The One in Which My Son Attempts Origami Jujitsu and I Learn a Lesson

I spend a lot of time reminding my children to do things. Shut doors. Flush toilets. Turn socks the right way out before they go in the laundry. Brush teeth. Make good choices. Be kind.

Kindness costs nothing, I say.
To treat others with kindness, I say.
Be kind, I say.

And on an on.

The other day I was sitting with the ten year-old, he of the high anxiety and high self-expectation. He was attempting some ridiculously complicated advanced origami witchcraft. And, as usual, he was being incredibly hard on himself. There he was, frustrated to the point of near tears over this ridiculously stupidly complicated origami voodoo contraption that he couldn’t master on the first go–because you know, it wasn’t good enough to start with the origami equivalent of “is this your card?”.  No, it had to be some jujitsu paper engineering feat with moving parts. Whatever.

It suddenly became painfully clear I’d neglected something crucial in my kindness reminders.

I’ve forgotten to remind my son to be kind to himself.

Be kind. We teach it. We preach it. We speech it. We cross-stitch it on sweet needlepoint circle things. We put it on posters with cute otters. We repeat it, endlessly. Be kind.

But how often do we remember to teach the necessity of including yourself in the group you’re being kind to?

Be kind to the new kid, the awkward kid, the one who sits alone at lunch.
Be kind to the asshat who is not so kind to you, to the teacher, to old people crossing the street, to dogs, to frogs, to the environment.
Be kind, be kind, be kind.

We keep forgetting be kind to yourself.

Would you be so hard on someone else who couldn’t do this folding wizardry on the first go, I asked him? If a friend was trying to do something, even something easy, let alone an origami self-perpetuating motion machine, would you make fun of them? Would you tell them they were crap? Would you make them feel bad about themselves?

So why would you do that to yourself? I asked him. You need to be kind, not just to others, I told him, but to yourself too.

Cut yourself some slack, boy. Give yourself a break, son. Understand you’re not going to be a Jedi origami master when you’re still a paper padawan.

Did Luke give up and go home to Tattooine when Yoda was riding his ass? No.
Did Rey leave the rock in the middle of nowhere when she didn’t master the force right away? No.
Was there any real reason to bring Star Wars into this?
Correct answer: there is always room for Star Wars references.

I’ve spent so much time teaching and preaching kindness, but I forgot to teach him to be kind to himself.

There was no ice cream this time. But together we mastered the origami force. Or really he did while I sat next to him and reminded him to go easy on himself. And the ridiculously complicated paper engineering feat with moving parts worked. And he celebrated by making sixteen more and now my house is filled with them.

Be kind. Absolutely.

But don’t forget to be kind to you while you’re bending over backward to be nice to everyone else.

I may not be an origami Jedi, or even a paper padawan. But I’m getting pretty dang good at learning what this ten year old is teaching me.

 

Advertisements

The Importance of Coming Last

My (almost) ten year-old has been out-thinking and out-smarting me since he was about five. His level of self-awareness both scares the shit out of me and makes me think I’ve done a pretty kick ass job of raising someone in touch enough with their own emotions to say things like “I think I was feeling frustrated and I got upset and I took it out on you when I shouldn’t have.”

Right?

Anyway…that level of self-awareness comes hand in hand with a (sometimes too) keen sense of how others view him. The other day he had a swimming thing at school. He is…not a great swimmer. In fact, I often refer to his swimming more as ‘not drowning’ as opposed to swimming. The fact that he’s never been taught how to swim efficiently is one of my failings–a decidedly NOT kick-ass series of parenting decisions.

Anyway….he confided in me (and hey, this doesn’t go beyond you and me, right?) that he was worried about coming in last. This kid is a worrier. The older one walks through life with a natural assumption that wherever he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Not so the little one. He was worried he’d be last, that his friends would tease him, that he would be embarrassed, that his swim time would be broadcast on a billboard in Times Square, etc.

Someone’s got to be last, I said. And then we did our worst case scenario game.

What’s the worst thing that could happen? Would you lose the use of your limbs? Would we ask you to go live with another family? Would you stop having food or a house or even things you want but don’t need? Would your friends stop being friends with you? Would your teachers yell at you?

