On a Friday early evening, after a rainy morning spent at a museum, a lunch with his dad and me, and an afternoon spent with his uncle, aunt, their dog, and me, my son played outside in the backyard. I put our teatime dishes in the sink, and then I sat down with the baby to nurse her to sleep for her late afternoon nap. With the baby sleeping on my chest, I read the news on my iPhone and listened to my son’s tractor and truck noises from the backyard as well as the phases of quiet when he was just digging. I read an article on patience from National Public Radio; I read a post from Lisa Belkin about how money is actually the thing that makes the difference in parenting, the thing that strengthens a parent’s emotional reserve for children. I looked around the house that someone else had cleaned that morning and agreed that this was true; that I could enjoy this moment of my baby napping while my son entertained himself outside rather than try to pick up the house and wash the floors did indeed do a world of good for my emotional reserve. My husband sent word that he was on his way home. I thought about getting up to heat up some soup. I got up instead because I realized the phase of quiet coming from the back yard had extended a little longer than long.
When I had last looked outside the kitchen window, my son had been crouched down and digging and filling his bucket with dirt. When I walked into the kitchen next, I saw what he had been working on. In the same way that the splintered off broomsticks haul bucket of water after bucket of water eventually flooding the house of the sorcerer in Fantasia, my son had filled a good portion of our kitchen with dirt from the backyard. It turns out the hauling capabilities of a few hundred magical broomsticks could be beat by my son and his bucket in a matter of minutes.
Looking at my backyard of dirt that was now residing on my kitchen floor, I instantly thought of how much my husband looks forward to coming home to a cleaned house on the days that the cleaning lady comes. I thought if I was the one who had washed that floor, I would have probably instantly gotten frustrated. I would have thought of the lost hours, the logistical planning it requires to wash a floor when navigating the moods, naps and activities of an 8-month old and a 3 ½ year old. Then I thought how the person who washed the floor would be back Monday to wash it again.
When my son next appeared in the doorway with another bucket, we had one of those moments that feels like it occurs in slow motion. He saw me and stopped. His face dropped and froze, as if he knew I would instantly get frustrated at him. I realized I didn’t want my son to have the experience of doing something and being scared of getting in trouble for it. I had never actually made it a rule that he should not bring buckets of dirt into the kitchen. I remembered in my own childhood, I hated it when I did something that I didn’t know was against a rule until I did it and a rule suddenly appeared. I remembered those instants of happiness and contentment disappearing the moment I realized I was in trouble because a rule I didn’t know existed suddenly appeared.
I didn’t want that for him.
I thought of the article on patience I had just read, that if I developed enough patience I could intervene with initial reactions to prevent doing or saying something I would regret.
I looked back at my son and smiled. He smiled his delightful smile.
I said in my calmest-most-even-keel-way, “When Daddy comes home, he will hold baby and I will help you clean up the dirt.”
“Okay,” my son said. “I’m digging inside, now that it’s night outside.”
Of course. He wanted to keep digging now that it was night. I had to admit, given he was only working with one small bucket, there was an impressive amount of dirt on my kitchen floor. I couldn’t help but admire his vision, his engineering, and his persistence.
I even admired his reasoning: The sun is going down and it is getting chilly outside but I want to keep digging ergo I will just bring the backyard indoors and I can keep digging.
When my husband walked in the door, I said, “You should walk only into the living room and stop before you get to the kitchen. I will help him clean it up.”
And with multiple brooms and dustpans and eventually the vacuum, we did it clean it up together (Okay, I did do a greater chunk, but still he did a good portion.)
Before dinner, the backyard was restored to its rightful location. My son learned that we can make messes and we can clean them up. I learned a little patience goes a long way, and that clean floors can simply be washed again and that, in hindsight, offering to help my son put the backyard back where he found it was far less traumatic for all of us than any of the alternatives. My husband learned that while it is nice to come home to a clean home, it is far more entertaining and enlightening to come home to find your children recreating the landscape to meet their personal specifications, that to some extent it is gratifying to note that your children feel comfortable and safe exploring their world and their capabilities rather than staying within the lines of a clean house.