time now with one foot in the soft, protected world of babyhood, and the other in this tempting and sometimes scary world of being a Big Kid. No matter how carefully we try to explain to her the right way to get things done, she is always certain that her way is the best way, and that she can do exactly what she puts her mind to, despite whatever obvious obstacles may stand in her way. Just as we can't find fault with her desire to be big, we also find it hard to find fault with this independent, I can do it all spirit she has. I find myself pleased, in fact, to see this streak in my daughter--to see how keenly she feels her own ability to accomplish what she sets her mind to do. Surely the world will be an easier place for a girl who won't be easily defeated, who believes herself big enough and capable enough to take it all on?
But still, she is just four, and we do have rules around here. I hadn't thought it would start so young--this need to walk that fine line between celebrating independence, but curtailing, ever so carefully, those independent initiatives that are foolhardy, or too ambitious-for-the-age (is there such a thing, though?), or just plain unacceptable. We've been doing it all along, I suppose. We did it when we found T., at two, standing on the dining room table, so proud to have scaled that mountain of wood. We did it when she decided she was big enough to unload the dishwasher, knives and all. And we do it now when she pulls that milk carton out of the fridge. But because we also want to encourage her independence, we decided to meet her halfway with this cereal business. We keep a small amount of her favorite cereal in a tupperware container in the pantry, along with her Shrek bowl. We've made it clear to her that she must ask permission for the milk, and when she does we pour a small amount into a plastic cup, which she can then use to pour into the cereal bowl. So far it's worked--she feels like a Big Girl, and we don't have to worry too much about major kitchen disasters.
We've been feeling smug about all this. Too smug. Yesterday afternoon I caught her standing on a chair by the open pantry. She had a box of macaroni and cheese in her hand.
"What are you doing, T.?" I asked her.
"I hungry." She answered matter-of-factly. "I going to make me some macaroni and cheese!"