“Mommy, when you were just a little girl and I was still up in heaven, I used to peek down and watch you. And I decided that since you already had a mommy to help you, I would come down and be your little boy.”
My five-year old son Thomas confided this to me one evening as we snuggled together in his bed. Naturally, I felt both touched and flattered (it’s a heady feeling to be hand-picked), but I didn’t take it literally. Not until much later did I realize the amazing truth hidden in that statement––a truth which applies to all of us moms and dads. It is just this: while we may have learned a great deal from our parents, our children have so much more to teach us! They offer us a lifetime of opportunities to challenge our assumptions, stretch our understanding, and grow both as people and as parents.
Back when Thomas made that profound statement, we were both trying to recover from an extremely difficult experience which had resulted in Thomas leaving his integrated preschool. Over the course of two long years, I’d sought the help of expert after expert, and had been devastated to discover they had little to offer. Eventually, I had learned to heed the small but persistent voice of my own instinctual mother-wisdom. It was a step in the right direction, but I had yet to discover that there was another voice to which I ought to pay heed––my son’s. This certainly was not from lack of opportunity. From nearly the first moments of his life, Thomas had begun to demonstrate that he had far more to teach me than I him. And eventually, I wised up enough to start paying attention.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve been learning from my son:
Lesson Number One: Ditch the images, Mom.
As a mother-to-be, I intended to nurse my baby, firmly believing it to be the best possible form of nourishment. I daydreamed of a wee babe at the breast, our mother-child bond deepening with each feeding. It never occurred to me that my image may not become reality.
That’s precisely what happened, though. A mere five days after Thomas’s birth that idealistic image began to unravel. Seriously ill with an infection, I landed back in the hospital undergoing a multitude of tests. Due to the toxicity of one of them, it was necessary to “pump and dump” for the next ten days. Thomas hadn’t really gotten the hang of nursing before I fell ill, and after so much time on a bottle, transitioning him back to the breast proved to be near impossible.
I did not let go of this image easily. Weeks turned into months, but my determination to become the perfect nursing mom did not flag. I pumped, I read books about nursing, I consulted lactation specialists. Nothing helped. Each feeding was a misery, with tears on both sides. Finally, after four months, I reluctantly resigned myself to a new reality. And once I did, I discovered that while bottles were nourishing my son’s body, I was finally able to focus on nourishing his soul.
Letting go of that image was the first of many opportunities Thomas gave me to learn this lesson. Over the past decade, I’ve wrestled with my image of how my child would behave in preschool (like a model student rather than a behavior problem), how my son would dress (shorts and pants rather than dresses), and a host of other areas in which my images clashed with my reality. And as I’ve learned to ditch the image, I’ve found the joy in being able to accept and embrace the flesh-and-bone boy before me.
Lesson Number Two: Nobody’s perfect––and that’s perfectly fine.
I’ve always been something of an overachiever. So by the time Thomas was conceived, I’d already taken a parenting course––not once, but twice. I had read all the standard books about babies and mothering. I also had a decade of experience as a teacher. With such vast training under my belt, I felt more than ready to begin my parenting journey. I was naively certain that, like Mary Poppins, I would be practically perfect, and my children would emerge from childhood entirely unscathed, wholly intact, and without a single piece of baggage (you can stop chuckling now).
For the first two years of Thomas’s life, I mostly managed to live up to my practically-perfect ideal. I adored Thomas, and our life together was harmonious, filled with laughter and tender moments.
Then I got pregnant with twins.
Exhausted and cranky, I discovered for the first time that Thomas actually could aggravate me. I also discovered that I wasn’t equipped to handle it perfectly. Once the twins arrived, things went from bad to worse. I experienced sleep deprivation on a whole new level and was constantly stressed and anxious. Living up to practically-perfect status under these circumstances was impossible. I found myself saying and doing things that I was quite certain would be fodder for therapy sessions in Thomas’s adulthood. Still I pressed onward, convinced that if I tried harder, read another book, consulted just one more expert, that I could undo any damage and resume my practically-perfect journey.
Then came the preschool fiasco which shattered my hope that I could give Thomas a practically-perfect upbringing. What could possibly be done, I lamented, when so many mistakes had already been made? It was Thomas who showed me the answer: this imperfect journey provided something far more valuable than perfection. It gave me endless opportunities to own up to my mistakes, to seek forgiveness, and to find healing together with my son.
I’ve come to accept that neither one of us is going to come out of this mother-son journey unscathed. But I am comforted by the fact that we are helping to heal one another’s scars, and have grown closer in the process.
Lesson Number Three: You can’t learn it all from a book.
