Come April, we will mark a decade in our modest Cape. The house is 75 years old and sits on just 2/10 of an acre. What I’ve learned in that ten years is that a small house on a tiny lot can feel like a manor on an estate if you have the right mindset.
When we bought it, I was sure of two things.
1. I adored the built-in bookshelves in the “extra” bedrooms on the second floor. Somehow, I was able to see past the bright salmon-rose colored sponge paint left behind by the prior owners. I claimed it as mine. It would become a future workspace and sanctuary. I’d fill it with a desk and my books.
2. Neither of us seemed all that interested in having children, and having none was certainly within our realm of possibility.
For a time, that room was mine. We painted it a tranquil seafoam blue. A secondhand futon and a whitewashed desk tried to fill the space, but it always seemed empty in there. No matter. I put my deep blue geode bookends on the shelves—a flag on the moon, as it were. This was the first space I could call my very own since I left home for college.
Of course, it turned out that I wasn’t so sure about that second certainty after all. And, because I’d claimed the bigger of the two “extra” bedrooms, it looked like I was also going to get evicted from my sacred space and downsize into the room next door. A baby was on the way.
We transformed the room and painted it a second time. We didn’t know if this baby would be a boy or a girl, so we played it safe with Veranda View. I’ll remember the name of that paint color for the rest of my life. The light green paint still lives on the walls today, but splashes and swaths of pinks, aquas, lilacs, and yellows fill the room too. A young girl lives here now.
Her bookshelves are filled to capacity with books, some of which have been in rotation since she was born. We get lazy at night and often just toss the books we’ve read to her on the space between her bed and the built-in. It’s a precarious place to navigate on foot given that this is also where the dormer ceilings prevent her father and me from standing upright.
I am usually the worst offender when it comes to tossing books on the floor, so the other morning I felt compelled to clean a bit of the mess myself. I glanced down at the pile of upturned spines and stacked covers. The ruled pages of an open journal looked up at me from the wide pile. I thought it was her sketchbook, the one where she doodles inventions and shows us regularly. It’s not private so I picked it up to see what she’d created recently.
Except, I was wrong. It wasn’t her sketchbook, it was her diary. And I knew this only after I skimmed two pages. It was an honest mistake, but I still felt like I was holding a bag of stolen money. I quickly put it back the way I found it and felt guilty the entire morning.
I won’t tell you what it said, but I will tell you this: seven year olds can have secrets too, just like us. I think that should be honored. Whether it be telling one trusted friend or a sibling, or writing it down, unleashing a secret is where we reveal, and discover, some of who we are deep down.
I want her to feel safe in her expressions on private paper. She wrote something that wasn’t polite to say out loud, and something else more profound that she is working through. Two different types of secrets, but things that she felt compelled to put down on paper, maybe to move on or maybe to consider again later. It reminded me of the days when I was young and kept a journal. That’s why I didn’t peek through the rest of the book, even though I admit I really, really wanted to.
There is something deeply moving about reading the innermost thoughts of your child set down in their rudimentary handwriting and creative spelling. It sets your heart afire in a completely unexpected way. It was hard to set the book back down and just walk away without reading the rest, but I did. Yes, she keeps secrets from me now. It’s where we are on our mother-daughter journey together. If she feels the need to grab a pen in lieu of my hand sometimes, I am OK with that. I have to be.
Did you journal when you were very young? Do you encourage your child(ren) to do so too?
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
When she was around four years old, my daughter was fascinated by people who had obvious, visible disabilities or physical differences. Her interest was pure curiosity and genuine intrigue in order to understand the world around her, as is the case for all children at that age. There were no sinister motives behind her stares. Whether it be the man in the post office who used a cane, or the woman in the grocery store who had a severely scarred face, my daughter wanted to know what she was looking at.
And, not surprisingly, she peppered me with lots of (loud!) questions. I didn’t appreciate the awful acoustics of the marble foyer in the post office until that day she crossed paths with that man. I didn’t hush her or get embarrassed, and instead matter of factly answered her questions. In some cases, I would also later suggest a different (better) way of asking and talking about other people who might act, think, speak, or look different than she does.
So much of raising young children is showing them the way. We teach them not just the what and why, but also the how. Over time, we hope they learn how to talk about what they are experiencing or witnessing in life in a way that uses the filters of empathy, compassion, and respect for others. We (hopefully) lead by example, sure, but we also need to give them the tools so that they can, eventually, ask themselves whether what they are about to say or write will be hurtful or regrettable. Yes, we fortunately live in a society that protects free speech, but just because we can say something, doesn’t always mean we should, or at least not in the way that comes to mind first.
It dawned on me recently that I more or less use this same process when filtering my own writing, especially blog posts and essays. I’ve always had a general list of mental questions that I cross-check against something that I might eventually share for public consumption. I don’t always hit the brakes if something is questionable or fails to meet the mark, but I at least pause to consider the potential ramifications. They are very much like the things I want my daughter to start considering, especially when she’s saying something about someone else.
