Pill Bugs And Other Gifts From Our Children
I came home from school in the fourth grade and presented my mother with a self-portrait clay figurine, complete with my favorite blue dress and long blonde hair. It fit in the palm of her hand. My sister gave her a shiny and expressive black and white tuxedo cat. We proudly beamed and our mother cried as she prominently placed them on a shelf in the living room.
On every gift-giving occasion, my kids ask me what I want, to which I always respond, “Make me something!”
They roll their eyes and say, “No, REALLY!”
“Yes, REALLY!” And I really, really mean it.
I thought it was RIDICULOUS when my dad walked out the front door to work, wearing the over-sized paper tie I gave him for father’s day, yet my favorite possessions are my son’s preschool ceramic tiny hand imprint and pottery heart wind chime, my younger daughter’s 20-photo collage of the two of us and her colorful paper, dog-eared checkbook cover that I still use.
My older daughter worked as a child actress in three motion pictures, was a recurring character on Hannah Montana and, at 23 years old, is writing her fourth novel, but I have never been more proud of anything she has done than I was of the story she wrote and gave to me at six years old called The Little Red Fish.
When they give me something from the heart, I totally lose my shit.
“What’s the best gift you ever received from your children?” is a question I posed to several of my closest friends. Among the answers: a surprise September Mother’s Day breakfast in bed; an autographed photo of Jane Goodall; a treasured rock she found that still sits in my garden; a ceramic plate with her drawing of a dragon; flowers they picked; songs they sang.
My mother said “the best gift from my daughters was becoming successful, thoughtful and kind individuals.” My father said, “The best gift my two daughters gave to me was to stand on their own two feet, equipped to tackle any challenge.”
Nobody mentioned a store-bought item.
The things that come to us from their bursting little hearts crack ours wide open. I even kept a dead pill bug in a box my toddler thrust into my hand with his expectant little grin on one of our many morning walks. When it mysteriously disappeared, I cried.
I didn’t become a famous sculptor or successful fashion designer, but my parents’ consistent support of my passion for music encouraged my first career choice of concert pianist. My second and more important career choice was smitten, devoted, head-over-heels in-love mommy and I wouldn’t trade either choice for anything in the world.
There are scientific studies proving the brain-stimulating effects of playing a musical instrument. The same is true for other forms of art. Our creative sweet spots produce moments of total immersion, complete focus and when we are very lucky and inspired, magic. It is where we are able to fully give of ourselves. When our children are encouraged in their creativity, they find their true gifts and we are the first recipients of those gifts.
What would have happened had Steve Jobs not had access to the gadgets and electronics he so loved tinkering with as a boy? What if Albert Einstein’s father hadn’t given him a compass at age five? What if Adolf Hitler’s father had encouraged him to pursue his passion for art?
We are putting too much academic pressure on our kids. We simultaneously tell them to be the best they can be while tackling other parents over limited preschool slots. They are subjected to test-taking and requirements for academic excellence before they can speak. We want them to succeed, but their brains need balance. By nurturing their right brains, we stimulate efficiency and cognitive processing on the left.
Our kids are over-scheduled and over-regulated. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) says “free and unstructured play is healthy and – in fact – essential for helping children reach important social, emotional, and cognitive developmental milestones as well as helping them manage stress and become resilient.”
Babies are not born putting pressure on themselves. We teach them to do that. By paying attention and providing them with the tools for creativity, we naturally enhance their critical thinking and problem-solving skills in areas of academia. We can help them develop those skills without telling them we are doing so. When my children were small, we came up with games that would help them complete chores like cleaning up their toys. They enjoyed the process and felt a sense of accomplishment with their end result. They naturally developed a desire for success.
There are rare moments on stage when the audience ceases to exist because I have stopped worrying about memory slips or hitting the right notes and am totally connected to the music. It is the closest I have ever come to the unselfconscious child I used to be. Perhaps the fact that my parents so openly nurtured that part of me is the reason I not only chose the fulfilling path of music, but also, and more importantly, became a mom who has celebrated the individuality in each of my children.
Those unexplainable present moments become addictions and are where timeless works of art are born. It is not our place to dictate their individual “works of art,” but to keep our eyes open and encourage what we see.
When I take my kids to visit their grandparents where they now live in Juneau, Alaska, I point out the clay figurines that only a parent could love still displayed on a shelf in their home.
And now I get it. I really, really get it.