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Adventures in the Messy Art of Raising a Family
By Jennifer Grant
WORTHY PUBLISHINGCopyright © 2012 Jennifer Grant
All rights reserved.
Fledge Words and Fairy Dust
Adventures in Saying Yes
A woman I admire once told me her parenting philosophy. Although my oldest child was only three at the time, I filed her words away in my mind and knew someday I'd return to them. The way I understood it, she and her husband began raising kids with a high proportion of "no"s, but increased the "yes"es each year. She said the job of parenting entailed letting out the rope, giving kids more freedom and room to roam as they grew.
She kept very close to her children when they were babies and toddlers. She had high standards for their behavior as they moved through school. Little by little, however, she and her husband made setting expectations a family affair, and their children were given more autonomy. By the time they were in high school, her children were independent and almost completely responsible for the consequences of their choices. The parents still had authority over the children and there were well-established household rules, but increasingly my friend and her husband allowed their kids to take risks, to make their own goals and decisions, and to set the course for their lives.
Po Bronson, child development expert and coauthor with Ashley Merryman of Nurture Shock, would likely nod at this approach to parenting. In his article "How Not to Helicopter" he writes, "Teens need opportunities to take good risks.... They need part of their life to feel real, not just a dress rehearsal for college. They will mature more quickly if these elements are in their life."
Now my friend's three children are adults and, from what I have observed, they are connected, vital, and healthy people. They seem to enjoy their parents. They all graduated from college, and two are happily married.
I like the idea that as kids grow in wisdom and maturity, they will hear "yes" more often.
I have turned my wise friend's words over in my mind countless times over the years, visualizing myself literally releasing a skein of rope, foot by foot, as my children grow older. Now that my oldest child is in high school, I give him ample room to make his own decisions and to live with the consequences. I bite my tongue during finals week when he says he needs a break from studying and wants to go out with friends. I no longer keep close track of whether he's practicing his cello or how he's spending his money. I don't insist that he goes to summer camp or on church mission trips. I don't slip into his room when he's showering after a soccer game and drop his dirty uniform down the chute so it will be ready for the next game or tuck laundered gym clothes into his backpack. These things are his responsibilities now. If he goes to school having left an English paper in the printer or to soccer practice without his cleats, he'll be the one affected.
There are house rules he must follow and he knows his parents' values and expectations, but most of the decisions in his life are his to make. When he asks, we talk at length about what his father and I see as benefits or potential pitfalls of saying yes or no in a certain situation, but—the vast majority of the time—we leave decisions to him. In having the opportunity to make real decisions, my son matures and gains independence, and I catch glimpses of the adult he is becoming.
* * *
James Joyce's striking novel Ulysses ends with it. That last unpunctuated chapter begins with the word and it abundantly appears throughout Molly's soliloquy. The book ends with her recollection of her husband Bloom's proposal: "and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes." After forty-some pages without the sentence ending, that final, capitalized "Yes" and the period that follows it make you catch your breath.
E.E. Cummings' exceedingly punctuated work frolicked with it. He begins one poem with the words "yes is a pleasant country." The first stanza of another of his poems, "i thank You God for most this amazing," reads
i thank You God for most this amazing
day: for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes
Yes declares, "Of course! So be it!" It is a fundamental word for all sorts of creation. Friendships, marriages, transformations, treaties, inventions, art. Even saying the word yes guides our mouths into the shaping of a smile.
Yes, as my wonderful college English professor and priest, the late Reverend Dr. Joseph McClatchy said, is a "fledge word." Fledge words, he said, reach up toward heaven, seemingly taking wing to the Most High. The upward reaching of the letter Y, Father McClatchy pointed out, makes our spirits rejoice and stretch toward God.
The usual definition of the word fledge is to be capable of, or to have the feathers required, for flying. When a bird is "fledged," it can take flight. Fledge words reach up toward heaven, causing our hearts to soar when we speak them.
(Yes, Father McClatchy was delightfully eccentric.)
When my husband and I were engaged, almost twenty-five years ago, we hurried to Father McClatchy's office high in an old gothic building on our college campus that once was a stop on the Underground Railroad. Because he was a favorite professor and a priest at our church, David and I wanted him to be one of the first people to know of our engagement.
We knocked at the door.
"Yes? Come in! Come in!" Father McClatchy called.
I like to think that we were both pet students of his, but to be honest, I believe David was his real favorite. After all, it was David who more than once received grades of A + + + + on his English papers. (Until I saw my boyfriend's grades, I was buoyed with pride when I received the occasional A +. I forgave David and decided to marry him anyway, the show-off.)
