You don’t get much help as a parent. You can buy all the books — all the Idiot’s Guide to Parentings and How to Think Like a Toddlers you like — but when the rubber meets the road and you’re faced with the prospect of actually bringing up this fledgling human to be an actual human, you’re pretty much on your own. All that preparation goes out the window and you’re locked in with your lizard brain, fight-or-flight instincts to get through it.
Not only are you all alone at the stick, but there’s a fogbank closing all around you, the instrumentation is freaking out and giving you bad readings and it’s close to impossible to tell whether that dark shape in the distance is the runway you’re hoping to land on or a mountainside waiting to pulp your plane. Oh, and there’s a tiny person behind you who keeps screaming in your ear and placing their hands over your eyes — only they don’t fully understand how that works so it’s not so much hands over your eyes as jagged, flesh-rending fingernails thrust into your eyeballs.
It’s often hard to see what you’re doing, in other words — and doubly hard to see what sort of effects you’re having on your kid. And while most moments fly by and don’t make much of an impression, every now and then you find yourself in the midst of a Moment. A Moment that Matters. You feel the gravity of the situation fully, and somehow, through senses indecipherable, you see through time to the futures that could unfold as a consequence of your choices in this Moment.
A Moment, in other words, where you see that your choices could make or break your kid.
Such a Moment transpired last night.
The Sprout is in kindergarten, which means homework. Writing his name. Writing numbers. Practicing “sight words.” (Did they even have “sight words” when I was a kid? I have no memory of such a thing, but I don’t know if that’s because “sight words” is just a new buzzword or because education was just a leaky life raft in those days — it worked and we didn’t much care about how it looked or performed along the way as long as it got us there, which it seemed to. Also possible: my memory is less steel trap, more sleepy security guard.) Preparing for class presentations.
The teachers told us there would be homework on the order of about 10-15 minutes a night. Which is fine. But this week, it’s gusting towards an hour (10-15 minutes of handwriting practice, 20-30 of sight word practice — which feels more like two to three hours, let me tell you — and another 10-15 minutes of reading books about firefighters for a class dress-up day this week). And last night, it reached a head, and caused that Moment.
We went to a fundraiser night at a local restaurant, which had us getting home later than usual — just about 45 minutes before bedtime. And the kids have been cooped up all day, so we let them out to play in the yard for a few minutes while my wife and I take stock of the situation and figure out the plan of attack for bedtime (and if you think having a “plan of attack” for bedtime sounds a little silly, well, obviously you’re not a parent). So by the time they come in, we’ve got thirty minutes until bedtime. And in our house, much like Bruce Willis doesn’t miss his drilling depth even in an asteroid of alien construction, WE DO NOT MISS BEDTIME.
It dawns. We don’t have enough time to do Sprout’s homework. What do we cut? His handwriting is atrocious; he needs every rep he can get. And for every day we don’t work on his sight words, he forgets ninety percent of what he had learned. And the bloody firefighter presentation is tomorrow, so we can’t skip that.
We start working. He’s writing while I sit next to him, and I’m watching the clock. He’s dawdling (go figure, he’s a kid), and I’m getting frustrated. The waters are rising, threatening to close over both our heads. He goes to erase a mistake and I stop him. I stop him. “Just leave it. Let’s get finished.” He’s confused and upset — do I want him to work or do I want him to be done working? — and near tears. It’s too much. Now I’m underwater, and I’m fuming. He’s five years old, for crying out loud. We shouldn’t be dealing with having so much homework he has to stay up late at five years old. This is insane. Just let it slip.
And then, the Moment. Because, see, in addition to being a dad, I’m a teacher, too. And as a teacher, I know what’s plaguing our youth and by extension, our future; it’s a lack of gumption. That thing that sends you out into the rain for a five AM workout when you’d rather stay in your warm bed. That thing that gets teachers staying late in the evening and going in early in the morning when their neighbors are working their 9-to-5’s. That thing that gets Rocky off the mat after Creed knocks him on his keester. (Kiester? Keister? Keester? Spellcheck recognizes none of these.) The thing, in other words, that recognizes that the job is tough, the job is unpleasant, the job is painful; but at the same time, the job needs doing, and if you don’t do it, then it won’t get done.
The urge was there. The thoughts were there. He’s only five. Why is he doing all this at home anyway — aren’t they supposed to teach him in school? What’s the big deal if he doesn’t do it? Not like he’s going to flunk kindergarten!
But it’s that kind of thinking that has classrooms across the nation filled with kids who don’t know the value — not just of homework — but of WORK. Who don’t have the patience to work at anything that doesn’t come to them almost immediately. Who aren’t interested in trying something if it doesn’t already interest them.
This is a Moment, I realize — maybe not the moment (because after all, he’s still only five), but certainly a Moment — when we teach him that homework is just a Thing You Do, that school exists outside the walls of a government building, that Mommy and Daddy support and believe in and will even enforce the things he’s getting from his education. It’s not a thing that happens to him in a vacuum, separate from us. Not a thing we hear vague whispers of across a dinner table, in disinterested mumblings around mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. (“How was your day today?” “Fine.” “School okay?” “Sure.” End scene.) Not a thing we allow to slip at the first inconvenience.
That way would be easy.
That way is too common for too many parents of too many kids.
That way is not for us.
JFK said it best … we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”
And, okay, sure, there’s the added benefit that maybe, hopefully, these things will turn the Sprout into a decent human being one day.
So I gather him in for a hug and we back off for a few minutes and talk about doing the work and being ready for school the next day. We dry his tears. And we get back to it. I’m happy to say, we finished the homework. Then we got him down to bed a little bit late. And we talked about firefighters the next morning before we sent him off to school.
And he was smiling when he left the house.
I guess a few minutes of missed sleep didn’t hurt him. And for that matter, it didn’t hurt me, either.