“I’ll never be an expert drawer!” E and I were sitting at the kitchen table after K and L had left for L’s pre-Mass choir practice, and E was trying to draw a sports car. He scratched out a basic wedge shaped attempt at a sports car, adding a deep arc for a driver’s seat, then put the pencil down and dropped his head into his hands. “I’m just not good at drawing!”
It’s tough reasoning with a four-year-old, and though I feared it feel ineffective in the moment, I thought perhaps he needed some perspective nonetheless.
“Son, it takes time,” I began. A thousand and one cliches seemed ready to rush from my mouth, but they were only cliches to me. “Everyone struggles at first when learning a new skill. No one is an expert immediately. It takes time.”
Yet his four-year-old horizon is not very distant at all. Later in the day, as we’re heading to a state park for a family bike ride, he will respond to his mother’s calming, “Only eight more minutes,” by counting to eight and demanding to know why we’re not there yet. At the sun-soaked kitchen table, though, his horizon was even closer. He flipped his sketch pad to a new sheet and tried again, with the same result. He crossed it out and again proclaimed, “I’ll never be an expert.”
I saw in this coming heartache, approaching frustration, a nearing narrowing of the Boy’s horizon. “What if he goes through life like this, thinking always that if it’s not perfect the first time, there’s no point in trying again?” I see it in my some of my at-risk students every day. They lack what, in edu-speak jargon, we’ve come to call “grit.” One girl experiences these frustrations on a daily basis: she wants to give up immediately if I offer any sort of helpful feedback that indicates the slightest flaw in her analysis. Unable to gain any perspective, she struggles with a stress she imposes on herself.
In the end, a lack of time saved the situation. Or at least put it off for a while. We got dressed and met K and L at Mass. As the homily began, it was as if the parish priest and the curria in Rome itself had seen our morning struggles and wove them into the day’s readings and homily. Father Longenecker was sketching the picture presented in the day’s readings. First, from Leviticus: Be holy, for I, the LORD, your God, am holy. A command from perfection for perfection. The second reading was from the first letter to the Corinthians: Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you? If anyone destroys God’s temple, God will destroy that person; for the temple of God, which you are, is holy. The Gospel reading from Matthew followed in the same theme: So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.
The notion that we’re called to be perfect, aside from proving that Christianity is not a good choice for anyone looking for an easy religion, put the morning sketch session into a new perspective for me. In his own way, the Boy was living out the callings from the readings. He must have looked to me as we look to God, frustrated at our apparent lack of progress. Our perspective on a human life must appear to him like E’s immediate frustration when he was unable to achieve instantaneous perfection.
After Mass and lunch, we headed to a lovely local state park to enjoy the unseasonably perfect cycling weather. We rode 6.6 kilometers (4.1 miles) and climbed a total of 86 meters (282.1 feet). A fair amount for a four-year-old.
He had to get off and push a few times, but his tenacity at some of the steeper portions of the short incline was impressive. It was a mirror image of the morning, for it was only toward the end of the ride that he really started suggesting, in words and actions, that he might not make it back to our starting point.
What made the difference? Why did he exhibit tenacity in one endeavor and not the other? Was it merely the physicality of the cycling, a tangible activity with a clear end? Was it the fact that a flawed sketch sits on the page and reminds him of his seeming failure whereas the road’s inclines simply disappear behind him? I sit here at the end of the day thinking that perhaps I should have the answers to those questions, and I realize that if I’m not careful, I’ll start doing the same thing he did with his drawing: why am I not the perfect parent? By now, such thoughts leave as soon as they enter my conscience, right? Hardly.
In the end, it was a reminder paradox that perfect days are perfect because aren’t.