As a new mom, how I longed to come across that perfect book––the one that taught me precisely how to do this parenting gig well. How I wished someone could direct me to the volume entitled All You Need to Know About Thomas: a perfectly tailored guide to his unique blend of strengths, weaknesses, gifts, quirks, and precisely what makes him tick. I’ve yet to come across it. In its stead, I’ve eagerly digested dozens of books and articles, all of which claimed to unveil the mysteries of child-rearing. I have learned a ton. But not everything.
I thought all that reading had equipped me with plenty of tools for childhood’s challenges. I knew how to distract my tiny tot when he got too close to the wrong end of the cat. I ruthlessly removed the words, “Good job!” from my repertoire and replaced them with “I see you enjoyed using the blue crayon today.” I was clear on when to ignore misbehavior, when to enforce a time-out, and how to make the most of natural consequences. I was a walking, talking version of mainstream parenting literature.
The problem was, Thomas clearly hadn’t read the same books. He almost never did what those volumes cheerfully predicted he would. Again and again, I found myself perplexed by this. The books told me if I did x, then my child would do y. But they were irritatingly silent on how to handle it if he skipped y in favor of an entirely different letter of the alphabet. Which he did. Every time.
Eventually, I got the message. It was time to stop treating Thomas like an algebraic equation and began treating him like the precious, unique person he is. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still a fan of books. But the story Thomas and I are writing together each day is just as important as any published work out there. And boy, is it a page-turner! We laugh, we cry, we stumble upon mysteries to be solved and we overcome all kinds of obstacles. And I’m quite sure that we triumph in the end.
Lesson Number Four: At the end of the day, it’s all about play.
“School is your job,” I used to tell Thomas, as I ushered my reluctant little boy onto the preschool minibus. Thomas vehemently objected to this line of reasoning, countering, “But I just want to stay home and play with you, Mommy. Why can’t we just play?”
Eventually, we removed Thomas from preschool and began home instruction. While the location was different, the conversation turned out to be much the same.
“Homeschooling is your job,” I used to tell Thomas, pointing to a list of spider spelling words and math problems. Once again, he vehemently objected. “But I don’t want to do spelling and math, Mommy. I just want to play with you.”
Once I began to learn about unschooling, I finally understood what Thomas had been trying to tell me all along. Preschool wasn’t his job. Homeschool wasn’t his job. His job was to play. He learned about his world through play. He pursued his passions through play. And he connected to me through play.
The light bulb went on. I set aside the spider spelling words and the teddy bear math counters. I sat on the floor next to my boy and asked, “What shall we play today?” And oh, what worlds opened up! From card games to puppet shows, from splashing in puddles to exploring the tide pools, we have played our way through the days. The learning we have gathered up like shells along the beach is rich and beautiful, all unexpected treasures.
Lesson Number Five: Small bodies can harbor great wisdom.
Too often, we dismiss our children’s greatest insights, smugly certain that because we’ve lived longer, we know better. Sometimes we do. Often we don’t.
Here are some of the nuggets Thomas has shared with me:
Mommy, you don’t have to worry about me so much. There’s nothing wrong with me (there wasn’t).
Mommy, I’ve been telling you all along that I don’t need school. I just need to be with you (he had, and he did).
Mommy, you know I’m a work in progress, just like everyone else (he certainly is).
Mommy, different people come from different backgrounds and sometimes it makes them fight. But really, we should all just try to give each other a little grace (don’t you agree?).
Mommy, unschooling is the best choice for me (without a doubt).
Mommy, someday I’m going to be a teller, but not like in the bank. I’m going to be a guy who goes around telling people the truth about God and our world (he already does).
And sometimes he just nails the plain, unadorned truth of the matter, such as when, in my grumpier moments, he reminds me of this indisputable fact:
Mommy––four kids. You had ‘em.
I’m thankful every day for the joy and the growth those four small, precious ones bring me.
Sometimes my images still overshadow reality.
Occasionally, I hear myself utter something that would make Mary Poppins drop her practically-perfect parasol in horror.
There are moments when my book learning fails me miserably, and I forget that mine is a story yet to be written.
From time to time, play feels like a waste and I long for a textbook and my favorite red marking pen.
Now and then, I forget that being forty-something doesn’t mean I can’t learn from someone thirty years my junior.
But always, in every moment, my son’s words are a part of me, reminding me of the blessing that every parent can receive, if only we learn to open our arms and embrace it.
“You already had a mommy to help you,” my wise little son explained. “So I came to be your little boy.”
Nicole Olson is a former elementary and special education teacher who now joyfully unschools her four extraordinary children. In her spare time, she maintains her website, unschoolers.org, writes books for adults and children, and occasionally manages to get a full night’s sleep.
This article was published in the January-February 2014 issue of HEM