My brain switches to Red Alert when my children ask “Mom, is this okay to put in water?”
All I can think about is the destruction possible when a random object is plunked in water and the chaos that will accompany such an endeavor. I have caught my toddler one too many times playing in the toilet because the bathroom door was left open. It wouldn’t have been such a big deal if the toilet was flushed; most of the time it isn’t.
When my kids start in with requests for messy activities, my first instinct is to gather all knick-knacky items that might seem experimentally exciting and place them on the highest shelf, because I am a perfectionist and order makes me feel I am in control. I don’t have time for mayhem because I am exhausted by maintaining the current level of clean in my house. The idea of adding to my workload fills me with anxiety. I have considered taping the children to the wall to hang on to the fragile peacefulness that comes from a clean floor.
Because of this perspective, our household has become a creativity prison, where only approved methods of exploration are permitted.
No markers, because I am afraid of coloring on everything but paper.
No paints, because I love my drapes and upholstery.
No scissors, because the last time we tried to use them, my son cut a hole in the shirt he was wearing.
No glue and glitter, I’m tired of seeing yesterday’s creativity sloughing off in my kids’ beds.
Habitually saying no to embarking on exploration is a method for maintaining order, but creativity is not the only casualty, I am also covertly squashing my children’s self-confidence.
Saying “you can’t” is powerful. I have come to realize that, for better or worse, my children believe the things I tell them. I realized that if I want my children to know they are capable people, I have to give them opportunities to do things they don’t know how to do.
Back in my kindergarten days, I remember an activity involving a butter knife. One of my classmates looked at my teacher and said: “I’m not supposed to use knives. Mommy said they’re dangerous.” My teacher said, “Yes, sharp knives can be dangerous if you don’t know how to use them, but these knives are not sharp. Do you have knives like these in your house? Maybe you’ve used one to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” The little girl shook her head vigorously and replied: “Mommy does that for me because I’m not supposed to touch knives.” My teacher reassured her that the knives were not dangerous and asked how she ever expected to learn how to use a knife correctly if she didn’t practice?
I want my children to grow up confident in their abilities. When faced with new experiences, I hope they would be courageous to take risks and try new things instead of believing they are incapable and held back by fear.
I don’t want my children to think back on their childhood and remember stiff rules narrowly permitting imagination. When they think of me, I don’t want them to remember an anxiety-ridden woman wringing her hands when outside her comfort zone. I want them to remember their childhood as one of adventure and freedom to explore, and I want them to remember me as a bold, adventurous woman who enjoyed life. Because that is the truth: I prefer fun to mitigating mess and chaos, but somewhere along the way, I came to believe meticulous control was better than strapping in for the ride. I can’t say yes to fun without also saying yes to messes.
When my kids race up to me, smiling ear to ear with a wonderfully messy idea, I suppress my knee-jerk reaction of cuffing and stuffing creativity and instead try to honor their request. If there isn’t enough time to do an activity and clean up, I pick a room that is easy to clean or go outside. When I can clean up quickly, I care a lot less about the mess, and I end up much more relaxed. Then, I grab my phone or one of the many sand timers in my house and explain that when the timer goes off, we will have to stop. Everyone agrees to this compromise. My kids are happy to do the activity they’ve been pining after, and I know there will be enough time to clean up and transition without screaming and gnashing of teeth.
Life is one big experiment. When we fail, we go back to the drawing board with curiosity, zeal, and tenacity. We learn from our mistakes, modify our technique, and drop another object in the water fascinated to discover what may arrive in the ripples. If a little disorder can facilitate lifelong confidence and creativity, messes become opportunities.
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Jennifer Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a baby girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.
For May 2018, we are hosting a series on Cherishing Childhood. Check back to read more essays in the series as the month unfolds. If you missed it, check out our completed April series on Intentionally Cultivating Your Family Culture, and don’t miss the photo challenge we’re doing on Instagram for the first two weeks of May!
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Check out the most recent episode of the Kindred Mom podcast, Episode 39: Cherishing Childhood!