the children, our successors
To Willie and Henrietta
by Robert Louis Stevenson
If two may read aright
These rhymes of old delight
And house and garden play,
You two, my cousins, and you only, may.
You in a garden green
With me were king and queen,
Were hunter, soldier, tar,
And all the thousand things that children are.
Now in the elders’ seat
We rest with quiet feet,
And from the window-bay
We watch the children, our successors, play.
“Time was,” the golden head
But time which none can bind,
While flowing fast away, leaves love behind.
* * *
I don’t often write explicitly about childhood and parenting, but lately it has been on my mind more than anything else. My relationship with my daughters can be so sweet, then, without warning, suddenly turn stormy. In particular there were two mornings last week–weekday mornings, of course– in which I completely lost my temper and screamed–raged, actually– at them. Jeff, who was thankfully working at home that day, came upstairs and sort of took over, and I just escaped out into the backyard, where the outside air was so gentle, balmy, and comfortable. The transition from the cloying indoors of a chaotic morning to the expansive backyard with its two towering evergreens was a jolting one. I sat down on the edge of the small paved area bordering the grass and felt defeated and helpless. What sounded like a countless population of chirping birds, cloaked in branches high above my head, had a shaming effect upon me. How do these little beings succeed at being so industrious and harmonious at the same time?
Every now and then I realize that I need to reassess myself as a mother in a major way. Lately, this time of reassessment has come again. Usually I only realize it when I hit a sort of rock bottom moment of helplessness; then I go looking for help in the form of a book. Then a book usually finds me, as books will.
The help I found this time came in the form of an e-book. A post in my Facebook news feed told me that this particular book was available for free on a day when I was feeling particularly needy for something to read. It took me about one second to go to Amazon and download the book to my Kindle. The book is The Playful Family, by Shawn Leddington Fink, who writes a parenting blog called Awesomely Awake.
I am pressed for time today so I will only say one thing about the most powerful idea I have learned from this book which came to me at the time I needed it. The author advises parents to try to say “yes” to their children as much as possible. It is a simple idea, and for me a very counter-intuitive one. I did not realize how often I say “no” to my girls– to their outlandishly inconvenient ideas about what should happen next, about what they want to eat, about all sorts of things. But I am finally realizing that life contains so many non-negotiable shoulds, for adults as well as children, that we should, to the best of our ability, try to free ourselves from the tyranny of shoulds whenever possible. I saw a conversation on Facebook the other day about whether it is okay to purchase a few songs from an album, or whether we should purchase the entire album, to respect the integrity of that album. I wanted to shout: “Do whatever you want, whatever pleases you, whatever you enjoy, whatever makes you happy, because, in this case, unlike so many other cases, you CAN, without doing any harm to anyone else!” Why be perfect when nothing is really even at stake?
Something must happen in the slow transition from childhood to adulthood. Maybe we get shamed and nitpicked so much over the years that by the time we are grown we no longer remember how to let ourselves off the hook. Then when we see children living as if having fun is the number one priority in life, we want to squelch it down and restrict that impulse, feeling that we are somehow serving their best interest, increasing their chance of survival in a serious, performance-driven world.
I remember that as a child my cousin and I would play a game where we would get the pickle jar out of the refrigerator. With a pickle in hand, we would run around the house pretending that the pickle was our fuel and we could only move if we had some pickle in our mouths. If we swallowed, we had to stop and take another bite for fuel. If the pickle was all eaten, we had to get another. And so on. I do not remember there being any limit on the number of pickles we ate, and oddly, I do not remember any adult at either of our homes interfering with the game. This game was particularly fun when we were at my house, because there were these saloon-like shutters leading into the kitchen, and we would crash through them, back and forth, letting them swing and bang against the wall (these fun shutters were there when we bought the house, and my dad later removed them). I can only imagine the series of thoughts that this would set off in my head if I were now the supervising adult: pickles have no nutritional value; you are wasting an entire jar of pickles; you are ruining your appetite for dinner; your running around the house is totally obnoxious; you are loosening the hinges on those shutters and making marks on the wall. Stop, I don’t want you to play this game. And yet, this stupid, rudimentary pickle game with my cousin stands out as a very bright memory of my childhood. How did I get from being that kid to this adult? I cannot really say, but I am now realizing that I need to change.
Since reading this I keep remembering this awesome and delightful scene in Almost Famous, in which the teenage daughter confronts her mother passionately: “Darrel says I am a yes person and you are trying to raise us in a no environment!” All I can say is this: I really do not want to have That Particular Fight with my daughter in ten years, but if I keep going on the same course, I don’t need the ghost of Christmas future to tell me that That Particular Fight–that terrible, alienating moment between a mother and daughter–is most certainly going to transpire. I need to lighten up while there is still time to make things right– while my daughters still perceive me in a sort of glowing light in which I can almost do no wrong, even when, admittedly, we are completely furious at one other.