Here in Oregon, spring is in full swing, green things cropping up daily. My daughter loves to pick anything that even closely resembles a flower. Dandelions are a favorite, particularly the fully matured kind. When she picks them, she blows the white fuzz with her determined lips pursed. Like many children, she wishes (out loud). And when she wishes, she always says the same thing: I wish that we will always be able to find a solution.
It kind of makes me weepy. Every single time.
Let me explain. Before there were “solutions” in our life, there were “reasons.” This started last year, while I was talking to my composition students about active listening - in families and in academics. A student shared that when she was growing up, her dad always asked her to give 3 good reasons when she wanted to do something. I doubt that this particular student has any idea that I remember her comment so clearly. But I do because I quickly adopted that idea with my five year old daughter. We have used it in the last year in endless circumstances. When she wants to do something, or when she is unhappy with my choices.
What I’ve done slightly differently is made sure to share my reasons too. We talk about both of our reasons. Normally this means that when my daughter’s reasons aren’t very strong, I don’t even have to tell her no. Sometimes she will sniffle a little and say, “Your reasons are better than mine!” - as if God was unfair in giving me better reasons. Still, that’s the end of the conversation about whether or not she should have, say, two chocolate bars before bed.
Somehow in all the reasons, something changed. It stopped becoming about who got to make the choice, but about what solution we could come up with that could speak to both of our needs/desires deeply.
Here’s an example: She wants to take her (decapitated) pacifier to a play-date just in case she encounters something that is too scary for her. (She likes to rub it in her fingers to self soothe.) I don’t want her to. We talk about the reasons. She tells me that she wants to bring it so she’ll feel brave and courageous and like she’ll have a way to calm down if anyone is mean to her. I struggle. But, I tell her my reasons: 1) I worry she will lose her pacifier. 2) I worry that other people will think I’m a bad mother because she has a pacifier and she is 5.
I’ll admit, I cried the tiniest amount when I had to admit to my child that I wanted her to not take her pacifier because it would make me look bad. But something really beautiful happened. When I said to her, “It isn’t a very good reason. It isn’t important,” she looked me in the eye and said, “It’s important to me Mommy.”
In the end, she suggested she tie her pacifier around a string and hang it underneath her clothes. She ended up not needing it. And I hope that what the solution meant was that we both honored each other.
This is what we mean by a “solution” in our house. It isn’t a compromise in the sense that both people meet half-way, but it’s a compromise in the sense that we are as honest as we can be (with ourselves and each other) about deep desires. We make a solution that meets those deep needs, rather than that just addresses what we say we want on the surface. I imagine many of your families do the same thing.
Often times that means that I “lose,” that is that what I as the parent originally said no or yes to doesn’t happen. But at the same time, I don’t really think I’m losing.
Is this abdicating parental authority? Is authority about having the right to say yes or no and get one’s way? Or is authority more like steering a boat on a powerful river? I feel as a parent I am - at best - a rudder. I drag us in one way or another, but nothing keeps the powerful current totally at bay.
In The Brothers Karamazov, there is a powerful series of events when Alyosha has a transformative experience. When Father Zossima dies and people are questioning whether or not he is a saint because his body starts to decay after death, his disciple Alyosha is shaken. Badly shaken. But then Alyosha experiences something profound. He is lead to the home of a loose woman by a devious village chap who thinks he is going to corrupt him. Alyosha ends up calling her sister - and she calls him brother. It is after this that Alyosha falls to the ground in a moment of rapture, feeling he is connected to the universe, part of the stars and the dirt and the trees. It’s a really moving moment in the novel - and one that I think gets to the heart of a lot of Dostoevsky’s ideas. It is in becoming human (not divine) that we experience rapture and truth and a connection with the universe. It is in our mutual humanity that we find that imperfection - the imperfection out of which beauty flows.