And on and on. We finally ended up at might be embarrassed. Ok, I asked, how long do you think you’d be embarrassed for? A year? Six months? A day? Ten minutes? Nod. So now count up all the minutes in your life. We’re talking about ten minutes where you might feel embarrassed. You can do ten minutes.

And we left it at that. As I turned out the light, I told him if he came in last, I’d buy him some ice cream. A last place treat.

Here’s a confession (between you and me, right?): It never occurred to me he’d come in last. He’s notoriously hard on himself. I just assumed he was exaggerating. 

“Guess what?” he said that afternoon as he trudged up the stairs.

“What?”

“I came in last.”

At first I thought he was just in it for the ice cream, trying to pull the chocolate wool over my eyes. But nope. He came dead last.

We talked. We went to the store and picked out ice cream. And here’s one of those funny parenting realizations: I was prouder of him for coming last than I would have been if he’d come in first.

It’s easy to be first. That’s not to diminish the hard work that often goes into being first, or even to minimize the natural talent that propels some to first. What I mean is that the emotions which come from winning, from being first, are easy to navigate: joy, happiness, accomplishment. We applaud them, we promote them, we teach our kids to strive for them. All good stuff.

We never encourage our kids to strive to be last, even though the emotions they must navigate by coming in last are just as important: resilience, determination, acceptance. And, in my son’s case, overcoming the anxiety of the worst case scenario that circles in his head like a boogeyman.

We do these worst case scenario exercises from time to time, usually when we’re lying in the dark together. But it’s not often his worst case scenario transpires.

So this time he got to live through his fear. He came in last. Times were written out, everyone could see he came in last. And…he got through it.

By coming in last he learned something that coming in first, or even somewhere in the middle was never going to offer. He learned that coming in last isn’t the end of the world. He didn’t give up. He pushed through the fear of failing. He learned that the things he feared the most, the niggling worries that circled his mind, didn’t happen. His friends didn’t make fun of him. Even if they had, it would have been a lesson for him. We must all learn to withstand gentle ribbing, and yes, even some not-nice teasing. Had he not placed last, those fears would have kept going round and round in his head until the next time.

And who knows, maybe he’ll place last next time too. But I’m guessing he won’t fear it as much because he survived it.

It may seem like an exaggeration to talk about kids and worst fears, but you’ve got to remember, for most of these kids, who lead lives where their biggest challenge is finding a pair of clean socks, these are their worst fears. The who and what of those fears will change. Coming in last will give way to being made fun of by classmates, being part of the rumor mill, getting rejected by a crush, not landing a job. The losses will become bigger in scope, but the lessons learned by failing, or by coming in last, are the same. The feelings you must navigate don’t change too much.**

What coming in last will teach him is that the reality of failure or loss is almost never as bad as what you imagine in your head. The monsters under the bed are never as scary when you shine a flashlight on them. Something that no matter how many times I tried to explain it, was never going to be as clear as experiencing it.

Loss, failure, they are important. It seems counter-productive, sure. As parents, none of us are out there actively encouraging our kids to fail or come in last. And yet the lessons they learn by facing down their worries and rising above them, and yes, by coming last? Sometime those are the most important lessons of all.

Plus, you know. Ice cream.

**I am by no means minimizing the devastating effect that trauma or bullying can have on kids,  but speaking of the everyday losses and failures that many children face in their day-to-day lives.

Memory Keepers

My kids, like most, have memories like a steel trap.

Remember that time you promised us ice cream and then we didn’t get any?
You mean the time your brother was running 104 temperature and we were trying to get him to the hospital, that time???
I dunno, maybe. But you still owe us an ice cream!

But the memories they keep, the ones that get caught in their young traps? They tend to be highly selective.

For instance, they don’t remember the seven hundred and sixty-two times I asked them to get their socks on, They only remember when I screamed at them to get their f**king socks on right this goddamn minute.

See? Selective memories.

Your kids have them too. They won’t remember all the mushy- gushy kisses, they’ll remember–and tell everyone who will listen– about the time you accidentally elbowed them on your way to the toilet to barf.

They won’t remember all the times you told them you loved them, but you can be damn sure they’ll remember the one time you threatened to sell them on eBay.

