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The joy of elementary years

By KATE SNYDER

Life With a Smile

Lately, I’ve been reveling in the experience of parenting elementary-age kids. My kids are genuinely fun to hang out with — as tiny humans and not just as children under my care. 

They lead these exuberant, complicated lives that they are still cheerfully willing to share with me. I get play-by-play accounts of games on the schoolyard and recaps of the jokes they tell with their friends. My younger daughter wants me to sit on the floor of the bathroom while she plays in the bathtub —not because she needs much help, but because she wants me as an audience for the narratives she weaves with her tub toys. 

Everyone in the family now knows how to read and I treasure the moments when we read together, sprawled across our giant living room sectional and the comfy recliner. These are rare moments, because two of my three children are not known for their stillness. But it has happened. Fairy tales, graphic novels and beginning chapter books propped in laps, heads propped on pillows or the ever-accommodating canine. 

On New Years Eve, we played board games together — and it almost worked. We’re inching towards the necessary maturity levels for family game night to be a legitimately enjoyable experience, as the range of available games increases and the odds of someone storming away from the table (slowly) decreases. Like I said, they’re fun to be with. 

In fifth and fourth grade, my “big kids” are balanced on the cusp of the tween years, peeking over into the world of middle school and beyond. But they’re not there yet. My friends with older children warn me of the storms ahead — the drama about boys and friends, the weight of academic challenges and the painful but important process of forming their own, separate identities. 

At the moment, though, I’m still (relatively) cool. My presence in their lives is a source of joy rather than mortification. My daughter will ask me to join her friends to watch a movie and my son still wants me to walk him into the gym for his extracurricular activities. His favorite thing to do with the starter phone he got for Christmas is to send me heart emojis or video call me from across the room to tell me he loves me.

Which isn’t to say that I don’t ever embarrass them. I’m a mom, after all, so my coolness does have limits.  I have been told that my tendency to break into original songs, composed extemporaneously about the day’s events, is deeply nerdy. As if singing about breakfast dishes or hair brushing is weird. 

My kids are at an age where their growing independence is charming. The other day, my daughters opted to walk to my office after school, navigating the half-mile on foot together. My eldest had planned ahead and brought a little spending money — a fact I was unaware of until they turned up by my desk, holding donuts from the bakery and grinning like Cheshire cats. They had brought me one, too, because there is nothing more generous than an 11-year-old in a good mood. And I mean that sincerely. 

At this age, their responsibilities are minimal and their homework is light. There are hours to be spent building forts and waging nerf gun battles and dressing up dolls. My kids recently discovered the 1960 movie of “The Swiss Family Robinson” and it’s their new favorite film. For days, their games revolved around shipwrecks, treehouses and epic boobytraps, laid in preparation for the imminent arrival of pirates. My children can be counted on to defend our home. I’m lucky like that.

Obviously, it’s not all perfect. Far from it. My kids are also volatile, selfish and prone to taking offense when their siblings breathe wrong at the dinner table. But on the whole, this moment in our lives feels like a beautiful crystalline bubble — suspended between the long, exhausting years of babyhood and the tumultuous onset of puberty with its headlong rush towards adulthood. I’m enjoying it.