Joshua and I went out to dinner and a movie this evening, leaving Maya, Ben and their friend Greta at our place. They do this almost every weekend, and since Greta’s Dad lives in our building, we know they are never far away from help if they need it. (They never do.)
When we came home at about 9:15 this evening, this is what we saw: Ben had all of his blocks strewn across the living room floor, interspersed with Webkinz and Bionicles. Two large hand puppets were also on the floor, as was a bow and arrow set Ben got for Christmas. One of his blankets served as a ground cover underneath it all. On the table was an empty pizza box and an empty plastic bag, paintbrushes, water for rinsing paintbrushes, several colors of paint in small bowls, pens, used paper towels and a ‘newspaper’ one of the kids wrote. In the kitchen was a sink full of dirty dishes and on the counter a half empty bowl of cookie icing, used to ice the 20 or so sugar cookies sitting next to it on aluminum foil. I’m sure I’ve forgotten something, but that was basically it.
Now to us, walking in the door, this looks like a mess. At least at first glance (ok, at second glance too). But to Ben, Maya and Greta it looks like autonomy and heaven. They baked cookies on their own and iced them. And they were delicious. They used the money we’d left for them to order out pizza and ate all of it, then did some painting and each of them wrote their own newspaper for the others to read. The girls migrated to the computer after that, which is when Ben kicked his play into high gear, disappearing into that imaginary world where Bionicles battle Lego forces and Webkinz provide transportation (much like the polar bears in The Golden Compass). Puppets put on skits and a giant (Ben) appeared, bow and arrows in hand to mow down all robotic and plush toy adversaries, even if they were behind wooden barricades (provided by his blocks).
I’ve learned now to see the jumble of stuff through their eyes. To know that it isn’t a mess to them – often it is an integral part of some game or experiment or craft. When Joshua and I came in we tasted the cookies and read the newspapers and as I was listening to all the events of the evening I put the pizza box in the recycling and the dishes in the dishwasher. I asked if the puppets were done for the night (they were) and put them in the bedrooms. The paints went in the closet and Ben corralled his blocks and Webkinz to one area of the room. I could have chosen to reprimand the kids for leaving such a mess and insisted they clean it up on their own while I watched, tapping my foot and making exasperated sounds, but honestly, it’s just no fun to do that, and it kind of ruins the whole, ‘hey look what a great time we had on our own this evening’ vibe.
I often think that if parents could watch video of how they act toward their kids, they would be surprised at how nasty and rude they are. While Joshua and I were at dinner we saw an example of this. Parents with their two children, a boy and a girl who looked to be maybe 3 and 5, were eating near us at the restaurant. Just as we were getting up to leave, the little boy knocked something over by accident. I think it was his drink. It made a loud noise and the liquid went into his food. The mother hissed at him “What did you do!?” and the vehemence and anger in her voice was so strong that I jumped. The poor boy was in tears and the girl looked stunned. As soon as we got to the door Joshua said, “Did you see the hate in those parents’ eyes? Kids don’t forget that look.” No, and a 5 year old who accidentally tips over his drink doesn’t deserve it. Yes, kids make messes. Partly, I think, because they are so excited about their world and their ideas that they have a hard time containing themselves. As parents we can guide them so that they get better at controlling the excitement when necessary, but we shouldn’t stifle it altogether.
So the kids made a mess. So what? No real harm has been done. So the kid spilled his drink. Have you never spilled anything, ever? I have. And at restaurants, too. Thankfully my friends didn’t spit bile at me when it happened. Why do parents?
The golden rule teaches us to treat others the way we would like to be treated. I think we should also remember to pause and look at the world the way our children do before we open our mouths to tell them what they’ve done wrong. The world, and most homes, would be happier places if we did.