"Father," David began on that December afternoon, "there's something we want to share with you."
"Wait! Wait! Don't say a word!" Father McClatchy shouted, anticipating our news. "Not another word!"
A trim and spritely man with a neat beard and glasses, he jumped up from his desk, jogged around it, and busied himself at his stereo console. He chose an album and slipped it from its cardboard sleeve. (Remember record albums?) He then carefully set it on the turntable, lowered the needle, and as the music began, said, "Okay. Now. I want you to be waltzing when you say it."
As the music of Johann Strauss—I don't remember which piece but something along the lines of "The Blue Danube" or Die Fledermaus—filled the room, David and I did our best impression of a waltz and Father McClatchy sat on the edge of his desk and clapped his hands excitedly.
"Now tell me!" he shouted over the music.
"Father McClatchy!" David yelled. "We're engaged!"
"Hallelujah!" our professor cried. He shaped his arms goalpost style to suggest a capital H before wrapping us in his embrace. "Hallelujah! H! Fledge letter! Fledge word!"
What a superb way to begin a life together.
Yes. It is a pleasant country.
But then there's no. No is the lines in your datebook, the hands of the clock, the entries in your check register. No is a door closing, a disapproving shake of the head, a frown. Of course, No's not all bad. Not at all. No keeps us from hurting ourselves, No protects us, and No draws boundaries around cherished parts of our lives. It's not a fledge word, however. That's for sure.
When my eldest child was an infant, I heard Harvard child psychiatrist Robert Coles interviewed on the radio. He said that parents should start saying no to children at about nine months old. No saves them from running into the road and being hit by a car, putting their fingers in electrical outlets, or thinking it's acceptable to yank on the dog's tail.
No, Coles explained, gives children a message that bolsters their independence and self-esteem. It lets them know that someone more capable and bigger than they are is looking out for them. They want and need that sense of protection—desperately.
Isn't that why kids test our resolve and resist our authority?
"Are you in charge? Are you?" they ask. "Because believe it or not, I'm not really sure what I'm doing most of the time."
Well, as you know, they never ever actually come out and say that. They whine and cry and shout "Mine!" or "Everyone's allowed to go except me!" or "You're so unfair!" But, as Coles pointed out, children need the loving protection of their parents' No. I took Coles' words to heart and, from very young ages, my children have heard the word often.
* * *
But No can be damaging too.
Weeks after we waltzed in our English professor's office, David received a very different response to our engagement in the form of a letter sent through the campus mail.
"You're not going to believe this," he said, flipping the envelope onto my lap. We were sitting in the lobby of my dorm and, as he began paging through a magazine, I opened the letter. It was written by a woman my husband had known when he was growing up, another professor at the college. She implored him to call off our wedding plans. My eyes stung as they grazed over her words: "dysfunctional family," "too special for her," "no chance for a successful marriage." Reading it, childhood fears about my inability to have a happy, stable marriage and family as an adult flew at me. It was the "sins of the fathers" argument, hurled at me in tidy cursive. I handed the letter back to David. He crumpled it and tossed it into the metal trashcan beside him.
"Go figure, right?" he said, before noticing my tears. "What? You're not going to take that seriously, are you?"
I was silent.
"It's just lies," he said, unperturbed.
Since that day, I've come to know the tone with which he spoke those words. David has a grudge-free and measured response to people he deems unreasonable—he shrugs them off. (I still have my learner's permit in this practice, and too often the Nos of my critics swirl around in my mind, knocking me off-balance.)
"Jen, she doesn't even know you. Or who we are together," David said. "Now forget it, and let's go get dinner."
* * *
At our wedding a few months later, with my bridesmaids wearing floral Laura Ashley dresses and my veil attached to a pink rose headband I nicknamed "The Hedge," Father McClatchy stood with David and me at the front of the church to join our lives together. In the service, a dear friend read "the love chapter" from the Bible. "Love suffers long and is kind; love does not envy; love does not parade itself, is not puffed up; does not behave rudely, does not seek its own, is not provoked, thinks no evil; does not rejoice in iniquity, but rejoices in the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:4-7). I don't care how predictable it may be to read that passage at weddings; I think it's an excellent way to send two people into marriage. The couple hearing those words, as was true for David and me, will likely have no idea of how excruciatingly difficult it will be to be patient, to be kind, and, yes, even to endure each other through certain parts of life. But starting a marriage together cloaked in those words seems a strong protection, and even a sort of road map, for the journey ahead.
