When Is a Mess Not a Mess?

Trio block constructionSunday evening, one week into my 19-unit semester. Four months of classes and assignments, abstracts and annotations, essays and reflections loomed ahead. I wanted to get in bed on time … so I wanted the kids to get in bed on time. I approached the boys’ room to pray with them for the night.

I stopped in the doorway, temporarily blinded by the state of their room.

Books, papers, and writing instruments covered the desk. Trio block creations scattered the floor and Lego creations stood on top of the dresser and every other horizontal surface. During the weeks leading up to the kids’ school and my classes starting again, I had spent more than a couple of hours organizing, cleaning up, and cleaning out that room with the boys … then telling them in no uncertain terms that their room needed to stay clean because the weeks ahead would be too busy to spend much time deep cleaning.

“Boys, this room is a mess,” I stated. They looked at me as though I was speaking another language. “How much time did we spend cleaning this room?” They were silent. “You’re not watching any videos until the room is clean.”

As I tried to go to sleep that night, I thought back on my motherly feathers being so ruffled by the state of their room. And I thought about that. The Trio buildings. The art work and projects. The Lego towers. I realized it was all creative play. Building. Drawing. Even reading. All good things. Creative expressions.

No wonder I felt like I was speaking a different language. In a way, that’s just what I was doing. I said “mess” because I saw a mess. They drew blanks because they saw their creations and ongoing projects. We looked at the same room and came up with very different conclusions because of our very different perspectives.

And then I thought about later. Five years from now. Or ten. I thought about their room, and how I might wish to see my kids’ latest drawing or project or poem or construction. But my kids will no longer be kids. They will have moved on to bigger and grander things.

Their room might be clean then. But the loss would be mine.

How many times do I, as a parent, look in from the outside, or from above, and fail to see the world from my children’s perspective? Through their eyes? Whether it be their room or their homework, an argument between siblings, or an emotional situation they’ re going through.

The next morning, before I even got up, the boys had cleaned their room. (And I thought my words had gone selectively unheard.) I missed the chance to get on their level and ask them what they were working on. Or join them in their creative play. Again, the loss was mine, even though the room was tidy.

No, it’s not my job to clean up after my children. And yes, they do need to develop a sense of responsibility. But perspective makes such a difference. Perspective on messes. On time. On teaching and learning.  As a parent, I am slowly coming to learn that I have more to learn than I ever did. And even that is a matter of perspective. Seeing the learning as a joy, as something to be gained from every person and every situation.

Even from a “messy” room.

Lego creation & stack of books

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Pooh Bear’s Gift

My four-year-old son likes Winnie the Pooh. Actually, it’s a bit beyond like. If a day goes by without him watching a Winnie the Pooh episode or reading a Pooh story, he’s more cranky than I am on the days I skip my chai.Allen with Pooh and Tigger

But who doesn’t love Pooh? Who couldn’t love pretty much all the characters, in their own way?

The other day, Allen was watching the original Pooh movie… you know, the one we all probably watched when we were kids.

It came to the part about Eeyore’s birthday, where he is not surprised that no one knew it was his birthday. He’s just sitting there, gloomy as ever. Pooh and Piglet decide they should get a gift for him and rush off to their respective houses to find something.

Pooh finds a pot of honey (what else?) and begins the walk to Eeyore’s houseless hill. On the way, he gets a rumbly in his tumbly and decides he better sample the honey, “to make sure it’s okay”. Before he knows it, the honey is gone and he’s left with an empty—and rather sticky—pot. He heads to Owl’s tree house and Owl scribbles a birthday message on the pot, so that Pooh can present Eeyore with “a useful pot” for his birthday.

Meanwhile, Piglet finds the perfect gift, a red balloon that was three times his size. As he heads off to find Eeyore, the inevitable happens: the balloon pops.

Piglet arrives first with his “gift”, stammering his way through the story of what happened as he presents the broken and deflated red balloon. Just then, Pooh shows up with his gift.

“It’s a useful pot, and it’s for keeping things in,” he cheerily states to Eeyore.

“Like a balloon?” Eeyore asks.

“Oh, no. A balloon is too big to…” Pooh stops short when he sees Eeyore put the little red object into the pot and then pull it back out.

“Red, my favorite color…” Eeyore says…happily?

Parenting is like that sometimes. We have great ideas and concepts, hopes and the way we expect things to turn out. They never do turn out that way, though, do they? Sometimes we have to improvise, or come up with a whole new plan.

