For The Someday Book

Posts Tagged ‘preschoolers

“But it’s O.K., right?”

B has started saying this all the time. Usually it follows something he does wrong, or something I warn him against doing. It can be anything from spilling his Goldfish crackers to playing too rough to forgetting to put his clothes in the laundry basket. He sometimes says it in response to a reprimand, but sometimes even when no reprimand has been issued or needed. He says it whether I have given a firm warning or a mild caution.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

His tone has a mixture of breeziness (like “no big deal”), and neediness (like “you’re not mad at me are you?”). It’s this blend that I find perplexing, troubling and annoying.

The breeziness is annoying. No, it’s not alright that you spilled, or that you were careless, or that you didn’t listen to me the first time, or that you did something I told you not to do. It is not a big deal, but that doesn’t mean it’s O.K. that you did it or that you can do it again.

The neediness is perplexing and troubling. What is he worried about? Have I given some indication that my love for him is contingent upon his good behavior?  B is an easy-going child that rarely provokes my temper, and I am not a yeller by nature. We use time-outs sparingly, because a cautionary word is usually sufficient. Does he think I might get angry at him for some minor infraction? Does he think I’ll stop loving him or caring for him because he’s still learning how to be a responsible member of the household? He’s three years old, and raised in a loving home. How could he be so fragile?

“But it’s O.K., right?”

I don’t know what is behind this strange new phrase. It’s probably a mix of all of the above, but I struggled mightily to find an appropriate response. Finally, one morning as we shared the job of cleaning up some spilled Cheerios, he said it again. I stopped and pulled him close to give him a deeper answer. “B,” I said, “it’s not O.K. to be careless and spill Cheerios everywhere. You have to pay attention. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do spill them. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you spill things. We’ll just clean them up and try to be more careful next time.”

As I said these words, I realized that this is God’s message to us all the time. No, it’s not O.K. that you sinned again, and again, and again. Yes, it does matter, and you need to try harder, do better, be more loving, be more compassionate, follow Christ more fully. But you and me, we’re O.K. even when you do sin. I’m not angry with you, and I’ll always love you, even when you screw up the big things, not just some spilled Cheerios. I’ll forgive you, love you, help you clean up your mess and encourage you to be more careful next time.

“But it’s O.K., right?”

No, it isn’t. And yes, of course it is. If it’s true of my love for my child, how much more true is it of God’s love for us?

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One of my favorite photos of B sleeping, taken over a year ago.

B begins his day curled up in bed with us. Some days, he creeps in before dawn and we snooze awhile together. Other days, he comes in ready to wake up and we cajole him into bed for a few minutes while we peel our eyes open. Almost always, the first words he utters in the morning come in the form of a question. Not the same question. Not just an ordinary question. Not, “can we get up now?”, “what are we having for breakfast today?”, or “what are we doing today?” B begins the day with some of the most random and most specific questions he asks all day. (And he averages several hundred questions a day.)

Here are the questions from this week. Remember, these are the first words he utters in the morning. All begin with the prefix, “Mommy?”

  • Have astronauts ever met an alien in space?
  • Do some rock stars like Corvettes?
  • Do you know what “fascinating” means?
  • What do you call this bone I can feel in my hand? I can see it in my skin–do you call it a skin bone?
  • Do elephants live in the jungle? What about alligators?
  • Does our watermelon have seeds? (The CSA one awaiting us on the kitchen table.)
  • If something is alive, does that mean it has eyes?

I love his inquisitiveness, even if I find it overwhelmingly intense at 0-dark-thirty. These are always the first in a long line of questions that pour out of him in the pre-dawn hours. I wish I had thought to remember more of them, but I confess that my first thought as they pummel my sleeping brain like a shot of BBs is to just make it stop.

My second thought, however, is always: where is this question coming from? At that hour of the morning, I can only assume that each morning’s line of questioning emerges from somewhere in his dreams. And this, to use the newest word in his lexicon, fascinates me. I don’t know about you, but I am totally infatuated with the idea of peering into his dreams, his subconscious, to learn how his mind works and what worries him and what excites him and what puzzles him. These questions are a small window into his young mind.

Apparently, it is a very random and inquisitive place. I’m going to try to suppress my desire to outfit him with a snooze button and pay better attention to the questions themselves.

In the car on the way home from church today, B asked me, “Where is Jesus?”

Hoping to get off easy, I replied: Jesus is with God.

B: “No. Where is he?”

No such luck this time.

Me: “Well, some people think that Jesus and God are in heaven, which is a place that is far away where they live. But I think Jesus and God are around us all the time, so they can help us when we need it.”

