How Not to Raise a Ray of Sunshine

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When I was 24, I moved into a 645-square-foot apartment on New York’s unfashionable Upper East Side, which I shared with a roommate. The nicest thing about the place was the view from the kitchen window. It looked out over the white steeple of a Unitarian church with a sign out front that read: “We’re in the business of serving — not saving — souls.” I could hear the kids from its preschool laughing at recess on the rooftop playground when I worked from home. I’d see the little ones lining up in the mornings, and moms in yoga pants pushing strollers into the church courtyard. Hopelessly single for much of the decade I lived in that apartment, I dreamed that one day I’d have a child I could walk around the corner to preschool.

Flash-forward a decade and change and my husband and I were the proud parents of 2-year-old Amalia. She was born in Miami, but when a job opportunity came up for me back in New York City, I took it, even though it meant temporarily moving my family back into that same tiny apartment, which I’d been subletting while we were away, and even though I’d have to go to work in an office after having spent the first two years of Amalia’s life at home with her. I was worried about leaving her, but I was hopeful that now that we’d be back in the city, my dream of walking her to preschool would come true.

It wasn’t until I went to the first open house that I realized getting into preschool in Manhattan today is as complicated as getting into college was back when I was 17: mandatory open houses, followed by school tours, applications, supervised playdates and parent interviews. The effort would be worth it, I told myself.

As my husband and I attended preschool tours, I realized that they basically all operate the same way. There’s the “sensory play area,” a table filled with water, or sand, or leaves for kids to mess with; the “imaginative play area” with its princess and pirate costumes; little tables for art and snack; and, of course, kids’ paintings on the walls. That’s where my dream began to dissolve.

“Look at the artwork,” the headmistress of the preschool of my dreams said proudly during that tour. “You’ll notice that there are no names on the papers. That’s because we don’t want the kids to compare, and we don’t want the parents to compare.”

Who could this policy be serving? The kids obviously knew who drew what. At 2, 3 and 4, did they really look for signs to see who has a greater natural ability to finger-paint? And if the parents of these toddlers were that competitive, I didn’t want to have to hang out with them at school functions.

Then the headmistress pointed to the job chart, another ubiquitous feature at preschools that aims to teach children responsibility by making them line-leaders or napkin-passers. “You won’t see this anywhere else,” she said, pointing to a card that bore the words “Class Sunshine.”

“What’s Class Sunshine?” she asked. “Well, if you’re Class Sunshine and you see Max, and he looks like he’s having a bad day, you go up to him and say, ‘Max, do you need a hug?’”

The parents around me beamed at one another, or at the thought of their own empathetic little angels. But I found myself inexplicably filled with the hot anger that has flared up in me every now and then since Amalia was born.

Why should my daughter be taught, at 3, that she’s responsible for placating Max and his mood disorder? I’ve spent my life trying to be Class Sunshine — getting good grades because I wanted to please my teachers, eating the wrong meal when waiters bring it to me, apologizing to potted plants when I bump into them. Our society already teaches women to be “Class Sunshine.” If Amalia wants to be Class Dark Cloud, damn it, she is free to be Class Dark Cloud.

I expected that motherhood would make me softer. And it did. I cry when I hear “The Little Drummer Boy” piped into the Gap at Christmas. And I no longer enjoy an episode of “Law & Order, because I look at each victim and think, “That’s someone’s child.”

But I didn’t realize that motherhood would make me fiercer, too.

We did not send Amalia to the Class Sunshine school. And at her first parent-teacher conference at the nursery school we ended up choosing, Amalia’s teacher told me, “She’s a real fireball.”

“I know!” I said, rolling my eyes.

“No, it’s good,” the teacher insisted. “Girls tend to lose that swagger right around middle school. It’s our job to find a way to help them keep it.”

Amalia’s starting first grade now, and, I’ll admit, sometimes I wish she had a little more Class Sunshine in her. I still don’t want her thinking she’s responsible for curing poor Max’s sadness, but I do wish she were a little more concerned about my moods. Or about keeping quiet in class, you know, to please her teachers.

But then I remind myself of the vow I made back when she was 2. To try to help her keep her inner fireball burning. And to let her shine when she wants, where she wants.