Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Her pencil kept time against the top of her desk. I watched her lay her head down in a sunny spot in front of her, turning her face toward the warm light streaming in from our living room window. She closed her eyes with a heavy sigh. At barely ten years old, she’s tall enough to reach the floor from her chair, but she always has her feet tucked under her when she’s pouting. Every ounce of motherly instinct tells me to help her when she struggles, but I have been practicing giving her time and space to work things out on her own. I pushed away the urge to go walk her through her assignment, and just watched as she stared out the window. I could hear the way November was calling to her from outside. We are both made of the wild kind of stuff that can hear Novembers and smell the rain. It had been unseasonably warm, and her siblings had finished their schoolwork and raced outside to enjoy a little sunshine more than an hour before. I knew how the thought of that was torture to her.
My outdoorsy little wild child is just dramatic enough to fancy herself a caged bird when forced to sit inside. In this strange era of distance learning, she has grown accustomed to the flexibility of carrying her books to any little corner of our property that she wishes. She has spent countless hours propped up on a blanket in the hayfield, absorbing fresh air with Percy Jackson or Hermione Granger. She had learned to do long division from a picnic table on our sunny porch, and we talked about branches of government and elections as we lay sprawled out on a trampoline one beautiful day just a week before.
I knew she would approach this writing assignment much more eagerly from outside the mental prison bars of her desk. I knew it would make my life easier if I would cave, but I had stupidly been using outside time as a privilege/punishment situation. So when my sweet, freckle-faced little ten year old looked me dead in the eyes earlier that morning and told me I’m a ‘sucky mom’, I had to follow through and make her finish her schoolwork at her desk today. Even though I definitely agreed with her and knew I was proving her right, I couldn’t leave my threats laying empty around my house for my children to pounce on.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Big sigh. Her assignment was to write a short mystery story. I just couldn’t figure out why my imaginative little book-lover was having such a hard time with this one. Mysteries are her favorite. She gave me a side-eye that told me she really didn’t want to be asking as she muttered, “Can’t you just tell me what to write about?”
“It can be about anyone or anything you want. It doesn’t have to be long,” I told her gently, hoping she’d put down the daggers aimed my way from her narrowed little green eyes.
She looked down at her blank piece of paper and relaxed her posture a little, “I can’t think of anything really good to write about.” I watched tears well up in her eyes.
There it is. I spent a half-second scolding myself for not being quicker to recognize the crippling self-doubt and perfectionism she inherited from me by the bucket load. I pondered my options for a minute. I knew I could tell her that everything she writes is great, boost her confidence, and get through this little hiccup unscathed. Some situations do call for the path of unquestioning support. There will be plenty of those in the future. No, what she needed was a little reality check, so I just shrugged. “So start by writing something that’s not very good.”
“What? But you said I just need to worry about entertaining whoever is reading. You said to write things I’d like to read. I have nothing entertaining to say.” Oh yes. The ole’ BUT YOU SAID, a phrase that keeps me constantly playing defense with my children. How can they can use my words against me so well in situations like this, but feign deafness when I actually need them to listen? The wheels in her little brain were visibly turning as she dramatically questioned her entire existence over the thought of turning in work that wasn’t up to her usual standard.
“Listen, I get like that, too. That thought has kept me from writing for months and months, even though it’s my favorite thing to do. I start worrying about what people will think and I forget it’s just storytelling. The world is big and messy and I try too hard to think about how to say something that will matter, or really make a difference for someone. That’s not why we love to read, though. We just like to get pulled into a story and forget about all the messiness for a while, right? That’s what good storytelling does. If anyone can tell a good story, it’s you.” She narrowed her eyes at me again for a minute and turned around and picked up her pencil again. I took a second to soak in the success of my wisdom.
“Hey, Mom?” I looked back up toward the sound of her voice, thinking maybe I was getting ready to hear the mythical ‘Thanks, Mom’. Instead, she just cocked her head to the side with a smirk, “Maybe you should just get back to storytelling.”
“Ha. There’s an idea.”