Wednesday, September 01, 2004
Moving children: Handle with care :::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::
Moving day is a week away, and a long, urgent list of things to do sits on the kitchen counter.
Gather documents for closing.
Call the babysitter.
Call the attorney.
Call the real estate agent.
Pack the boxes.
Call the real estate agent again. Won't these people ever leave us alone? Or did we just forget to call them back last night?
It's a struggle to make sense of this chaos. Along the way, though, my wife Nancy and I try to do something far more urgent: help our 4-year-old daughter, Dina, through this harrying experience-even as we frantically search for misplaced documents.
More than usual, I have to see things through my daughter's eyes.
Sometimes, that means appreciating that she's the most direct person in the room-even when she doesn't know the answer to a question. Such as when a real estate agent asks her what she thinks of her new home moments after she sees it for the first time.
"I don't know," Dina says quickly, looking right at her. "I'm still thinking about it."
It's just as likely, though, that my daughter will respond with the rawest of fears and grandest of hopes.
At first, I don't give it much thought. Then someone rings the doorbell to pick up our couch.
We'd owned this sofa for about seven years and were about to give it to my niece. Time to dump it, Nancy and I agree. Never did like the darn thing anyway. Besides, we have explained to Dina many times that we'd be getting rid of this piece of furniture.
Still, as three movers walk into our living room and haul away this couch, Dina rushes toward her mom and bursts into tears.
"I don't want them to take away my couch," she cries. "I want it to stay."
We do our best to comfort her, but know there's no easy way to reassure a child when every room in the house is filled with moving boxes.
Later that day, though, my daughter is perfectly resilient-who knows exactly why?
As we drive by the home we will move to, Dina sees a bunch of kids her age playing on a neighbor's lawn. Before long, she is excitedly mapping out her plans for our future. This is what my room will be like, she tells us. This is who will visit. This is where my toys will go.
These scenes have been replayed a number of times. As our home empties out and we prepare to fill another one, my daughter's emotions ricochet around like a rubber ball.
"Moving can be a difficult process, but what I've learned is you have to explain to kids why it's necessary," says Dr. Robert R. Edger, an assistant professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral science at Northwestern University who works extensively with children in his private practice.
Edger, who grew up as an Army brat and moved about a dozen times as a kid, echoes the basic advice many who work with children repeat about this challenging time: Yes, a child's reactions to moving may vary depending on age or development level. All parents, though, should talk to their child about what's going on. Then talk to him or her about it again and again.
Like many parents I know, my wife Nancy and I try to explain to Dina why we're moving and how her life will change in a positive way.
"You'll have a room of your own," we tell her. "A back yard. You'll be close to your school. And lots of parks."
Outside of the birth of her 1-year-old sister, Ally, moving is having the biggest impact of any event in Dina's life.
(Meanwhile, her sister somehow appears to be calm about it-at least for now-even when her nap is delayed by a couple who contemplates buying our home but criticizes the paint job.)
Dina is leaving the only home she's ever known at an age when she is taking major steps in learning how to understand her world-let alone a process as complicated as moving out of one home and into another.
"For a young child, it's so concrete-this is their home, and how could there be another one?" says D'Arcy Lyness, a psychologist based near Philadelphia and spokesperson for KidsHealth, a national organization sponsored by the Nemours Foundation's Center for Children's Health Media that provides information about children. "Children finally kind of get how the world goes, and then these movers show up. It can be unsettling."
Meanwhile, Nancy and I have our own questions. Who's to say what the local high school will be like in 10 years? How much can one really know about a house or neighborhood without living in it? Does anyone know what the future will hold for the housing market? No.
Without saying it, we realize moving a family–like raising our daughters–is an act of faith and trust.
Suddenly, moving day is here. There are still loose ends to tie up, last-minute crises: Has anyone seen that cell phone?
What if the movers are late? Wait, the real estate agent wants to show this place again. Does it have to be today?
My wife, though, takes care of a more immediate and painful crisis-locating Dina's pillow and favorite blanket, which were somehow lost in the packing shuffle this morning.
My daughter appears to be reassured for the moment. As we step outside, I hold Dina as she takes one last look at our old home.
Nancy and I, though, don't have much time to mourn the old place. We're busy watching our girls-even as we pull out the keys to our next destination.
Dan Baron lived in Chicago when he started this column. Now he and his family live in Evanston. You can reach him at email@example.com.