"Lotus Opening" by L. Folk

Sunday, April 29, 2018

Rules, Kids, and the Alternate Life

My daughter Marielle has been acting especially wild lately, waking us up with her energy, her screeches of delight while playing with her brother. This has prompted me to sit the twins down and have them think up "rules of the house." After years of their exuberances-- not cleaning up, not eating at the table, using the couch as a bouncy house, not following simple directions, not getting dressed for school on time, not being polite, respectful, etc., etc.--I had had enough. I needed to rein in control. I had the kids come up with the rules, guiding them when necessary. Every teacher knows that rules can only be enforced if kids take ownership. But even this is terribly idealistic.

One day when we were at my sister's house, Marielle was especially wild, racing around doing that screech of hers. I told her to calm down, not act like a banshee. She said what's a banshee; I said something wild. She said, I am supposed to act this way. I am a kid. I replied, I am a grown up; I am supposed to discipline you when you do. She harrumpfed and walked away.

That got me thinking about kids, what they want, what they should be allowed to do, allowed to have, allowed to believe. Should I allow my daughter to run wild, act like a banshee sometimes? Sure, I pick my battles, but I wonder, do I get on her too much? Should I learn to let things go, despite the rules? And just when should I let go and let them do, believe, be, what they want?

When my son came into our bedroom early morning St. Patrick's Day and asked me if the leprechauns had come and left him a gift, I told him there were no such thing as leprechauns. I turned over, tried to go back to sleep, and he slumped out of the room.

The night before the twins wore green to bed because their teachers told them that if they didn't, the leprechauns would play a trick on them. I was too tired for the facade. My philosophy on imaginary entities is to play them down. Don't get them all hyped up. I got all hyped up about Santa Claus and the magic of Christmas, the cookies, the milk, the reindeer, the sugarplums, and one afternoon my neighbor Sharon Taylor in her rotting tree house with cobwebs and dead bugs put an immediate end to it all. I was, in a word, crestfallen. I was a kid with a boundless imagination who enjoyed a rich inner life. This was disillusionment at best, and I didn't want my kids to experience that. So in the past, we didn't write letters to Santa; we didn't leave him cookies. We mentioned him in passing, like he was just a means to an end.

And yet, the way my son slumped silently out of the room, and my daughter went from room to room looking for evidence of little green men, proved to me that it was a kid's right to believe. It was a kid's right to enjoy the magic of imagination. Sure disillusionment would come later, but we're supposed to live in the moment, aren't we? It's true. I wasn't letting my kids be kids.

So when their father took them out for a couple of hours, I went rock hunting and painted two nuggets gold. I cut shamrocks from green construction paper, crafted a letter about luck on parchment, and sprinkled glitter. It took me about an hour and a half to do all of this. When they came home, Marielle found the stash first, and then the two of them inspected the stones. "I can't believe it! They came!" The thrill was quick, about three minutes and then the rocks were abandoned on the floor and they went on to something else. Because that's what kids do.

I try to enforce the rules when it's necessary. Most of the time it takes my holding dessert over their heads to get the job done. But this does work, despite it being redundant. As for imagination, it's imperative to cultivate that in a kid. This will lead to a rich inner life, a necessary indulgence in the unreal, an indulgence for fiction, stories, games, movies, daydreams, art. Because real life can be inherently dull and we need that alternate life to feel alive.