B: “Oh. So they help us?”

Me: Yep.

B: Like the guy who mows our lawn?

Me: What do you mean, like the guy who mows our lawn?

B: He helps us. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn helps us.

Me: Sure. That sounds good to me. Jesus helps us like the guy who mows our lawn.

What an image of Christ—the lanky, awkward teenager who shows up once a week and tames our wild lawn with the mower. He works quickly and silently, knocking at the door at the end for his meager $20 and barely saying a word. But his presence has put our minds at ease all summer long. We used to worry and fret and procrastinate and agonize over who would mow the lawn and when. Now, even when it starts to look overgrown, we don’t give it a second thought, because we know that our faithful teenage helper will take care of it, whenever he gets around to it. His lanky shoulders have taken a huge burden from us, and know that trusting him with our yard is one of the best things we ‘ve ever done.

Sure, Jesus is like that. Imago Dei, right?

“Put down the window, so I can see God.”

That’s what B said to me this morning in the car on the way to preschool. “If you put down the window, then you can see God.”

He spent the last week getting his first dose of Christian education outside the home through vacation bible school, so we have been having all kinds of interesting conversations about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the love of God. I figured this would be another untwisting of something he had heard at VBS.

Baffled, I asked, “What do you mean? How can you see God by putting down the window?”

“You know,” he said. “The wind.”

This time it was my words that need untwisting. Everything is literal in his three-year-old mind. The day before, he had inquired about when and where and how he would get to see God. Having not met God in person, he had surmised that God was dead.

I marveled that his young mind could arrive so quickly and easily at one of the great arguments among atheists everywhere. Thankfully, because this is such a familiar point, it has a familiar answer: the wind.

On the way to school the day before, I had answered his question about the death of God with the analogy of the wind. We cannot see the wind, but we can see the effects of the wind on the trees and feel it on our faces. God is the same way—we cannot see God, but we can see what God does, like all the things God has made in the world and the love we feel with one another. I know young children don’t quite understand analogy, but it was the best explanation I could offer without concocting for him a heaven where God lives far, far away. He smiled and giggled and talked about the wind and generally seemed satisfied with the answer.

And then, this morning in the car, his request: “Put down the window, so I can see God. You know, in the wind.”

I realized I didn’t need to untwist his conception after all. I just rolled down the window, and glanced in the rearview mirror to see him laughing and smiling in the back seat, hair flying in the wind. Yes, that is God alright—I see the Holy One too.

This morning started out rough. B woke up early, then melted down from tiredness, then we got stuck in 45 minutes of traffic on the ride to school. To fill time in traffic, I introduced B to new music: Johnny Cash’s My Mother’s Hymn Book.

B loves music, and we have been intentional about teaching him our favorites. For J, that means The Beatles. For me, that means the songs of the church. The music of the church is my deepest connection to God. When I need strength or hope or intimacy with God, I start to sing. My great-grandmother taught me to love the old hymns like “Whispering Hope” and “In the Garden.” My children’s choir directors filled me with “Apple Red Happiness” and “Do Lord.” During youth group, church camp and retreat years, I learned “Sanctuary” and “Pass It On” and “It’s Amazing.” In college, we sang social justice with “City of God,” and “Lift Ev’ry Voice” and “We Shall Overcome.” In every church I’ve served, I have learned new songs as I learned more about God, and the songs hold that faith understanding for me.

Increasing my repertoire of songs increases my repertoire of faith. They are a reservoir of strength, courage, insight, hope and grace. These songs of my heart have shaped my understanding of God, and they are my testimony to God’s love. I want to pass the songs on to B as they were passed on to me, so that he too can have such a supply of faith-filled words and melodies to draw on when he needs them.

And so this challenging morning I removed The Beatles from the CD player and stuck in My Mother’s Hymn Book. With a touch of irony as we sat in traffic, the song that swept us away today was “I Shall Not Be Moved.” This is one of my heart’s songs, and it often comes to me when I am facing difficulty or conflict. I sing it as a mantra of encouragement and strength when I feel weak or afraid.

This morning we played it over and over. Johnny Cash, B and I sang our hearts out. For the first time, B continued to belt out the melody line when I switched to harmony, so we became a trio of young and old, unison and harmony, wisdom and innocence. I went from grousing to laughing, and then to crying with joy at the crazy beauty of this one moment. When we finally got to preschool, 20 minutes late, we stayed in the car together to sing it one more time. I did not want the moment to end.

B will not likely remember this moment. Perhaps, though, with enough repetition, he will learn this song by heart. Someday, when he needs it most, this song might come into his heart and bring him faith, encouragement, strength, grace, the love of God and of his mother.

