Fifty-two is not that old really, even though I am now decidedly middle-aged, but since we raised our kids when I was especially young, it’s hard for me to imagine raising a child today. If I had a deficit of patience back then, which I most certainly did, I have infinitely less of it now. Being consumed with my own career, and having come late to the party of raising children I had no part in creating, I was often bewildered at how I had come to live with these small, messy humans.
I generally don’t have a lot of advice for young parents, concerning raising kids in today’s hyper-connected world of screens and constant stimulation, at least none that you’re liable to concur with. There is one thing I’ve learned that I think is helpful. It’s a thing that I guess I’ve always known, both from my own experiences as a child, but also from many observations I’ve gathered over time.
If you have the opportunity to live near a small creek, and you’re brave enough to allow your children to play in it, I highly recommend doing so. That’s it. That’s my advice.
I know it doesn’t sound like much but how you respond to a dirty child, and I mean pretty filthy, reveals a lot about your character as a parent. Do you get frustrated if they take their shoes off in a store, or spill their milk at dinner? Do you expect the four year old to have your deep abiding respect for order, or do you get on the floor and do puzzles when you should be vacuuming?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not the touchy-feely, play games and toss around the pigskin sort of parent. I’m much more of “children should be not seen or heard” type of person. I like them in short bursts, which come to think of it, is the only way I’ve ever experienced them.
You see, I married a woman with three kids ages 3, 7 and 9 and they went to stay with their father’s every weekend until they were old enough not to. Because of the custody arrangement, I was forced to commute 90 minutes each way to work for their formative years, and so was around for half a bagel in the morning and baths and homework at night. By the time I had any energy to be any fun, they were gone. I don’t recommend that part as I don’t feel we ever really bonded. I was merely the authority in the house, and never the good-time Charlie.
There are a few moments from my life that I can point to and see a path to being a different kind of parent. The first is a memory of being very small and my grandfather allowing me to tend the fireplace. I was fascinated with the fireplace, as I assume most kids are, and he would allow me add wood and poke the fire. I’m sure he was always right there with me, but it was something that stuck with me and I try to do the same with my grandchildren.
The second memory is from watching my bother-in-law interact with his daughter in a retail store during Christmas. She asked to take her shoes off, and before I could say no, he said sure. There was no harm. We were waiting for family to shop. We were watching one small child and were actually in the shoe department. Why not indeed?
The third is a memory of taking visiting friends to our local creek and spending the afternoon damming it, getting soaked and coming home muddy. We did this all the time so I didn’t understand the reaction of the other mother when we returned with her son covered head to toe in mud. We were not particularly dirty ourselves, but it was his first time, and besides, what did it matter?
I don’t remember being especially filthy as a kid. I was never one to enjoy being wet or sticky or muddy, but if that’s what the day called for, then dammit, I was in. We were not terribly outdoorsy as a family, but we had a slew of kids and 80% of the downstairs was often being used as a ballet studio, so like most kids of that era, we were outside most of the time.
We often think of creativity in terms of artistic endeavors such as painting or music or even graphic design. We don’t think of creativity as a means to success in fields such as law or medicine or engineering, but that’s completely incorrect. What you may think of as creativity, we also call innovation. The ability to think beyond the known world and discover something new. Creativity takes a certain degree of arrogance and courage that only comes if you’re unafraid to fail. Innovation comes from getting dirty. It’s messy.
So my advice to you, if you want to raise brave children who are not satisfied with mediocrity, it’s important to let them experiment without fear of failure. To attempt to stop a never-ending stream of water from moving downhill. It’s an impossible task, but in the meantime you will discover a depth you might not realize existed.
I’m pretty confident my parents never saw the creek where we played. They knew where it was, but didn’t feel the need to check on us. We didn’t feel the need to show it to them and they would have been uninterested if we had.
I may have once felt I was building the fire, but my grandfather was the one who was doing all the heavy lifting. Discovery isn’t always a group project, but encouraging independence requires providing a lot more support than they’re aware of. Letting them fail is so much more important than helping them succeed.
The crick be dammed.