As David and I retreated down the aisle after being proclaimed husband and wife, two of our friends who had served as ushers in the wedding stood up in the balcony above us, removed their tuxedo jackets and turned around. On the back of their shirts, written in black electrical tape, was the word YES.
A quarter century after saying those big, fledgy yesses to each other on our wedding day, David and I continue to say yes to each other. Since they came into our lives, we love, endure, and believe in our children too, saying yes to them when we can. Ours has been as happy a marriage as any I know, by which I mean we have struggled through parched, desert places, enjoyed stunning moments of joy, and have learned over time to be loving partners to each other. Sometimes I experience an almost adolescent crush on him. (Have his eyes always been so blue? And those strong features? He brings Christopher Plummer's Captain von Trapp to mind, minus the whistle and cranky demeanor. But still ... aye, aye Captain!) He looks over at me at those moments and I feel myself blush. Other days, the way he butters his toast so meticulously makes me want to scream. And why does he have to smash the garbage down in the kitchen trashcan so hard that the next day, when it's overflowing and I attempt to pull the bag out, I end up with a torn bag and garbage all over the floor? Of course, he has his teeny-tiny moments of annoyance with me too. I'll admit that, among other things, I'm not always the most careful person in the entire United States of America when I load the dishwasher and, for the most part, reading instruction booklets is anathema to me.
"This doesn't work!" I'll declare with the petulance of an overtired five-year-old.
"Did you read the instructions?" David asks.
Without waiting for an answer, he fishes around in the bottom of the shipping box for the booklet and gathers the heap of components to the juicer, vacuum cleaner, or whatever new appliance has made its way into our home.
"Let me give it a try," he says. "With the instructions this time."
Between infatuation and petty irritation, of course, is the way we experience each other most of the time. We are supportive friends and partners in parenting. We are prone to tease each other for our eccentricities, eager for excuses to go out to dinner together, and always happy to open our home to our friends. Needless to say, after twenty-five years, I feel extremely fortunate to be married to David.
Every day of our lives, in some way, shape, or form, we say yes to each other.
We say yes to our children too. I want my children to always hear loud and clear the Yes of our love for them and to be confident, hopeful, and whole. When life hands them the kind of hissing, mortifying No contained in that letter to David so long ago, I want my children to be able to crumple it up, toss it into the garbage can, and move on. In a perfect world, their parents' love would protect them and somehow serve as a shield from mean-spirited people or other disappointments life will certainly deliver. But I know it's not a perfect world. Each of my children will have crushing blows to navigate, no matter how well I manage to nurture, love, and guide them.
So I say yes to them when I can.
Yes, you can ride the mechanical horse at the front of the grocery store until I can't find any more quarters in the bottom of my purse.
Yes, we can go on a walk, play Uno, or color together.
Yes, you can stay up late on a summer night, have a friend sleep over, and skip practicing your viola today.
Yes, you should try out for that.
Yes, I'll take you and your friend to that concert.
Yes, you are old enough, brave enough, and smart enough.
Yes, yes, yes.
It's tricky to walk that tightrope between Yes and No, to know when to reach our hands up and exclaim that fledge word Yes or when to direct our hands toward the ground in an angular No. As parents, we're faced with that decision countless times a day. Yes, you can watch that Bob the Builder video. No, you can't have a cookie. Yes, you can go to the football game with your friends. No, you can't have money for that.
Yes, No, Yes, No.
A friend tells me her parenting philosophy is to say to her kids, "Just let the word no echo through your heads." She's kidding, of course, but isn't it tempting sometimes to go that route? Parenting is trickier than that, and as we falter along that high-wire act, awkwardly holding whatever we use as our balancing poles, an audience gathers and people begin to point. If we lean too far toward Yes, we're labeled as permissive. When we veer the other direction, we're control freaks or Helicopter Moms. But those labels aren't really accurate, are they? Aren't all of us some combination of all of these as we muddle along as parents?
For example, if you'd seen me as a young mother of three at the grocery store, my four-year-old walking alongside me, my two-year-old sitting in the cart facing me, and the baby in her carrier, maybe you'd have thought me an Earth Mama, wearing a groovy sling and filling the cart with organic sweet potatoes, recycled paper towels, and soy milk. You would have seen the dark circles under my eyes and might have even been one of the countless people who smiled at me and said, "You've got your hands full."
My children, obediently trotting with me into the store, would likely have appealed to you. "What nice children," you might have said, smiling at my slightly disheveled but competent-enough mommy self.
Excerpted from Momumental by Jennifer Grant. Copyright © 2012 Jennifer Grant. Excerpted by permission of WORTHY PUBLISHING.
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