- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 23, 2004

Once again, I’m running late. It’s 3:07, and by the time I turn into the school parking lot, the pick up line is a mile long and moving like molasses in winter. This is because all the “good” parents? the prompt ones? arrived at 2:45 in order to wait next to the curb.

Those of us who pull in just after the dismissal bell may as well wait until 3:20 to get here, since it’ll take that long to reach the sidewalk.

I consider parking the van and walking across the lot to pick up my daughter, but the chances are good I’d be caught in a lengthy conversation with one of those “exceptional” parents who meet their children at the door.

This is too risky. These conversations usually mean I’ll be forced to volunteer for something. I’m a reformed volunteer, so I don’t get out of the car.

Instead, I inch forward, observing the various family dynamics as children disburse in clumps of two and sometimes three to rejoin their moms and dads for the ride home.

At last, I reach the curb. Only my-second grader waits for me ? her older siblings stay after school for band and basketball practice. The automatic door on the van slides open and she bounds inside with an enthusiastic, “Hey, Mom.”

“Guess what,” she says. “Today in music class we got to sing songs that we made up, and I said I wanted to dedicate a song to all the kids who have older brothers and sisters. Want to hear it?”

“Of course,” I say.

She clears her throat and finds her spot on the scale.

“I wish I was older than my brother, oh, yea

I wish I was older than my brother, oh, yea

I wish I was older than my brother, oh, yea

I wish I was 22 and he was one.”

She finishes with a long, soulful, warbling note. I resist the urge to laugh out loud. The song is funny, after all, but I don’t want to encourage her too much. She’s precocious enough as it is.

So I say, “Wow. What did your music teacher say?” I’m pretty sure this wasn’t what he had in mind when he suggested the children sing for one another.

“He didn’t really say anything,” she replies. “But he did roll his eyes.”

Why am I not surprised?

“What did the kids say?” I ask. I’m thinking maybe her performance fell flat, and she didn’t notice.

“Oh, they loved it,” she says firmly, “especially the ones with big brothers.”

“I wish I was older than my brother,” is my daughter’s anthem. Living as she does in the shadow of three older siblings, her existence feels like a series of rides in the van to events and activities in which she is not involved or included. She’s the constant spectator at soccer games, basketball tournaments and cross-country meets, tagging along behind me, or more likely, trying breathlessly to catch up.

The reality is, this fourth child of mine is a little girl living in a world of teenagers and preteens. She says “cool, dude” when she likes something and when she feels oppressed by the big kids, she accuses them of “seeking world domination.”

She knows the names of pop musicians and movies starring Lindsay Lohan. She watches old Mary-Kate-and-Ashley videos, but she knows they’re really 18 now and one of them had an eating disorder.

When she plays dress up, her makeup job is a little too professional. She says when she grows up she wants to be a veterinarian or have her own cooking show on the Food Network.

In her heart, she wants to fit in among the giants around her. We’re all amused at the dinner table when her unexpected quips hit the mark (“Kind of a lot of carbs tonight, huh, Mom?”), but we know it’s not OK for her to behave like a miniature adult.

We want her to be sweet instead of savvy, but her reality includes experiences the others never encountered or imagined at her age. Can she help it if her older sister plays the flute in the marching band and she’s forced to go to the high school football game on a Friday night?

Yet, an innocent childhood is her right and our responsibility.

Ironically, while she laments she’s too young and unimportant, she has no idea of the vital role she plays precisely because she’s our caboose.

When it feels like we’re on the fast track to SATs and college tours, our little girl offers Saturday morning cartoons, reading aloud and sidewalk chalk.

When her siblings long for a break from responsibility, she’s there for a round of pretend or a game of “Guess Who?”

When every square on the calendar forces us to eat on the fly and move through an endless series of commitments and scheduling conflicts, she’s the reminder to go outside to play.

Except on Tuesdays. That’s the day she has her own commitment — beginning jazz and tap — an hour each week her siblings can’t claim.

There, in her black leotard, her tap shoes shining under the studio lights, my little one revels in the company of children just her size and takes her first steps toward a life of her own.

Columnist Marybeth Hicks, a wife of 17 years and mother of four children, lives in the Midwest. She uses her column to share her perspective on issues and experiences that shape families nationwide. Visit her Web site (www.marybethhicks. com) or send e-mail to marybeth.hicks@comcast.net.

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