The drive to preschool has become definition time. If B has heard new words he does not understand, he often asks about them during the quiet drive. I enjoy his inquiring mind, and the challenge of explaining something in terms he will understand.

Last week, though, it got complicated.

Mommy, what does “kill” mean?

As I paused to figure this one out, he went on to explain that some of the older boys (he is 3, but his class has children up to kindergarten age) pretend to be superheroes and bad guys, and they “kill” him. B said, “When Z kills me, I just say ‘puweee,’ and when N dies me, I say ‘pchoooo.’ That’s what you do when they kill you.”

I chuckled to myself at his nonsense comeback, and felt grateful that he did not yet understand what game they were playing. His question had afforded me the opportunity to give some explanation and interpretation, rather than letting him get all his information from his schoolmates. B has not had any serious exposure to death, so it was difficult to be honest and truthful in answering his question with no context at all. Even more, his simple quest for a definition raised a whole host of theological and moral issues for me.

When I explain death, do I just explain what it means, or do I offer theological perspective and insight? To be honest, I’m not even sure what theological perspective I would offer. I am confident in my faith that this world and all that is in it is not the end, that the God of Jesus Christ is a God of resurrection and new life, able to overcome even death. I do not claim to know what that means—whether heaven and hell exist, what the afterlife looks or feels like, whether our individual souls continue to exist in some form. I tend to believe that we are reunited with God and with the souls of those we have lost, but in my mind that bears absolutely no resemblance to a family reunion filled with hugs and catching up on lost time. This is barely comprehensible to me, and I can’t imagine explaining it to a three-year-old.

Add to that the questions arising from violent play. We have carefully sheltered B from violent images and realities so far in his life, but that cannot and should not last forever. The world is a violent place, and being a peaceful presence in the world requires confronting and understanding that violence. As he matures, he will come to know that reality, and we will not try to hide it from him. His question indicates, however, that he is not yet capable of comprehending anything beyond the feeling of fear that violent images might provoke.

I also understand that war play is a normal and developmentally appropriate part of children’s lives (great article on that subject here), and I do not have any need to forbid those kinds of games from his life. There is little bad and a lot of good that can come from games of cops and robbers, or superheros and villains, or my childhood favorite, Jedi Knights and Storm Troopers. I wasn’t disturbed or angered to hear that friends at school are playing these games. Still, I think it’s important to let him know that violence is dangerous and wrong, and there are better ways of solving problems.

All of those questions raced through my mind, but meanwhile I needed an answer, quickly. How I wish I could just offer a simple definition this time!

In the end, I decided to abandon theology, keep a matter-of-fact tone, and throw in a small dose of moralism. I told him something like this:

Dying means that someone is gone forever, that they are not alive anymore and we can’t see them or talk to them. Like the dinosaurs—they are all dead. When you kill someone, you make them die. Sometimes you can play pretend about killing and dying. That’s okay if you’re playing superheroes or cowboys and there are bad guys. That’s just a game. But in real life, killing is very bad, because it makes someone gone forever, and their family would be sad about that.

I’m not sure I exactly believe everything I told him, and there are things that I believe that I didn’t tell him. That answer just seemed logical and faithful. He seemed satisfied without being frightened. All the other questions and possibilities can remain unanswered for now.

B just got invited to his first birthday party. One of the girls in his preschool class is having a princess party next week, and he got an invitation. He is very excited!

Since he has never been to a birthday party before, we told him we should probably bring a birthday present for his friend, then asked him what he thought we should get for her.

“My orange car,” he responded. “I can give her my orange car, because I think she would like that.”

Suppressing a giggle, my first thought was to correct him—to tell him no, his friend did not want one of his old toys, she wanted something new. Thankfully, I paused. In that moment’s pause, I realized that he had it right and I had it wrong. Gift-giving should not be all about shopping, it should be about generosity. His instinct was to give his friend something he loved to play with, because he thought she would enjoy it too. Even if that meant he would no longer be able to play with it himself.

Isn’t that the way gift-giving should be? I am long weary of participating in the consumerist model of gift-giving, where showing someone love and affection means shopping for them, where the measure of one’s concern is found in the price tag on the gift or the fanciness of the wrappings.

We plan to encourage B in his desire to share and be generous. We will also go to the store and pick out a new toy for his friend, but we will carefully avoid any indication that his first choice for a gift might not be good enough. Whatever we bring to the party will be topped off with that orange car, wrapped up separately and placed on top, with a note explaining that it is a gift from the heart of one child to another, in the spirit of sharing.

It’s exactly the kind of gift I always want to receive. How about you?


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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