Then we have our kids, who don’t seem to mind; or if they do, they roll with the punches pretty well. Like Eeyore—well, at least in that scene—our kids are happy with what we have to offer. They are forgiving of the mistakes we make. Actually, they don’t even seem to notice.

Okay, I realize parenting is not quite as uncomplicated as an episode of Winnie the Pooh. Situations are not always resolved within 10-20 minutes. But at times like that, I can always put on Winnie the Pooh for my son, and make myself that cup of chai.

 

[Reposted from May, 2011]

What Did You Just Call Me?

children and name calling

On the way home from Wednesday evening church, my eight-year-old son told me a girl had called him “nerd” and “idiot.” My first reaction was indignation. I wanted to make a snide remark about the pot calling the kettle black, maybe add something about haughty daughters of fashionistas. Clearly, my heart was not on the right track, even after an evening discussing temptation and how to avoid it. Hearing that my son was called names opened a dark pathway in my mind and I began to tumble downward.

My daughter stopped my mental spiral with a logical comment to her brother: “You can’t be both nerd and idiot.” Jessica’s observation made me laugh. She was right.

Nerd has two main definitions:

  • a foolish or contemptible person who lacks social skills or is boringly studious.
  • a single-minded expert in a particular technical field.

In all honesty, both descriptions can fit my son. He loves to read all manner of science books. He is not picky. One day he might be studying volcanoes in a book he got from his aunt for Christmas. The next day he will be poring through a book about the human body or marine life. When we leave the house, he always carries a book into the van. (And usually leaves them in the van.)

Not only does he love to read on those topics; he loves to share what he learns. He is not highly discerning as far as who he shares it with. He’ll start talking to some random individual on the school playground, or during free time after church, about something he learned. As his mother, I love to think about what that interest might develop into one day. He could be a professor (or at least a teacher.) He has an amazing memory, is a fast reader, and loves books that many people would leave on their bookshelf, unopened.

At the same time, he probably tends to bore people. I watched it one day, at school, when he was talking to a close friend about some scientific topic. My son was conducting a monologue and I had to suggest, “Buddy, why don’t you give your friend a chance to talk, while you listen for a while? Then you can have a turn to talk afterward.” That kind of social skill comes naturally to most people; not to my boy.

Yesterday evening, it seems, my son had been talking with another boy about sharks. The girl, a couple years older than my son, made a sarcastic comment about how “exciting” the topic of his (most likely one-way) conversation was, and called him nerd. Then idiot. He told me that he went to tell his teacher, and she suggested letting it roll off, like water off a duck’s back. I agreed wholeheartedly. My son and I discussed the way duck’s feathers are coated with a special oil that keeps them from staying wet even when they dive underwater.

My son seemed fine after that, but made a comment this morning to his sister about being called names. It seemed the words had sunk in instead of rolled off. I didn’t want to leave them there, gathering strength. So I sat down with my three kids in the living room, and gave them each a small white board and marker.

“Draw a line dividing the white board in half,” I told them. “On one side, write names that you like to be called. On the other, write names that you don’t like being called.” Within a few minutes, they all had at least a couple of names on each side of the board. They first read out the names they did not like being called, and then the names they do like being called.

I gave them some references to look up in their Bibles. John 1:12. John 15:1, 5. John 15:15. Romans 8:17. 1 Corinthians 6:19. After they took turns reading the verses, they shared some of the names we are called in the Bible:

  • Heirs with Christ
  • Children of God
  • Branches of the Vine
  • Temple of the Holy Ghost
  • Friends of Jesus

I asked them if they had anything to add to that list. My older son said, “Beloved.” I suggested sheep belonging to a Good Shepherd. I digressed from biblical application and told them about some of the names I had been called as a child. “Four-eyes.” “Bird legs.” A couple that were more offensive, but made my children laugh. I laughed along with them, though I hadn’t when those names had stung my ears and eyes as a kid.

I told them one reason we don’t allow name-calling in our home is because names are important. They help us know who we are. They shape us in many ways. We tend to live up, or down, to the names we are called. I asked my children to remember, if anyone calls them names, there are other titles they have: names that God has called them that are so much more important. I also asked them to think that, if someone calls them a name, it could be that those kids have been called names, maybe by schoolmates, maybe by members of their own family. And try to respond graciously, even when the names are hurtful or on their “names I don’t like to be called” list.

Who knows if the little discussion I had with my kids will be like water off a duck’s back? I hope not. I hope my children remember their true names, their more enduring titles. I hope they see those same names in others, even “the least of these.” I hope I remember it too.

