The Biggest Parenting Lesson I Learned at the Zoo

I get the same thrill seeing animals up close at the zoo like I did when I was a kid.  Anyone who has looked into the eyes of a gorilla or seen the length of a giraffe’s stride a few feet from you understands what I mean.

My daughter and I were roaming the zoo as we regularly do and just like every other visit, I found myself diverting her attention and trying to get her to notice the chameleon clinging to the branch or monkey picking at the fruit in the corner.

We were walking through the fish and reptile building and rounded the corner to an aquarium that she LOVES.  She can walk right up and see without being in the stroller or my arms.  She was intently focusing on one section and I started calling her name and pointing to bright, colorful fish and the large turtle swimming through the tank.  Like most moms can relate to, I called her name over and over again with no acknowledgement.  I changed the excitement in my voice and pointed to all the things I wanted her to see.

Finally, I got down to her level to see what she was so wide-eyed about.  Suddenly I realized she was staring at a small school of the tiniest fish I’d ever seen with my naked eye.  There were easily 50-60 of them in a small cluster, darting back and forth.

In that moment I realized two things:

  1. How many times had she missed a similar discovery because I was diverting her attention to what I wanted her to see instead of what she was exploring and finding on her own?
  2. What a great reminder of how much we miss in our everyday lives by not taking a moment to slow down and really take in our surroundings or the moment.

Sometimes I think we take on the responsibility of “crafting” an experience for our kids.  Perhaps that means choosing activities or excursions that would be the most convenient for us, what we really want to do, or what we think our kids want to do or should see.  Truthfully what we should be doing is opening the door for them to explore and then stepping back (safely, of course).

After discovering that small school of fish, we walked around the remainder of the zoo and I backed off.  I followed her steps, crouched down to her level, and asked her questions like:

“What do you see?”

“What color is it?”

“How many are there?”

“What is it doing?”

Now her answers at 2 years old weren’t filled with immense detail but it gave such amazing insight to what she was seeing and how much she could explain and verbalize.

That zoo visit was one of my most favorites.  Learning to appreciate the minutiae and sometimes overlooked.

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