The Process of Becoming by Mary O’Connell

Mary writes: I am kneading dough and lost in thought. It is our last supper.  Our youngest child is leaving for college in the morning and has requested homemade pizza for her last dinner at home. As she heads upstairs to pack up the final boxes, I work the dough, wondering whether she has learned everything she needs to know before she heads out into the world, hoping she’ll meet people who are kind to her and who appreciate her for the unique and spirited person she is.

It’s funny, I remember as I add a little more flour to the dough, I was worried about these same things eighteen years ago when we sent our first child off to kindergarten. Was he ready? Would the world outside our home receive him with kindness? Some things never change, I guess. At each transition for all three of my children, I have fretted over the same things.

A few days after my daughter left for college we celebrated our summer festival at LifeWays of Milwaukee. During the festival, the children who are going off to school for the first time receive a piece of rose quartz from their caregiver as a symbol of love for their journey, and they head across the little wooden bridge adorned with rainbow silks and flowers. It’s a passage of only a few steps across the bridge, but it feels like a significant voyage as these little ones, some of whom we have cared for since they were babies, step across and are off into the wide world of school. Their parents’ faces reveal a mixture of joy and trepidation, and if I can be so bold as to presume to know what they are thinking, I believe they are pondering the same thoughts: “Will the world receive them with kindness? Will they make their way without harsh people or experiences damping their spirits?”

The children, of course, are enamored with their crystals. Each one takes his piece of rose quartz into his hands with awe, fingering the smooth edges and the rounded corners. They have watched their older friends cross this bridge for years, and now it is finally their turn!

A week before the summer festival each year, I take out the big burlap sack filled with giant chunks of rose quartz. Any willing member of my family is enlisted to break the chunks into child-sized pieces with a hammer. The pieces of rose quartz that split off are beautiful, with shiny edges, and pointy corners that are almost too sharp to handle. This will never do as a gift for a young child, so the pieces are put into the rock tumbler, where they spin for a day or two. The friction from the sharp crystals rubbing against one another in the tumbler polishes the pieces of quartz until they are smooth to the touch, yet each still unique and beautiful in its own way.

When I think back on all my fervent wishes as a parent sending off my children to grade school, middle school, high school, college and beyond, hoping their journeys would not to be too difficult and praying they  encounter kindness, in retrospect I’m pretty glad those prayers were not answered – at least not in the way I had hoped! Like the pieces of rose quartz, some of the things that have shaped our children’s lives for the better are the experiences they had with other people who “rubbed off their rough edges,” even (especially) their own siblings.  As a parent, I hated it when my children fought and argued with each other.  Why couldn’t they just get along? I realize now that their friction was necessary in helping them become who they are, and who they are yet to be. They came here to rub the rough edges off each other so they could each share their unique beauty with the world without being too sharp or prickly for the people and experiences they would encounter along the way.

As I watch the children at LifeWays tussle and argue over toys or sticks, I see their caregivers carefully yet masterfully guide them along the long learning curve of getting along with other humans. Sometimes this involves a gentle suggestion of a thing to say or do; other times a swift intervention is called for (when someone is in imminent danger of being hurt); and still other times sitting back and observing to see if they can work it out is just the thing that is needed.  In “sitting back,” I am not advocating a free-for-all where only the strongest survive and others feel unprotected, or worse, bullied. Many of us unfortunately experienced this in our own childhoods and know the pain of waiting for someone to step in and help, then realizing no one is paying attention.  In relationship-based care, we pay attention. We are always observing and asking ourselves how we can better help the children learn what they need to learn in an environment that supports them at each stage of their development, while nurturing those parts of them that make them unique and beautiful.

One thing I’m reminded of each day I am privileged to work at LifeWays, watching these children grow and learn:  The process of becoming who we are meant to be really only takes place in relationship with others, or as author Alfie Kohn wrote, “marinated in community.” Thank you all, parents and caregivers, for being part of the community of support we together create for our children.

Mary O’Connell is the Director of LifeWays Early Childhood Center in Milwaukee, WI and a the Director of the LifeWays training programs in Wisconsin and Oregon.