Today I share these questions with you. Whether you are a parent trying to coach a child and/or a writer, maybe you will find them useful. (For most of them, if the answer is “yes”, the follow up question to ask is, Do I care?)
Is what I am about to say/publish hurtful to my reputation?
Is what I am about to say/publish hurtful to my friends or family?
Could my words be construed in a way that I do not intend?
Will I lose control over these words (i.e. through editing, posting online elsewhere) and their use/reception?
Will I regret this tomorrow, next year, in ten years?
Am I breaching any kind of confidentiality that I owe somebody else, implicitly or otherwise?
Do I sound entitled, whiny, or out of touch?
Have I taken into consideration the “other side”?
Are my words tone deaf? Do they consider the plights/lives of others?
Do my words contain bias, prejudice, or stereotypes?
Am I being hurtful or unfair toward a particular group of people?
Does this sound racist/classist/sexist/privileged/etc.?
Am I basing my assertions or arguments on anecdote, assumptions, facts, emotion, and/or hearsay?
Am I being honest in my motives and through my words?
What about you, parents and writers? What question(s) do you have your children ask themselves or do you ask yourself before you unleashing words? I’d love to know.
Copyright (c) 2015 Kristen M. Ploetz
I try to protect my daughter’s privacy a little more here now. Part of it is that she’s getting older, but some of it is also that a few people who know us “in real life” are aware of my writing here. As I’ve learned from other pieces I’ve written, I cannot control the way things might be interpreted or used, so I try to be more careful when it comes to her life. One can never, ever get the full picture from just one essay or blog post, but some try to and then it leads to unfair assumptions and prejudices. It’s one thing for me to take that on, but I’m not willing to do that to her.
So without getting into the specifics, the other day she came to me after she’d been playing by herself for a while. Something was definitely on her mind, so I asked her what she was thinking about. Tears immediately flowed. She was feeling very alone about something (which she and I talked about) and wished she’d had a girl friend to talk about it with, not just me. She wanted someone to be comfortable with and not be judged. Don’t get me wrong. She has a few friends and classmates that she plays with regularly who are all equally sweet and kind children. But what she was looking for was a trustworthy confidant to share something very personal that she’s been thinking about a lot lately, and it is a topic that is certainly provocative for many.
After a long, long chat with her on the stairs, she seemed to perk up a bit. She seems hopeful that the specific kind of friend she is seeking is out there, and one day they will cross paths. That is the best kind of outcome for a parent when you know you can’t fix things for them, and that they have to find their way. You have to at least guide them to the path of hope, but then they must take the journey. She went on to play, almost as if nothing had been wrong to begin with. That’s what makes children so awesome–their ability to let go, move on, and live in optimism.
But after she left my side, I was struck with how inept I feel about talking about the subject of friendships with her, primarily because I have struggled for so long to find the particular kind of depth that I know she seeks (at least in her seven year old way). In a nutshell, I don’t have that in the way that I’d like. I am (I think) friendly and have the tools to teach her those kind of social skills. I have friends, yes, even a few good friends. But a deep, soul bearing confidant (that is not my husband)? No. I do not.
This year in particular that has weighed me down quite a bit. In fact, I wrote a deeply cathartic and personal, if not shame inducing, piece about it all just weeks after I turned 40 earlier this year (it was declined for publication–and hence my post from last week about what to do with those kinds of pieces; I’ve shared that piece with two people but I am not sure about anyone else at this point). In a word, I feel like a fraud. I feel alone and lonely much of the time because of this, and, as a result, I am not entirely convinced that that kind of friendship is actually achievable for every single person. So when she comes to me, I feel like I’m selling her a bill of goods. I wonder if that kind of friendship as an ideal—despite how much I’d like it—is one that I can adequately sell anymore. Yet, if I am her role model and teacher for so much of these things, am I supposed to fake it? I’m wondering. But sooner or later, she’s going to see the gaps in my own life that I am trying to help her fill in hers.
I realize that this might all sound hopeless and pathetic, but the truth is that this year has also been a year when I have mostly made peace with what is my life in this particular regard. And that, I hope, is the other message that I can ultimately convey to her: that your solitude can be its own source of strength too.
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
I often wonder what it is that my daughter will remember about me when I am long gone or when she raises her own children (if she so chooses).
Will it be the way my hair smells or the texture of my sweaters (cotton, always)? Will it be the sight of me with my nose in a book (or, too often perhaps, my phone), legs tucked up under me on the couch? Will it be the very basic but very reliable dinners that I serve? Will it be the way I gather her hair into a ponytail most mornings? Will it be the triple nose tap that we have for each other when we say “I love you” from afar? Will it be the weight of my body in her bed as we read books each night?