Motherhood – A Continual Tension

Baby Sleeping on Mother's ChestMotherhood carries with it a constant tension. The very state of being a mother seems to create the tension, a sort of inner conflict. It is a conflict I would venture to say fatherhood does not lay claim to. Fathers surely have concerns and conflicts:

  • The felt need – by society or culture or their inner voice – to provide for a family.
  • The desire to create a safe place for their family
  • The hope to manage everything within the walls of that safe place.

But for a mother, the tension is different. For a mother, or at least for me, the tension is pervasive.

Elrena Evans, in her essay, “My Little Comma,” became a mother while on the path to earning a PhD and a tenure-track position. She comments on the first page of the essay, “I am determined not to let my daughter get in the way of my studies.” Already the tension is there. Her daughter, as a baby, is an almost constant pull. Every time the baby needs feeding or calming or carrying. Every time she needs nursing or changing. Day or night, the baby has no consideration of the woman’s schedule.

What if there are other pulls on the mother’s time? So what, the baby’s needs remain. But other pulls, especially if they are work or school, carry deadlines and grades and necessary paychecks. They cannot be easily cast aside. Therein lies the tension.

Elrena Evans first takes a position of determination: studies over baby. “This child is not going to dictate my life.” But over time, she realizes that her mind (or heart) changes. The baby isn’t exactly dictating, but is slowly weaving herself into the mother’s heart and hours and priorities.

“What happens if I simply choose to be a wife and a mother?” This question, this tension, didn’t exist in some eras past. A wife and a mother is simply what women were. There was no thought of career and education; if so, it usually could only be a glance in passing. Times have changed. Expectations have changed. Opportunities have changed. Economies. Cultures. Marriages. Families. They have all changed to where every mother, it seems, must make a decision.

“Simply” a wife and mother? Or wife and mother and …

And career.

And education.

And a PhD.

Some women, mothers, don’t even have that choice. For them, the idea of staying home as “simply” a wife and mother would be awesome but they do not have that luxury. They are single mothers, or the primary breadwinners, or some other necessity keeps them in the rigors of a job or schooling while balancing the tension, the constant pulls, of motherhood.

For me, with three kids the ages of 13, 11, and nine, the tension plays out differently than it would if my children were younger. They are no longer a constant draw on my time. I don’t have to stop work or studies regularly for nursing or changing. I don’t have to constantly entertain or find something interactive and educational for a toddler-aged child to keep her out of trouble.

But I am still a mom. My kids still need me.

This weekend, I had to make choices. Do I sit with my kids and watch their Friday night movie, or do I get a couple more things done? Do I check my kids’ homework and let them know if they need to fix some of their math problems, or let the teacher take care of it . . . even if it means more homework piling up next week? Do I venture into my boys’ room and work with them to clean it, or brush off the feeling with the reasoning that, “It’ll just be messy again next week”? Do I take a walk with my kids or let them play outside on their own?

During school semesters, especially on the weekends, I face that constant weighing of options. Often with this weighing, I feel a constant burden of “I’m not doing enough with my kids. I’m not spending enough time with them. All they hear from me is ‘do this’ and ‘clean that.'” My first conclusion is, “If only I didn’t have school. If I didn’t have classes to attend and books to read and papers to write and turn in, I could be a good mom. A real mom. I could bake with my kids every weekend. I could teach them to sew and build Legos with them. We could go camping . . . in our backyard or in Yosemite. Our family would be happier.”

But would it, or would there be some other pull on my time and priorities? Would I find myself wasting away hours on Facebook or my blogs so that I wouldn’t really be spending that extra time with my kids anyway? It’s easy to assume life would be one way if a certain factor disappeared, but reality is often far different. If taking classes and working part-time did not exist for me, I just might fill my hours with the tyranny of the urgent. My house may be cleaner, but would I spend more quality hours with my children?

Maybe it is the busyness and the tightness of time that makes our moments together so special. That makes me strive for meaningful experiences together. When I do take the time in spite of deadlines or celebrate with the children after reaching those deadlines.

A constant tension is not necessarily a bad thing. It can create a constant perspective of watching for opportunities to experience life together. A continual mindset of using every moment possible to be a mom. Not perfect. But a mom.

Are All the Children In?

I think oft times as night draws nigh
Of the old farmhouse on the hill,
Of a yard all wide and blossom-starred
Where the children played at will.
And when the night at last came down
Hushing the merry din,
Mother would look around and ask,
“Are all the children in?”

Oh, it’s many, many a year since then,
And the house on the hill
No longer echoes to childish feet
And the yard is still, so still.

