Patience, Grasshopper

A little attention goes a long way.

I’ve come to believe that a great deal of unnecessary coercion, what one might call excessive use of force, is directly related to impatience; to a misplaced urgency; to the idea that something must be done now, when I command, not later on its own time. We see this in the daily challenges of parenting, those quotidian sins of our life, beating the weaker as that merciless master the clock beats us: yelling at No. 1 Daughter to get in the car so we get to church — or anywhere – on time; shoving No. 2 Son on the bus every day for the first years of schooling; yelling at No. 2 Daughter to clean her room; throwing No. 2 Son in the water at swim lessons; threatening repercussions if the room is not clean, if the teeth are not brushed, if the music is not practiced, if the homework is not done, if the lights are not off. We see this present systemically, in ever earlier compulsory schooling, for example, with the requirement to read on schedule rather than when the child desires. It’s in our language, when we equate listen with obey, or when we force a plant to bloom.

It backfires. The bed goes unmade. They fail out of college. They stop singing. We express puzzlement and alarm at why a large percentage of adults give up reading when they have the option. The blooms fall off so quickly.

No. 1 Son started a fire on the sidewalk yesterday. He was so proud. He tells me he knows the secret to using flint and steel.

His grandfather has taken an interest in No. 1 Son’s scouting. They go to the meetings together. Each week Pop-Pop helps him with one of the rank requirements. Together they’ve come up with a plan to make Eagle Scout. No. 1 Son set the goal. Pop-Pop encourages and guides him along, helping to shape the vague intention into slow, steady, methodical action.

I sat this morning with No. 2 Son. He gets frustrated quickly with his practice, and angry with anything that isn’t immediately easy. After he calms down, he’ll return to the drums and continue, but it takes some time for his inner John McEnroe to pass. Watching this from behind the safety of my pressing tasks is both frustrating — he’s not getting it done! — and easy for me: the burden is all his.

But this morning I sat with him. I was interested in what he was practicing. I tried to play it. He showed me how to do it. I held the sheet music for him. I listened carefully. I followed along. He played without difficulty or complaint. We enjoyed our thirty minutes together. And then caught up with Ash and his Pokémon.

Such a small thing, attention and time.

Impropriety

News of the world is daily maddening, full of pointless cruelty. We must take our moments of joy where we find them. My sons are in the bell choir at Trinity United Methodist Church. Before the service, the congregation sings hymns as randomly suggested by the congregants. Number Two Son had been looking through the hymnal and apparently found a song he liked: Angels We Have Heard on High. He confidently raised his tiny hand. “It’s too early for Christmas songs,” I whispered. He slowly lowered his hand, and we sang some other song.

After the song finished, the choirmaster asked for one more. One of the congregants had noticed the little hand, and pointed him out.

“Yes? What number?”

He spoke loudly and clearly, “Number 238.”

I couldn’t sing along very well overcome with emotion.

Attention Must Be Paid

My work — the employment for which I’m paid, that is — is invisible. Nothing to see here; move along. Long ago, the company asked us to let undergraduates, prospective employees who were interested in the field, shadow us for a day so they could get a sense of the job. Instead of an internship, looking over my shoulder while I type. Had they seen Office Space? Do we really need to impress on the young how accurate Waiting for Godot is? At least Kafka has a giant cockroach.

Number Two Son is nine, about the age at which I began playing Dungeons & Dragons. He wasn’t feeling well and stayed home from school today. After waking and breakfast, he asked me to read with him, but I was working. He read to himself a bit then puttered around with math and the slack line while waiting. Then at lunch we read The Lorax.

He asked questions a lot while he was puttering. I was inattentive at first, but wasn’t getting anything done. It took me a while to remember that he was there with me in real life, a real person; that today was special because he wasn’t normally at home during the week. Then I took the time and gave him my attention.

As we chatted at the lunch table after reading, I wondered what about my work could be interesting to him. Or, if not that, what about what I’m thinking about anything. When he asks, “what are you doing?” and I answer only, “work,” what does that say? I’m not writing video games: It’s not like he can see how moving a semi-colon changes a syntax error into a functioning for loop, or a comma changes meaning. And he’s not reading what I write, so my rants online about whatever don’t register — that may be a good thing. But how can I say he learned anything at his father’s knee if I don’t talk to him? My work is invisible; he can’t watch.

What if we tried talking to our children as if they are people and interesting, instead of waiting for them to leave home first?

What if we gave them the time of day?

Maybe tomorrow we can talk about how The Lorax is a tragedy not a comedy.