“I’m sorry Gleek has been having a hard time at church. What can I do to help her?” The person on the other end of the phone was Gleek’s primary teacher. I had no answer to give her. I had no answer for the primary president either when she called. All the attention was triggered by Gleek breaking down into tears because she did not want to sit in a chair at church. She wanted to sit on the floor. In her classroom they let her, but in the large group meeting it created problems. Other kids wanted to know why Gleek was on the floor, and could they sit on the floor too. Keeping control of children in large groups requires more adherence to standards of behavior. It is necessary. Gleek threw a fit and ended up laying on the floor in the hallway crying. They came for me and I sat on the floor next to her. I coaxed the story out of her, hoping that the shape of the story would suggest a solution. It didn’t. After two weeks of illness in our family, during which I managed two birthday celebrations, guests in the house, and a baptism, the problem solving centers of my brain simply would not engage. I sat next to my girl and wept because she was having a hard time and I had no idea how to help.
The choices we make define who we are. Our family is religious. We believe church is important. Sunday is given over to church. We pray daily. We make time for these things no matter how busy our lives get, because Howard and I both believe that to be spiritually centered is the best way to chart a course through the stormy waters of life. We believe that there is a harbor waiting if we can only steer ourselves there. It is the duty of parents to teach values and beliefs to children. It is my duty to teach my children to value church attendance as a weekly appointment during which we refresh our spiritual connections. The structures of church are not always easy. Not for me. Not for Howard. Not for the kids. But when we manage to find a balance between appeasing our quirks and not distracting from the purposes of the meetings, the spiritual communication is invaluable. I needed Gleek to be able to love church despite the requirement to sit on a chair. Gleek did love church, she loved the calm feeling she got there. It was just for some reason the chairs had become intolerable in between one week and the next. I had to find a balance between accommodation and requirement.
Howard draws in church. This is not typical behavior, particularly not for an adult. People are supposed to sit quietly in church. I was taught that by age 12 it was time to stop bringing activities to church and instead focus on the lessons. I expected to teach my kids the same. Link sits and listens. All the others draw. Gleek and Patch bring small toys and play quiet games. I allow it, because they do listen. They learn things even while their hands are busy. I figure if they are being able to learn and no one else is being distracted, everyone wins. The trouble arrives when one of the kids’ hands-busy choices creates a distraction for others.
Gleek packs a bag for church. It is not a little bag. Today I weighed it and the thing was 10 lbs. It contained two scripture picture books, three notebooks, a sketch pad, an expandable file, a pencil case full of colored pencils, a box of colored pencils, a pencil sharpener, six mechanical pencils, two sharpie markers, three lip glosses, two nail files, two pens, a pair of scissors, and five tiny stuffed animals. She is well-armed against the possibility of boredom. I know that her bag-o-things has caused distraction problems in her class. Every week I try to get her to cut back, leave things at home. She fights me. She needs these things. I look in her eyes and know that her over-packing is one of the tools she uses to help keep her hyper behaviors in line. Her strategy works. I just worry that it will cause problems for others. Oh, and she also complains about carrying her bag and begs me to carry it for her.
Accommodation is a word familiar to any parent whose child has needed extra help at school. It means extra time on tests, or someone to write for you. It is supposed to be just a little leg up over the unimportant obstacles so that the important learning can occur. I see the value of it. I participate in it. Time and again I sit down to write the words Link tells me because he has trouble thinking out sentences and writing them in one fluid motion. I write for him and the assignment gets done. Obstacle surmounted. Yet I wonder if the seemingly unimportant obstacles are critical. The process of flowing ideas into writing will not become easier except through practice. He needs the struggle and practice. He also needs to not feel so overwhelmed that he stops trying. I’m not at all sure on any given day that my decisions to help or to not help are the right ones.
“We missed Kiki on Wednesday.” This is from Kiki’s youth group leader. Kiki has been skipping many of the church youth activities. I never missed activities when I was her age. Going was expected. Kiki ought to be going to learn, to have fun, and to support the efforts of the people who put the activities together. In the last three months she has missed far more often than she has gone. Then I come face to face with this woman, who misses Kiki and worries about her. This woman is my friend and a good person. I have to explain why Kiki missed yet again. My excuses feel thin. Kiki was swamped. She was sick. She had homework. These things are all true. They are why I condoned Kiki skipping. I let her stay home to sleep, to have quiet, to rest, to get work done. Yet I wonder if the real reason was because making her go would require an argument. Perhaps all of my logical reasons are simply covers for the fact that I was tired. I spend myself on work, house, food, and family. Eventually I run out. Often it is before all the Good Parent things are done.
When I find moments of calm I see so clearly all the things I could/should be doing for my children. Sometimes I weigh these things against the business work I do and ponder if the kids would be better off with a mother who did not work. My mind whispers that perhaps then I would be able to accomplish all the things on the Good Parent list. Except the Good Parent list is infinitely expandable and constantly changing. Making good use of the resources at hand is more important than scrambling to acquire different resources.
Sometimes the answer is the one that I don’t want. Sometimes the right thing to do is not to help a child over an obstacle, but instead to increase the child’s motivation to clear it themselves. I have to say “No video games until the essay is done.” I have to say “I know you’re tired. Go anyway.” I have to say “If you can’t manage to sit on a chair at church, I’ll have to make you practice chair sitting at home.” I have to be the bad guy. Then my children search my face to see if I could possibly mean it. They get angry with me. Then their anger carries them right over the obstacle. The essay is done in record time. The youth activity is attended and enjoyed. Church is enjoyed despite the horror of having to sit in a chair. They’re off and running to the next thing. Sometimes I rejoice with them. Others I sit, weary, because being mean uses far more emotional energy than being nice.
So the chair issue, the absences, and the essay are solved. Or at least begun to be solved. This leaves the bag of things at church, the not practicing clarinet, the reading requirements, Math homework, history homework, Japanese study, German study, house chores, Scout merit badges, Cub Scout patches, and dozens of other daily challenges. I must guide my children through. I must decide when to help, when to goad, and when to stand aside. There is no guidebook for any of it.
Fortunately I am not alone. I spoke with Gleek’s teacher again on a day when I was less tired. We have a plan now, not just for chairs, but for many things. Three of the girls from Kiki’s youth group have vowed to come and shanghai her if she doesn’t show up for activities. I’ll call Link’s English teacher tomorrow. I may not have a guidebook, but there are people out there who know the territory. I have help. I am endlessly grateful for all of this help, although I sometimes fear that I will be judged for needing it. My mind fills up with all the awful thoughts that I imagine people are thinking about my decisions. Worrying about what the folks on the bench behind me think of my row of drawing children is not productive, but sometimes my brain goes there. This is the same part of my brain which believes in a Good Parent list. Periodically I have to call it out and really listen to what it has to say. The arguments get really flimsy when they are spoken aloud in the middle of my consciousness rather than muttered in the dark corners of my mind.
I wish I had neat conclusions or solutions. Sometimes the only closure provided is determination to keep going because the journey matters.