Or maybe it will simply be the invitation to always be the one to lick the honey spoon after I’m done with it.
Is there a distinct memory about your parent(s) that you have from childhood? If you have children, what do you think they will remember about you?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
Seven year olds are great. Of course, I seem to say that about every age for the past two or three years. But I’m in the sweet spot when it comes to childhood. I was not my best self as the parent of a baby and toddler. I didn’t take a lot of it in stride, at least not as much as I had hoped I could. That just might be my nature though, at any age.
But seven? So lovely. They carry on conversations at length and ask the deep questions. They are silly and hold hands with you. They can go off on their own at a large family party and you pretty much know they are not going to eat marbles while holding a lit candle or run into traffic. They are pressedupthisclosetoyou and suddenly go “missing” for an hour or two, absorbed in some other world, all in the same day. They want to read on their own and want you to read to them. They leave their socks lying around but then leave little “I love you” notes on your pillow. They know what they like, know what they don’t, and yet can still be persuaded to try new things.
At the same time, it also feels like the age where the door to the outside world—the stuff that you’ve worked so hard to keep from their view—is now permanently ajar, even if it’s just a crack. I knew it was coming and yet I didn’t quite expect some of it so soon. Hearing about things like cancer, illicit drug use, or September 11th for the first time ever. Coming to understand that some people she meets might express themselves in ways that she might not understand or be comfortable with at first. Being able to understand, or at least register for later contemplation, off-handed and unfriendly comments by friends and family about body image, race, or sexual preferences. Detecting differences, big and small, in the current and historical treatment between and of males and females.
These little glimpses into the wider world leave me stumbling some of the time. How do I reconcile being honest with her without scaring or discouraging her? How do I temper something that I fundamentally disagree with that was said by someone she loves or admires, all without necessarily skewing her ability to form her own opinion (either about the issue or the person who said it)? How do I protect the innocence that I think that seven year olds (and beyond) should still be able to have, even if the rest of the world is not as protective of it as I am? How do I allow her to become literate and confident in the social, technological, and cultural world without showing her too much too soon? Do I even know where that line is anymore?
Many of the speed bumps that we encounter in the early part of their lives are driven by forces that are not beyond the child or home itself. Though they might be challenging, they are generally manageable because they don’t result in the finer chiseling of the individual or her understanding of the rest of the world. At that stage, we are giving general shape to the individual we hope they become, whether it be kind-heartedness, respect for others, or learning to say “excuse me” at the dinner table.
But now? There are certainly some “outside” influences getting in, and being digested by her (somewhat), that I stumble sometimes. I’m not sure if she senses it yet. While we (as her parents) still do and should give the lion’s share of guidance in helping her understand the world, she has to also be aware of some of the world in order to have some context, and also so she can develop preferences for and positions about things in due course. It’s the chicken and egg conundrum. How much should I be proactive about and control the information (at least before her peers chime in), and how much do I deal with reactively?
A perfect example happened last month on September 11th. Her teacher read a book to the class (this one) that only very subtly dealt with the terrible acts that occurred on that day. Before this book (and the brief discussion that took place after it was read), the importance of this day was completely off of her radar. She had absolutely no knowledge of it. When I picked her up from school, she seemed a bit melancholy and had a hundred questions about the Twin Towers, most importantly, about why they were knocked down. The range of emotions that flew threw me in that car ride home left me in tears by the time we got to the driveway just three minutes later. Had I failed as a parent by not bringing up this subject beforehand? Why didn’t I think that this might come up at school, if not by the teacher then at least perhaps some of the older students? But, wait a minute, why did the teacher even go down this road? They are six and seven these children. “Bad men did this” doesn’t seem to cover it (and certainly not with my probing daughter) and yet getting into the fine detail of radical religiously-focused terrorists doesn’t either. Where’s the line? If September 11th is fair game for a first-grader, then why not all of the other tragedies? Do I need to tell her about all the wars in history as we get close to Veterans’ Day? Was she thinking about her grandfather who was flying here that very same day?
This is a mere glimpse of my thought process in the hours after she told me about the book. This is the kind of thought process I have as the mother of a seven year old. I’m stumbling and fumbling. Though aren’t we all?
I know that it’s OK to tell her when I do not know something (which I do all the time), but I struggle with what about when I do? That seems to be where I get tripped up. I imagine it will eventually get easier when she has the capacity to rationalize and process some of the things we continue to keep at bay, but in the interim? I expect to be falling down a little more than usual.
And so that I can end on a silly note, in honor of my seven year old’s very nature, here is what had her in stitches last night. STITCHES. I give you the P-mate (scroll down for video link).
What age made it hard for you to know whether to spill the beans or bite your tongue? Does it get easier as the child gets older, or do the problems and issues just become more complex? What topics have you deliberately held off discussing for as long as possible?
Copyright (c) 2014 Kristen M. Ploetz
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