When Jacob, now a junior in college, was four years old, we went to a community Easter egg hunt. It wasn’t truly a hunt, as all the small plastic eggs were in plain view, scattered across a football-field sized section of the park. The hunt was open to children under five, and a couple hundred preschoolers and toddlers stood in a circle around the eggs, baskets in hand, ready for the large white bunny mascot to give the signal to go. The bunny jumped up and down, his handler shouted go, and the tiny children rushed out into the field, grabbing eggs. Children everywhere, gleefully scooping up eggs, shouting to each other, racing around the field. But not Jacob, who looked alarmed at all the action and held tightly to my leg.
As Bill cajoled Jacob to join the group, dramatically telling him of the yummy jellybeans inside each egg, I surveyed the crowd to see if there were other, similarly reluctant children. There were not. While a couple kids were looking for eggs only in the area right in front of their parents, no one else had refused to leave the sidelines entirely. Only Jacob.
We left that day with just one plastic egg, brought to us by the sympathetic bunny mascot, who saw Jacob’s distress and tried to hand it to him. Jacob buried his face in my leg, refusing the egg. I thanked the rabbit, who nodded (a bit judgmentally, I thought).
That moment stands out to me as pivotal in my parenting journey with Jacob, because it gave me a tremendously important perspective. That spring morning, when Jacob was four, I could see where my son was, compared to other children his age, in terms of his ability to try something new. I love statistics, and I remember doing the math in my head as we left the park. Two hundred kids looked for eggs; one child wouldn’t; that put Jacob in the lowest half of one-percent in terms of fearfulness of a new situation.
Bill and I talked about the Easter egg hunt that night after Jacob was tucked in bed. We discussed how much joy Jacob could be in danger of missing if he continued on his current trajectory. We talked about our own personalities and where Jacob’s reticence may have come from—and how our own parents either encouraged or discouraged each of us from trying new things. Together that night, Bill and I decided that parenting Jacob, who was such an easy, quiet child, was going to require a bit more effort than we had put forth so far. We promised each other we would not allow Jacob to spend his childhood on the sidelines— even if he wanted that. We committed to figuring out the balance between respecting his naturally cautious personality and steering him to experience new things.
Fast forward to a childhood of nudging, prodding, and sometimes simply waiting for our hesitant son. We sent him off to sleepaway camp for a week the summer after fifth grade; we taught him to ski (he stayed on the medium hills even when he was good enough to go down the black diamonds); we signed him up for activities—sometimes asking him first, sometimes not. Gradually, through grade school, Jacob became more confident and Bill and I breathed a sigh of relief as he began taking initiative, showing us flyers for sports and events and asking to join. By high school, Jacob had left the fearful little boy behind, and jumped into stage crew, high school sports, and life with friends. On the occasions he did hesitate, his friends tugged him in, convincing him, for example, to be part of a gentlemen’s pageant, wearing a horse mask. He joined a young adult Ultimate Frisbee team as soon as he could drive. My Easter egg memory became blurry.
This past weekend, Jacob went to Easter Island, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and camped with friends—he chose the excursion as part of his semester studying abroad in Chile. We Face Time with him once every couple of weeks, and he’s happy, not homesick, speaking Spanish, but still unable to roll his Rs.
Last semester, when Jacob first told me he was going to study abroad, I tried to contain my surprise as I asked him why he had chosen Chile, and not England or Ireland, where Notre Dame also had programs—and where he could study in English. “The idea of going to Chile made me the most uncomfortable of all the programs,” he said. “And I guess I’ve learned that when I choose to do something uncomfortable, it usually ends up being a great experience. So I signed up.”
From being afraid to pick up Easter eggs, to camping on Easter Island. He’s learned to nudge himself.