I recently did something that I can’t forgive myself for. During a moment of chaos, I barked at my oldest daughter (9) and told her it was time to grow up. I was trying to get everyone out the door on a Saturday, and there were chores to be done around the house, but she and her sister (7) were lost in play – despite my urging that they do what’s necessary for us to leave.
I got down on my knees, took her by the shoulders and looked her square in the eyes. “You’re almost 10. It’s time for you to change.” I couldn’t believe the words coming out of my mouth, but I was upset. How many times do you have to tell kids to clean up their rooms or pick up their toys or put their clothes away? Until now, I’d always passed it off as something that parents must just keep repeating, not really expecting anything. And if the child did respond favorably – throw a party. I continued, in a frustrated tone, “Life isn’t all about daydreaming and playing. You have responsibilities. You’ll be out of our house in 8 years, and you have to learn to take responsibility for things. And that means less playing and more work. Do you understand me?”
“Ok, Daddy,” she responded – tears welling up in her eyes. Then she turned and walked away.
We ended up getting out of the house on time, and that sober moment was stacked onto the other moments from earlier in the day which was itself stacked upon and then filed away as another day. And yes, she pretty much forgot my message the next day. And for that I’m grateful.
How dare I yank the innocence of daydreaming away from a child? Who am I? I’m a monster, that’s who. A child’s fertile imagination is so much more important than any appointment or commitment that I’ll ever have.
The most beautiful memories I hold of childhood took place in imaginary worlds that few others were even allowed to enter. Places adults couldn’t see, and that any child who’d crossed the threshold of adulthood, whether forced by their parents or in their rush to grow up, were banned from entering.
When I was 10, I was hospitalized for about a week. I remember them shaving my head, putting nodes into my scalp and using big words that I didn’t understand. It turned out that I was having problems because of a teacher at school who caused me so much stress that, well, they had to put me in the hospital with nodes in my scalp. I remember the teacher too – Mr. Criswell. A stone of a man without a smile who demanded attention and who chopped the heads off of children who daydreamed in class. In retrospect, while Mr. Criswell may have helped me become the responsible person I am today, he probably did more damage to my imagination than anyone else.
So here I am – Mr. Criswell. A beast. And to my own children, no less. I really hate being a parent sometimes. Because the truth is, the imagination of a child is so fragile that if we’re not careful we can stamp it out prematurely. Life will do that soon enough – there’s no need to rush it. I consider it a privilege to make a living using my imagination, but lately I’ve used it less and less. Maybe life has finally piled enough shit on that I can’t get to the point where my imagination is free to roam anymore? Except through my children. I really need to focus on being less of a hypocrite and more a steward of the most powerful force on earth. Because we’re only charged with that responsibility for a short while. Then childhood is gone. Sometimes forever.
Agatha, self portrait
10 CommentsLEAVE A COMMENT
Jan 19, 2011
Jim,You never fail to get to me. I am not a father and can only imagine the weight that comes with being a parent.I have never had “nodes” placed on my head, but experienced the silencing of my imagination repeatedly while growing up. This lead to me becoming somewhat of a loner with a deep fear of sharing my thoughts. Children should be allowed to, well, be children. Their imagination, curiosity and creative problem solving should nurtured. Not looked at as a fault.Cheers to children!
Jan 19, 2011
I started out feeling sorry for Agatha and wanting to give her a hug. But now I want to give you a big bear hug. You are one of the greatest dads. (Now stop making me get all choked up at work. 🙂
Jan 19, 2011
Great share takes a wonderful person to tell a story like this one : ) Annie
Jan 19, 2011
You’re not a monster, Jim. You’re a human being: Frustrated and snarly at times, but loving and compassionate, too. You’re infinitely UNmonster. Your complexity and subtleties, flaws and vices make you real…and they make you a better father, too.I’d bet my livelihood you do more to inspire and encourage daydreaming in those girls than you do to discourage it.Parenting is hard. Hell, LIFE is hard. And sometimes you need to do things that break your heart. Those moments…the gut-wrenching moments…are the tests responsibility that distinguish parents from kids. It’s why most of us get 20+ years of training as human beings before we have to act like grown ups…so that we’re prepared for the heartache we must inflict on ourselves when we must ask them, for the briefest of moments, to hit the pause button on daydreams and tend to other matters.You may have interrupted a daydream, but you show them all the time HOW to daydream and WHY to daydream. For that, you get the most soul-nourishing name any man could ask for: Daddy.
Jan 19, 2011
JimI struggle with the same things. On one hand, I want to teach Andrew to be mindful and respectful and in that helpful. That means cleaning up his toys, taking his shower and not pushing the envelope all the time. Then I also see the beautiful mind he has and how much fun we have. It is a balance here where he does need the guidance from me in learning how to clean up but at the same time he needs the time to be a almost 6 yr old boy. I have barked at him and then I feel guilty as you did. But I do not want him to live in this fantasy world where there are no repercussions with not doing what is asked. I cannot stay mad as his adorable little face gets me all the time but he has to know that there are things that he is responsible for (ie cleaning up his toys) and if he does not do them then he will not be rewarded with being able to play with more toys. Part of parenting is guiding our children and that guidance is discipline. Thanks so much for sharing this as knowing I am not alone always helps.
Jan 20, 2011
Jim – I love this quote: A child’s fertile imagination is so much more important than any appointment or commitment that I’ll ever have. Thanks, as always, for sharing.
Jan 21, 2011
Don’t be too hard on yourself. The important thing is that you are there. When she becomes a young woman, this moment will be far from her memory. Your constant, caring, presence and te love you demonstrate daily will be the greatest and most memorable things from her childhood. As the father of five–three young adult daughters–I’ve learned this from experience.Be well, Jim.
Jan 21, 2011
I’ve started and erased four responses now. Let’s try again.Look at Agatha’s self-portrait. I see happy eyes, a brilliant smile, a head held high. Yes, we’re born with many traits, but our spirits require nurturing. Two people have been primarily responsible for the generous spirit I see in that face — you and Tina.You’re a wonderful, engaged, loving father. If I can tell that from reading blog posts and 140-character Tweets, I can’t begin to estimate your girls’ experience. Coming from someone who also had a Class A father who has now been gone for 13 years, I can tell you that she won’t remember this. Yes, she’ll see you as human — an astute observation, because you are — but the love will color all of her memories, and she’ll see herself as blessed, which she is.
Jan 21, 2011
This is good Jim, heartbreakingly good! Cedar Posts
Jan 24, 2011
Jim, thank you so much for sharing this. I’m right there with you.Every single time I reprimand my four-year-old son, the questions gnaw away at me. Am I disciplining him appropriately? Am I saying the right things and is my tone okay? Am I going too far, breaking his spirit and scarring him for life? Honestly, I’m scared shitless. And the fact that I’m making this up as I go along and all I can do is my best — like every other parent who’s ever lived — is only slightly reassuring to me. If at all.Please tell me that while it might not get any easier to be a parent by the time my son is nine, the fear of screwing him up gets easier to bear.
My novel – Minor King
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