They won’t remember the mom magic that helps you keep track of who likes hard-boiled eggs and who likes scrambled, who likes their pasta with pesto and who prefers it with butter, who likes their carrots peeled and who doesn’t. What will they remember? The one time you put cucumber in the lunch box of the kid who doesn’t like cucumber as if you were trying.to.poison.him.

They won’t remember all the times you stayed up all night, not to get lucky, but to obsessively check their foreheads. They’ll remember the one time you were out to dinner and they threw up on the babysitter.

Remember that time, Mom? The time when you were out and I got sick all over the babysitter? Remember??

They won’t remember the 683, 909 calm and rational explanations, but they’ll remember the one time you lost your shit and threw a cup across the room.

They won’t remember the times you got up early to make scrambled eggs for breakfast on a school day. They’ll only remember the time you bought the bread with the seeds. You know. The one they hate.

No remembrance of time past, the hours spent pushing swings, spotting their little bodies climbing up the slide, zooming cars around on the floor. Nope. They will remember all the times they were so bored, Mom! 

They won’t remember the 10,000 meals you cooked, the ones they gobbled up. What will they remember? The ones they hated.

Out of 5,493 loads of laundry, the only one they’ll remember is the one when you shrank their hoodie in the dryer.

They won’t remember the times you pretended to be interested in play by play Pokemon or Minecraft stories. They’ll remember the time you shushed them because they were about to announce who was eliminated on Master Chef.

They won’t remember the scenery on the way to the National Park, or the $3,498 you spent on admissions. They’ll remember the way the ketchup at Burger King squirted on the table.

They won’t remember the 7,930 toys you bought them over the course of a lifetime, the 15,000 bits of Lego, the Barbie shoes you glued back together. They’ll fixate on the Barbie Dream House they never got.

Oh wait, that was me…

They won’t remember the blood, the sweat, or the tears. But the yelling, the screaming, the swears? It’s the stuff of legend. The stuff of therapy, of memoir, of blogs.

It’s all good. I may not remember why I opened the fridge, or what I came into the room to get, but all this stuff? Stored for life..or at least until I have grandkids on my side.

 

Blowing Bubbles

00002a9c_mediumThere was a time when I was moon, sun, and stars to my boys. Their days began and ended with me: a morning hug around the neck, a goodnight kiss in the dark.

It was exhausting, but it was also gloriously uncomplicated.

These days their need for me grows more nuanced by the hour. I no longer have to follow their toddling legs around to make sure they aren’t sticking forks in the outlets or finding coins to swallow. Nowadays it’s conversation and shared experience, text and email.

I miss my babies and my sturdy, chunky toddlers, my excited pre-schoolers, but I realized the other day what I miss even more is blowing bubbles.

Remember when a bottle of soap bubbles was enough? When those filmy baubles floating into the air coaxed a smile or a gaze of wonder? It’s been a while since I’ve had that kind of magic at my fingertips.

I know there’s magic deep down. There are layers of love and listening and trust that are building up over time, foundations and steps that will be high enough for them to stand on one day, by themselves. I know those things are vital and necessary and important.

e33931c891b21b2a462631c489ac7478

But sometimes it would be nice to grab a bottle of bubbles and see the world light up in those brown eyes again.

Increasingly it is difficult to find things for us all to do. They would rather play on an X-box and I have boxes of my own to tick. The pendulum swings from wildly busy to mind-numbingly not–from hummingbird to sloth depending on sports schedules and homework, travel and school. My (oft lame) suggestions of family outings or trips to the museum are met with half-hearted shrugs or outright dismissal.

I miss the times when just being with me was enough to do. Swinging in the playground,  running in endless circles or digging in a sandbox. The glee is contained now. It still bursts through sometimes, but it has to pierce a thicker skin. Or it could be they are away from me for such long chunks of time I don’t see it as often.

53fa9a98c673904e53b3406b003f659aLife is immeasurably easier. There is quiet, there is peace. There is reasoning. I am exhausted as I watch mothers of young toddlers following them as their little wills go faster than their legs can carry them, mothers ready to soothe a scraped palm when they pitch forward to the ground, who swoop them up and plant a hundred kisses on them.

I miss the magic kisses too.

But mostly I miss the bubbles, the way we would chase them through the sky, their little legs following as fast as their hearts would let them.

I miss a time when most of the magic was me, when the day rose and set with a hug around the neck.