On my bookshelf when I was a child sat a sweet story by Robert Kraus titled Leo the Late Bloomer. It is the story of a young lion who takes his time reaching his developmental milestones. He doesn’t read well, write well, draw well, eat neatly, or even speak. Leo’s anxious father suffers much hand wringing over his son’s apparent lack of distinction, but Leo’s mother keeps assuring his father not to worry, Leo is simply a late bloomer. Sure enough, at the end of the story Leo blooms. He reads, writes, draws, eats, and speaks eloquently, summing up his achievements in a triumphant “I made it!” on the final page.
As a child I thought Leo was funny. As an adult he became less humorous as I began to identify in many ways with this lion and his lagging maturation. In some ways I have felt like a grown up since I was a child. In some ways, in my late thirties now, I wonder if I will ever fully grow up. I have felt like a late bloomer this past couple years as I’ve pursued a new career path. Nothing like a new venture to highlight all your incompetencies. This blooming business is hard work, and I’m beginning to realize will take a lifetime to complete.
I wonder about my kids growing up in today’s rushed culture. I wonder about how that rushing affects the ways my kids see themselves among a sea of kids doing so many things earlier and earlier. My mom is a strong swimmer. Her father taught her to swim when she was a child but she didn’t learn proper stroke technique until she went to college where she joined the synchronized swim team. She learned her strokes in college. According to today’s standards, where toddler swim classes abound and infants are schooled in how to float safely on their backs, my mom not learning swim strokes until college would surely have eliminated her from team contention. What a shame that would have been, for both her and the team.
Today we are in such a hurry to get our kids all grown up. We potty train infants and teach them to read before they utter their first word. We register two and three year olds for classes in sports and art and music and language because we think they need structure and we want to take advantage of their absorbent and malleable brains. And like Leo’s father we wring our hands anxiously when our kids don’t show enough passion or discipline in all the things we think they should be interested in. I’m afraid we are creating a world where our kids will believe they are all late bloomers because they haven’t mastered anything by age five. But so many of them are not late. They’re right on time. It’s we, the parents, who are showing up too early for the show.
I admit I struggled with the temptation to push my kids early in the realm of reading. I’ve been reading to my kids regularly since the womb and when I got my hands on some curriculum that said I could teach them successfully to read at age four I jumped at the chance. At first lessons went smoothly, but as time went on and the challenges grew, I saw my kids’ interest and enthusiasm wane. I wish I could say I heeded the signs and pulled back, but the truth is I continued to push for some time. I wanted to believe that intellectual aptitude was the most important indicator of readiness, even as I could see the emotional maturity wasn’t there. As an avid reader, I pridefully wanted to teach my kids to read, neglecting to acknowledge I was pushing too much too fast. I am grateful for the wise preschool teacher who frankly suggested I continue reading to my kids and leave the phonics for another year. I followed her advice, and the joy of reading came back into our home.
I, too, feel the pressure of wanting my kids to achieve—early and often—for the accolades it brings. We as a culture are addicted to accolades and none of us are immune. But I am more aware now of the reality that there is no rushing growing up. We can mask immaturity to a certain extent; we can dress it up and cover it with achievements and trophies, with pinterest-worthy parties or overpacked schedules. But if my own foray into career transformation is any indication, there’s just no fast forwarding the slow churn of experience. Blooming takes time.
And now, as I watch my kids at age nine, navigating the increasingly complicated world of friendships and peer relationships, responsibility, making choices, and independence, I am so grateful when I see areas in which they are taking their time. I’m not talking about failure to thrive here—I wouldn’t rejoice to see my third graders act like Kindergartners. But far more often what we see in a technology driven, media saturated society is third graders acting like ninth graders, and kids feeling like they have to have it all figured out when only a generation ago any honest college grad would tell you they’re still trying to figure out what they want to be when they grow up.
Let’s let our kids be Leos. Let’s let them take their time as they figure out how to stretch and move in their own skin; let’s let them change their minds and make mistakes. My own home is not a home of prodigies and geniuses. We’re all still figuring ourselves out, wondering what life may bring, and loving each other along the way. We’re blooming, all in due time. We’re growing our garden. And what a beautiful garden it will be.