But I see it all, as the shadows creep,
And though many the years since then
I can still hear my mother ask,
“Are all the children in?”

I wonder if when the shadows fall
On the last short, earthly day,
When we say good-by to the world outside
All tired with our childish play,
When we step out into the other Land
Where mother so long has been,
Will we hear her ask, just as of old,
“Are all the children in?”

– Florence Jones Hadley

Children’s Letters to God (Stuart Hample, Eric Marshall, Bill Adler)

Dear God, Is it true my father won’t get in heaven if he uses his bowling words in the house? – Anita

Did you really mean Do Unto Others As They Do Unto You, because if you did then I’m going to fix my brother. – Darla

God: the bad people laughed at Noah – you make an ark on dry land you fool. But he was smart he stuck with you. That’s what I would do. – Eddie

Dear God, I bet it is very hard for you to love all of everybody in the whole world. There are only 4 people in our family and I can never do it. – Nan

Dear Lord, How do I know that you hear my prayers? Could you please give me a sign like leaving me a $10 bill under my pillow? – Gloria

The Greatest Teachers

Jessica, Allen, and AidenAllen, when he was three years old, told me one morning, “I love you.” Then he went on to say, “And I love Daddy and I love Aiden and I love Jessica…” He continued until he had named pretty much every person he knew or could remember at the time.

Children have so much love to share and give. It is contagious.

A few days later, he was giving a multitude of kisses and cuddles to my husband. Aiden, who was turning one that day, and was fully focused on his birthday gift, placed it down and crawled up to daddy and likewise started giving him “kisses.”

As adults, we tend to withhold love, forgiveness, and time, giving it to those who we feel deserve it. Or those who are in our “good books” at the time. Amazing how three-year-old’s (and one-year-old’s) naturally recognize the contagious and beautiful power of love. Perhaps that is one reason Jesus said we would do well to become like children—not only to enter the Kingdom one day, but to also enter a place of joy, peace, spontaneity and love in our everyday lives. Sometimes I feel my children are teaching me every bit as much as I am teaching them – probably a lot more.

Bye for the Day, Mom

If you had driven

Down Shields Avenue

Past a school at roughly

9:37 am

You might have seen a brown-haired boy

With glasses, and a button-blue shirt tucked in

Standing against the black steel fence

Waving

A score of other children swung and hula-hooped and dribbled balls and played tag

Forgive the boy waving

As if at the cars driving by

Or those waiting at the bus stand just past the parking lot

Or at nothing at all

He was waving to his mother

He was waving to me

An Outside Glimpse

Little Boy in a BoxOften, without even realizing it, we put our children in a box, labeled neatly with our perceptions of them and our assumptions as well.

My four-year-old son had been going through a whiny phase. It was difficult to even know what he was saying and I would frequently let him know (less-than-patiently) that I could not understand a word he was saying unless he spoke more clearly without the high-pitch, sing-song accompaniment of whines. After my strong reactions, he rarely improved and things would just go downhill.

My mom and I were in the car, and the kids were in the back seat. My son was talking to himself, which he rarely does. He was going on and on in a very impassioned manner so I tuned in to hear what he might be saying.

“No one understands me!” He was exclaiming to himself, building up a whole case in his little sing-song voice. I tried to reassure him that as long as he spoke clearly, he would be understood. I left it at that, although his talking continued.

That weekend, my sister came for a visit with her teenage son. I entered the living room that evening and heard my son telling a story to his aunt and cousin. They were sitting captivated as he narrated the entire tale of how we traveled from India, including information on the airplane ride, the things he saw, ate, experienced.

After he completed his tale, I told him it was time to get ready for bed. He turned to go, but then added, “I need to go now and that’s about all the information I have.”

My sister was laughing so hard she could barely breathe. My nephew commented, “He knows words I didn’t learn until sixth grade!”

The next day, my four-year-old told his plane traveling story to someone else, who was extremely impressed. He added a few details, cut out some other parts and had to double back when he forgot something, beginning the story once more from that point on. He breathlessly reached the end of the story and said, “And that’s the end of my story of how we came from Bangalore to America.”

Another successful tale. Another impressed listener. My son was happy once more.

He still has whiny moments and at times, I still have difficulty understanding what he’s trying to say. But he also has an amazing vocabulary and a gift of storytelling. Sometimes we need an outside glimpse from someone else to help us see just how special and unique each child really is.

[Repost from September, 2011]

When You Thought I Wasn’t Looking

When You Thought I Wasn't Looking