Propaganda has become a substitute for ideas and ideology. Knowledge is confused with how we are made to feel. Commercial brands are mistaken for expressions of individuality. And in this precipitous decline of values and literacy, among those who cannot read and those who have given up reading, fertile ground for a new totalitarianism is being seeded
Empire of Illusion
How do you lose the gas cap off your mower? Fairly easily it turns out, as I discovered Saturday. So when we were talking about what we’ll be doing this weekend over dinner, K suggested I work on the leaves in the backyard again. Great idea, but I’ll have to get a gas cap before I can do that. In the meantime, to get a little exercise and outside time after dinner, we searched for the gas cap.
For a while.
Soon enough, though, the boys decided it was time to play. We captured K and tried to pull her to our lair, but she’s a strong one, that K. But turnabout is only fair, and so the Boy turned traitor and jailed me in the hammock, taking a brief break to get the Girl swinging.
An audio recording from rehearsal.
The Girl has loved performing for years. She doesn’t often have an audience, but she really doesn’t need one.
On a weekend trip, she can entertain herself in the hotel room dancing about as if she were on the biggest stage in the world.
She can dance a little reel on the way from the table to retrieve a spoon for little brother’s soup as if she were part of a touring dance troupe.
A hairbrush can be a microphone and the hardwood floors throughout our house make every space a recital hall.
This weekend, though, it was a little different. It wasn’t the improvised routines that fill her week with little joys as she imagines herself on this or that stage. It wasn’t plunking away with her piano teacher. It was an auditioned role. A practiced and prepared role. And it wasn’t just her: it was almost three hundred kids across the state, all practicing with their music teacher after school, learning the same songs in big city schools and small rural schools. Students of multiple ethnicities, races, religions, and mental aptitudes with one thing in common: an ability to sing. A gift in common. A gift they are willing to share.
And in the midst of all this, like magnets to a pole, two Polish families found each other and the girls made friends instantly.
Part of parenting is resisting. Resisting the urge to give in to tantrums because, let’s face it, it would be easier in the short run. Resisting the urge to say something sarcastic when it’s really not going to do anything but make the situation worse. Resisting the urge to change your kid’s personality because some little quirk here or there is mildly annoying. Resisting the urge to compare your kids to others’ children. Resisting the urge to use one sibling as a model for the other: “Why can’t you be more like your brother?” Resisting the urge to let television be the babysitter when you’re tired. Resisting the urge to say “No” when “Yes” won’t hurt anything other than your schedule. Resisting the urge to say “Yes” when it’s so much easier. Resisting the urge disengage when tired. Resisting the urge to stop resisting the urges…
And part of parenting is embracing urges.
It’s been a long time since we’ve had a fairly typical Monday. Last Monday, we had no school, so K and I went out and bought a new car. The Monday before that, we were out of school because of snow. Or was that the previous Monday? Going back further there was winter break and so on. So today was a normal Monday. Up early, kids ready, off we go.
The afternoon was fairly typical as well. After chess club, I arrived home late. Everyone was in the backyard. I made my afternoon coffee, poured it in a travel mug, and headed out — only to see everyone coming in.
“I’m coming in to get dinner ready,” K said. The temptation was to be lazy, but laziness is what we got all weekend, with the rain, rain, and more rain.
“I’ll go down with them,” I suggested, and both the kids squealed and excitedly ran back down to the trampoline/swing/hammock/bridge/hiding spot area we’ve been developing over the last few years.
Afterward we had dinner. Relatively uneventful — which is really saying something. The kids lately have been bickering like mad over the slightest thing, and it turns dinner into something less than perfectly enjoyable. We decided to conduct an experiment — the “we” being K and I, for the kids would never agree to it. Not knowing what influence was primarily responsible for their behavior (for it’s not been just the bickering), we’ve eliminated all possible influences for a week: no television, no computer, no friends. Just a week to refocus and recharge. The kids this weekend had to find other ways to entertain themselves when we weren’t playing with them. L read, played with her Legos, drew. The Boy drew, played with his Legos, looked at books. The results are beginning to show: tonight, a much calmer dinner, with no hysterics about anything. In the evening, a calmness that hasn’t been in our house for a while.