Having children teaches you to live in the moment. There is no clock when you’re an infant, or a two-year old, or even a five-year old. When my daughter was hungry, she let me know and I fed her. I had to return to the real world and present for her, regardless of whatever other plans I’d made, and no matter how rushed we were, she always shouted with glee when she saw a rainbow, reminding me yet again to live in the moment.
And now that she’s eight years old, it’s time for me to crush her innate ability to live in “the here and now.“ Sorry darling! This is the age at which she learns to compartmentalize her life and divide up her day into set hours. It’s time to parse out her needs, her pleasures, and her pain according to the clock. There is no present, there is only what must be accomplished in the future, and what we did not successfully accomplish in the past. It’s time for her to learn to rush and multi-task. You’re in the rat race now, darling, so pick up the pace. Shout about the rainbow later.
Meanwhile, all the adults I know are trying to re-learn what she does instinctively. Simplify. Meditate. Live more with less. Be present. Stop and smell the roses. Unplug. While we’re amping up our kids so they’re ready for the modern world, we’re trying to reclaim our personal lives. It’s a schizophrenic life.
In our house, the hour between her waking up and going to school encapsulates this tension. We have our schedule perfected down to the minute. If everything falls into place, we all get what we want -- mother, father, and daughter. If we’re off by five minutes, plans start to unravel. My daughter Lily has always been good at articulating what she feels, better than me, in fact. And she’s quite right when she says, “It’s stupid to worry about five minutes.”
Here’s our schedule:
I wake up at 5:00 a.m.
I exercise until 6:15, and then wake up my wife Robin.
I make coffee and start making my lunch until 6:30. Robin checks the computer for the weather and any changes in the day’s plan.
We wake up Lily at 6:30. We used to have to go in, but now she emerges on her own, between 6:30 and 6:35.
Our goal is to leave the house at 7:35 to be at school by the first bell. All of us must accomplish a lot within that hour, between 6:35 and 7:35: Bathing, eating, brushing, planning, packing lunches and reiterating the plans for the day.
For Lily, she must eat breakfast, brush her teeth, put on her school clothes, and then sit down to get her long hair combed and braided. Depending on which day it is, there’s also a homework folder, or a letter for the office, a dance bag with a change of clothes or two snacks instead of one. All must fall into place by 7:35, on the nose.
If it’s done by 7:35, I can walk Lily to school, which is a pleasure for both of us. We can actually walk faster than the traffic on Laurel Canyon, and we get to enjoy the seasons. Walking with umbrellas in the rain is fantastic, and walking without a jacket in springtime makes her want to run. We can linger at a flower, or pet and scratch the neighbor’s dog, Sparky, who runs up to the fence to greet us. We can walk with neighbors, or Coach Marty, who lives two blocks down. Sometimes the sprinklers make rainbows, which is still her favorite.
If it’s 7:40, we have to drive, because we may not get to school in time. Even though school is only half a mile away, I must avoid crowded Laurel Canyon and sneak through residential streets. We still make it to school on time, but then we must join the tumbling rush of parents and kids jockeying for parking spots, and then a good position in the crowd so we can dash across the street before the crossing guard blocks us and makes us wait until the next light change.
If It’s 7:43, we are screwed, because there will be no parking spots left at school, and then life becomes tense. We’re tripping over tree roots as we run up the sidewalks, and then we haul ass across the playground to get her to her classroom before the second bell. Of course, all the rushing makes her tense, and when you’re tense you have to pee, so we make a mad dash to the bathroom first, which narrows the window of remaining time even more.
What a difference eight minutes make. 7:35 versus 7:43.
First bell at 7:55, second bell at 8:00 on the nose.
If we’re all ready at 7:35, then we live a blessed and balanced life where we can live in present with one another and notice the changing seasons and the world around us. Look! There’s a bird! She made a nest in our rain gutters! Isn’t life grand?
I can even afford to have a snooty attitude about the rushing parents yelling at their kids as they yank their arms and fling them across the street. But if we don’t leave the house until 7:43, I’m hunched over and frothing at the mouth like the rest of them.
Lily can tell time, but she doesn’t care that much about it. Why should she? She’s eight years old. I’ve tried to explain to her how important it is to be done at 7:35, and that 7:43 is bad, and she looks at me like I’m insane. And it IS insane. From the look on her face, she knows that I drank the Kool-Aid, and now she must drink it too.
I have to justify this collective madness we all share, which I am now forcing on her. I must reinforce the status quo. I decide that all this is good for her.
Kids must learn how to plan. They must have good “executive functioning,” which is identifying what needs to be done, creating a strategy, and following through on it.
Kids must also learn to persist at a task. You follow your schedule today like you did yesterday, until it becomes a habit you do without thinking. That’s persistence.
And when life throws a monkey wrench into the plan, you must be able to adapt, change the plan and still get it done.
Plan, persist, and adapt. That’s what she has to learn. It’s good for her.
I’m no expert; it all comes from the latest parenting book I’m reading -- How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, by Paul Tough. It’s a good book, you should read it.
Best of all, it helps me feel better and less guilty about torturing Lily every morning over the importance of eight stupid minutes.
Plan: She wants to walk to school. That’s the goal. So, we created a strategy. We made a chart together, which she can look at every morning. If she’s done eating at 7 a.m., she has ten minutes to brush her teeth and get dressed. If she’s back in her chair by 7:15, she can watch Hannah Montana on the iPad while her mom rebraids her hair, which takes ten to fifteen minutes. If she’s later than 7:15, there’s no iPad allowed, because we have to rush. It always takes five minutes to gather everything together, remember what’s happening that day, do final reminders, put on jackets and say goodbye. That means we’re walking out the door at 6:35 if we’re lucky. That’s planning.
Persist: She’s learning that if she gets out of bed every morning at the same time no matter how rough a night she had, and follows her schedule, she’ll get what she wants, and the more she does it, the easier it gets. That’s persistence.
Adapt: She’s learning that sometimes her amazing long hair is such a tangle that it takes her mother more than fifteen minutes to unknot it and braid it again, which changes everything. No matter how well she followed her steps, our plans could be dashed and she’ll have to adjust. That’s adapting to unforeseen change.
See! I’m a good parent! She will have grit and be a success in life, just like the book promises!
However, what I’m really doing is forcing her to change her entire outlook on life. She no longer lingers as she chooses her breakfast in the morning, deciding between her two favorites -- cheesy toast or Puffin Cereal. She picks fast, the plate slaps down and she glances at the clock as she chows down like a good little girl. You have fifteen minutes to eat, starting now. Obedient little drone. Watch the clock like your daddy does. See how he eats his yogurt over the sink before rushing into the shower? Be like him. Eat at your desk at work. Live by the clock, like the rest of the world. If you think ahead, you can beat the commute! Stop looking at that rainbow, this is important. And you better get good at it, because the world is just getting faster, faster, faster and faster.
I see her chewing and glancing at the clock, and she tenses up as she wonders if she’ll make it. She’s been awake less than twenty minutes and her world is now stressful. My heart breaks. No more early morning shouting about rainbows. Her mind is in the clock now, and I’m the one who put her there. Soon she’ll be just like me, dividing her entire day up into precise 15 minute increments, checking items off life’s list.
She’s still not sure why she’s doing it, it’s just what she’s happening in her life right now. Then again, I’m not sure why I’m doing it either. Oh my god, I just realized that I’m late. No more time for this, I have to go. I don’t have time for fucking rainbows.