When I was around 4 years old, I convinced a couple of my friends to join me in eating a few berries from the plants that grew on the grounds of our pre-school. We would pass the orange/yellowish berries on the way to and from recess most days, and also on the walk to the main center where we awaited parent pick up. I rationalized that they must be safe to eat. These looked like berries a forest creature would love, so why not give them a try, right? I believe my official position was something like, “well, bears eat ‘em” (Hey, they bought this argument too, so…). We hesitated initially… then the, “You first. No YOU first. No you. You. How many?” exchange ensued.
We all grabbed a handful. I think my friend Bruce was the first to pop one into his mouth and eat it. When he didn’t keel over immediately we all felt free to enjoy our snack safely. I dropped a few in my mouth and began to chew. We looked around at one another and each had the same look of disgust and disappointment. They were awful. Even then, though, there was the sense that none of us wanted to be the one to spit his berries out first, so we manned (kidded) up and took our medicine. That was when the groundskeeper saw us and the freak-out was about to be in full swing…I don’t remember exactly how we got to the hospital… I just remember sitting on the bed with a bucket at my feet and hearing Ray in another room throwing up as Bruce was getting wheeled past in a gurney and the doctor telling me to drink some awful looking elixir in a plastic serving cup. Pretty soon we had our vomiting in sync. Berries off the bushes at school = bad…Got it.
I have never been one for passive exploration. It isn’t that I need to learn everything the hard way (it really isn’t); it is just that I enjoy the thrill of knowing and being part of the experience. Casual interests are difficult for me because I tend to get caught up in the thing – whether it is a hobby, or activity, or even watching a sporting event – and I become fully associated with the experience. There may or may not have been an incident involving the Lakers struggling to win a 7 game series against a severely depleted Houston Rockets team that resulted in outbursts of rage and created a general sense of unease with our guests, causing some to feel the need to depart prematurely (and perhaps even several others during the NBA and NFL seasons, but I digress). Given that, it really shouldn’t have surprised me then to walk downstairs the other day from changing my clothes after a long day at work and a hellish commute to find Ethan sitting on the floor with the refrigerator door wide open spreading around the remains of what had been a full carton of eggs. I stood there exasperated.
“Ethan!”… he didn’t even look up. “Kendra! Do you see your son?” As she came into the kitchen from the laundry room, Ethan paused to glance up from his work with a very serious look on his face. Then he quickly returned his attention to the eggs. I was exhausted and in no mood to deal with this mess. I did the only thing I could do. I ran to grab my camera. I felt the need to capture this exploration. Even as frustrated as I was feeling at the moment, a part of me really connected with what he was doing and why.
I realize there are better ways to nurture that inquisitive spirit within him. But I was the one who left the eggs at his level and allowed his unsupervised access to them. Plus, the eggs were already broken at that point. Getting mad and admonishing an 18 month old for acting his age is utterly fruitless. And, I didn’t want to discourage him from exploring opportunities or confuse him into thinking his impulses were necessarily bad or wrong. There would be time to teach later, and we did. In the meantime, Dillon and Jaden quickly seized the opportunity to join their brother in the mess.
This past weekend also provided a memorable opportunity for exploration. An early morning bubble-blowing activity in the backyard quickly evolved (devolved? ) into some type of primal dirt digging, war painting, and treasure-hunting adventure for Jaden, Dillon, and Ethan. I loved it! I was thrilled to see them transform the backyard into a world of their individual imaginings.
It certainly was not the first time they had done something like this. But I had travelled all week and was really cherishing the opportunity to sit and watch them interact with one another (the things you miss when you are away). It is amazing what commonplace activities become so captivating after brief periods of absence. Ethan was continuing to forge his way into his older brothers’ world, and they were graciously and happily accepting him. Kendra went outside to capture some of the moments and they proudly shared their discoveries and their plans. They were patient with one another. They encouraged one another. They battled and befriended insects. They examined rocks. They engaged the day. By the afternoon, they were completely covered in mud, soaking wet, and grinning ear to ear.
Clothes can get washed, rocks raked, shrubs replanted, floors mopped, counters sponged, and patios swept… It can seem like an inconvenience to let these things play out at times. They just put that shirt on, those are the new jeans, you just fixed that, someone could get hurt (not injured, hurt), you just don’t feel like dealing with it, etc. But how many times can the winds of parental caution and restraint beat against the candle of curiosity before it is blown out? Can you re-light it? Will it still burn bright? What is it worth to find out? Conversely, how far do you let them run? Where do you draw the line? Are they applying learning and exercising their own judgment? Why is it important that they NOT do it? (e.g. the berries are poisonous). There have to be boundaries, of course. But where you set them, and when are just as important as what they are, and why.
Thanks for coming along for the ride!