Jamie brought “The New Bear at School” home from the library one recent evening. As the days passed, we read it a few dozen times right before bedtime.
It is the story of a new bear named Boris who encounters all kinds of problems when he starts going to a new school. He accidentally shreds his homework with his claws, he scares his classmates with his booming bear voice, and his tiny desk shatters beneath him as he tries to sit down in it.
When all the animals gather to play inside the classroom, Boris finds that there is no space in the small circle for him. Tears run down his cheeks as he plays all alone. As I read this part to my boys, I felt the teacher within me rising up.
I was not thinking about whether my kids know all the letters and their sounds or whether they can recall events in a story. These skills, while important, pale before the ability to empathize with others, to build a connection from our understanding of another’s situation. I sometimes wonder if in the push to help our young children achieve higher and higher academic standards, we may be unintentionally hindering their ability to develop outstanding character. Is the pressure to succeed overriding our ability to feel? Are our priorities in line?
Anna Dewdney, author of the “Llama Llama” series wrote, “When we read with a child, we are doing so much more than teaching him to read or instilling in her a love of language. We are doing something that I believe is just as powerful, and it is something that we are losing as a culture: by reading with a child, we are teaching that child to be human. When we open a book, and share our voice and imagination with a child, that child learns to see the world through someone else’s eyes.” Books are an invitation to life.
So there I sat with the boys, thinking about this poor bear and his sorrow, feeling a teachable moment surface. I paused for just a moment and asked them what they could do if they noticed that someone at school had no place to sit down. We were dabbling in “Intro to Empathy.”
Jackson crossed his arms over his chest and grunted, “I’m not moving over for anyone.”
“You wouldn’t? Why not?”
He grumbled something indiscernible. I sighed, hoping that his lack of empathy was rooted in the late hour, or his lack of sleep, or anything that could absolve me from the blame. I resolved not to engage in a back-and-forth argument about better options he could choose; instead, I offered a quick account of the choice I would make. He’s strong-willed, and he gets it honestly. We’d have to come back to this idea another day.
Still, I felt a bit disappointed as I mulled over our interaction. How can my child be so unsympathetic?
That’s when Parker chimed in, “I know! I know what I would do!” It seemed all hope was not lost. Maybe my time and energy could still be validated.
I turned to him and asked, “What would you do to help, Parker?”
A sly grin spread across his face. “I would, I would…poop on him!” he squealed with delight.
Oh dear. Never mind. There would be no validation.
Mama tried. That is all I can do.
Sometimes moments like these taunt me. They pile up higher and higher like a formidable tower displaying evidence of all the ways I fall short as a mother. I envision the dozens of times Parker has bolted off in public, his tiny feet racing down the sidewalk while he completely ignores me as I call for him. I hear the unsavory tone of Jackson’s voice as he toes the line of the pre-meltdown stage. Falling short has become our new norm.
The truth is that we are constantly being molded by our experiences, our responses, and the meaning we make from the two. We are perpetually changing, learning, and growing. Sometimes it’s a slow, long road and other times the change happens in an instant. Parents get to work tirelessly for the long haul as we raise our children. My kids will not make the best choice every single time; no one will. It is unreasonable to entertain any other expectation, to uphold the exhausting, futile myth of perfection. I’m learning to shatter this myth.
So much is already within our kids when they come to us. So much good, so much mischief, so much we can’t change, so much we wouldn’t even dream of changing. They are their own spirited selves.
All we can do is love them fiercely.
And keep on trying, one day, one story at a time.