I have long enjoyed learning from children. They are spontaneous, authentic, and exuberant. They live fearlessly, have boundless curiosity, and are very candid. They always save room for dessert, and at the end of a full day, they will sleep virtually anywhere.
Children are amazing teachers, if we are open to their lessons. For example, after a very, very long day spent in creek water, 2 toddlers taught me that neither Coke nor milk are good thirst quenchers for freshly caught tadpoles. I now know that if you say “it won’t rain tomorrow” when promising a crying child a return trip to the park, you’d better have information more certain than the local news. I have become well versed in how to get Play-Doh off furniture, glue out of carpet, gum out of hair, and marker off of walls. I have learned that I shouldn’t ask a young child if my outfit looks nice unless I really want an honest opinion. Additionally, I have been thoroughly trained in: holding my screams when stepping on Legos in a darkened bedroom, the joy found in a mud puddle, the need for high locks with a sleepwalking child, that children survive swinging in the snow– even without gloves, blowing bubbles and watching butterflies never gets old, and that you can’t have too many sprinkles on ice cream when you’re 7, or really any age .
Above all, though, children teach us about ourselves. I have learned much from my children, but sometimes objectivity is essential to the lesson. In parenting my own, I am often myopic, so focused on my role as teacher, I fail to see my child’s wisdom. That’s when a friend’s child (or children) serves as a qualified substitute teacher. One of my favorite substitutes is the 7-year-old son of my girlfriend. I’ll call him Mr. C.
Mr. C was 2 when we first met. He is the youngest of 6, and in many ways, the strongest of 6. Be there two or 12 in a family, the youngest in a family is often labeled as spoiled and demanding. Maybe there is something to the birth order myths. Perhaps, last born children are naturally more attention seeking than their older siblings. Perhaps, early experiences taught them that one must be bold to be heard/seen above their rivals. Or perhaps, they just know what they want and aren’t afraid to ask.
In 5 years, I have yet to see Mr. C truly suppress a plea. But then, what small child does? Young children rarely consider greed when submitting a birthday list the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. They do not hear their impatience when repeating “Mom, mom, mom” during a mother’s conversation. They do not see the rudeness in grabbing a toy from another’s hands. As children, they do not differentiate between needs and wants; they want it all–now. As parents, we teach them about selfishness, self-restraint, delayed gratification, and the differences between needs and wants.
As Mother’s Day approached, my children and husband each asked me what I wanted on “my special day.” Vast amounts of nothingness raced through my mind, though the lack of clarity came as no surprise. I habitually defer my wants. Aside from my small phobia of appearing selfish, children and budgets are effective motivators. I was thoroughly unprepared for this pop quiz. And truthfully, there is nothing I really need. Sure, I could use another spatula or set of workout pants, but do I need them, no. “Oh, honey, I really don’t need anything,” came my reply. But, I hadn’t answered their question.
Just as I had when I was young, I failed to differentiate between needs and wants. I was not asked what I needed, I was asked what I wanted. It’s a simple question. Mr.C easily and simply stated, “Legos,” when asked for his birthday list. I know a charming, self-assured 4-year-old who answered, “Everything a girl could want,” when asked what she wanted for her birthday. Neither mentioned a new spatula or workout pants, let alone socks or underwear. Strange.
Unlike mothers, children rarely think of practical needs when creating birthday lists. They cozy up with catalogs, pen and paper in hand, and itemize their desires with reckless abandon. Parents count on these lists to make
gift giving life easier; they keep us abreast of changing interests, (usually) guaranteeing at least one “bullseye” when the wrapping paper is torn away. And, because it really is more fun to give more than receive, we like to get it right.
It’s fun and heart-warming to give gifts. I especially enjoy watching my children’s/husband’s/friends’ faces when they open something I know they really want. Never once have I thought my child, husband, or friend selfish for pointing out something they want. They are simply stating “a want” and, truthfully, I welcome the insight and mentally note it for future gift giving. It’s back to that whole “making life easier” thing.
That said, are we being fair to our spouses, children, friends, or ourselves if we respond “Nothing” when asked what we want for ____________ occasion? Are we not denying them the same ease and joy in gift giving we enjoy so much? Are we secretly expecting them to be mind readers? One wise mom I know offers her children three options when asked what she wants for a birthday, etc., thus ensuring them delight in her surprise.
We all have something–something we have looked at, thought about, or said “one day” to. It does not make us selfish nor teach our children greed. Mr. C blurts out exactly what he wants, be it a certain birthday gift, his mama’s attention, or time alone to play with his Legos. Over time, he, like all of us, has learned that asking does not guarantee receipt, but giving can come from asking. As moms/wives/friends we give a gift when we simply ask for what we want, even if it is also a need, such as flowers for the garden, a hand-made picture, coming home to a clean house, new workout pants, a new spatula, new pillows for the couch, a new hairstyle… OK, so maybe there are a few things I want.
And, just in case I forget what I want for Mother’s Day next year, I’m going start my list now, just as Mr. C has taught me.