Parenthood: A Wild Rumpus

Illustration by Peter Brown from The Curious Garden

The little boy was wearing blue jeans with one thread-worn knee and a red rugby shirt. When his mother opened the door to the bookstore he raced straight back to the children’s section, pulled a couple of picture books off the shelf and flopped down on his belly.

The boy turned the pages of the brightly illustrated book with one hand and twirled a short brown curl around the index finger of his other hand. His breath slowed as he grew immersed in the story of seven siblings who were silly eaters.

As I straightened books in the nonfiction section I watched as he turned to the last page and then carefully put the book back on the shelf. Then, on his knees he made his way around the display, taking his time to examine each cover of the line of books. Head cocked, eyebrows raised, his interest was thoroughly piqued.

Seven Silly Eaters by Mary Ann Hoberman

One of the things I’ve always loved about working in a bookstore, especially a small independent one, is seeing kids come in with such excitement about searching for their next book. Seeing a child get bit by the reading bug it really is a glorious thing to behold.

On this particular day, after I’d finished shelving books I made my way up to the front counter. The boy was still in the back, now rocking back and forth on the old, beloved rocking dragon while trying to balance a book on the handles so he could read at the same time.

In The Night Kitchen by Maurice Sendak

The boy’s mother was leaning against the wall by the mystery section and seemed immersed in her own new book. A tiny elderly woman wearing a silver raincoat and matching hat made her way to the front counter and asked me to help her find a book for a baby shower. The bookstore cat was sleeping soundly in the in-box in front of the warm computer screen.

For a few minutes I’d forgotten about the little boy in the back of the store, but when I made my way back to the front counter his mother came up and called his name.

Where The Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak

The boy arrived, holding two books in his hands. He had the look of someone who had found a secret stash of gold. He leaned into his mother and whispered Can I get these? His mothered pulled him to the side and looked at the books. These aren’t right for you, she said. No, this one is too hard. And this one is for babies. You can’t get these.

The boy visibly wilted. He dropped his hands and held the books limply by his side. Looking at his hands he said, But they look so good. And then, Please? His mother wouldn’t change her mind. The boy went trudging back to the children’s section to look for something else.

Now, who knows what events preceded this bookstore visit, or how frustrating this woman’s day had or had not been, but my heart hurt for the little boy. I’d seen firsthand how much he had enjoyed those books. I saw how they had captured his imagination. I also felt for his mother. How many times had my kids brought me something in a store that I simply didn’t want to buy because it seemed, well, stupid to me at the moment? Many times.

I started thinking about how often I’d shut my kids down. And how often I’d made snap judgements about their choices without considering how much thought and energy they’d put into making those choices.

Had I given my children the withering look of parental impatience at times? Yes. Had these looks make them feel unworthy? I believe so.

Parenting is hard. It is really fucking hard. And no one gets it just right. There is no magic formula for growing the best kid, and with the exception of a few really lame people, most parents put a lot of heart and effort into their children.

But watching that interaction really showed me that I need to keep checking myself. I need to listen to how I talk to my kids. I need to be cognizant of what my reactions are telling my kids about their worth. Because even when I am having a crap day, they are still worthy, and I want them to feel their worth and carry it with them always.

55 thoughts on “Parenthood: A Wild Rumpus

  1. Having been a reading specialist with primary children for 25 years, this broke my heart. Jennifer, you write beautifully with rich detail. I will remember this piece for a long time. And maybe next time his mother will be more sensitive. Hope the boy keeps the reading bug always!

    • Hi Marion, I sure hope he will always, always love reading, too. And I hope his mom was just having one of those days. It was a good reminder to me to keep trying to do better. Sending you love.

  2. Yes. Just, yes. Thanks for the reminder that I really mean it when I say, “They are their own people.” And I say that a lot. But I hope I mean it nearly as often as I say it.

    • Nicole, That’s a good thing to think about–it won’t be long until they are independent & if we squash who they are, who will they be?

      Thank you so much for reading! :)

  3. Your words are so true. A mother’s reaction and comments to her kids can have so much impact. And if she’s having a crappy day and she passes that along to her children, it causes a chain reaction. So much pressure for us, as mothers, to really be aware of our words and reactions ALL THE TIME. We are not just raising children, we are helping to show they are valuable and worthy.

    • Thank you do much for reading and commenting, Pipi. I noticed my oldest modeling a very familiar impatient tone with the littlest and realized it was pure me I was hearing. You are so right about the cycle. Must. Break. It. Somehow!

  4. As always you have such a way with words! I love reading and Hubs hates it so hopefully Bugs reading bug will stick! Thanks for helping to me to realize that each child will have their own opinions and each need to be valued and treasured. also – you’re an awesome role model ;) keep up the good work!

    • Bri, As long as one parent loves reading and you keep lots of books around for Bugs to look at she’ll probably love books, too. Thanks for your sweet comment–I am just trying the best I can, one day at a time. XO

  5. Having a crappy day thinking about Ric ! No I’m thinking about the times I withered my kids…….
    too late !

    I hope they always remember how much I love and trust and care about them??

    Love, Aunt Edee

    • Hi sweet Aunt Edee,

      You never withered me, and your kids are pretty damn great. And you know, it’s never, ever too late.

      Sending you love & many prayers for Ric’s recovery.


  6. This was such a beautiful entry!

    With El, there is a huge disparity with the types of books she reads – she still wants to keep all those “baby” picture books, but she reads older kid series books too. I had thought about donating the picture books until I realized that she had been drawing in her room – using those “baby books” as a template. So whereas I thought her imagination/reading ability was “stunted” by these oh-too-easy readers, she was using them as a springboard for more creativity. If she has a Shel Silverstein book out, she has some similar drawings on her clipboard. We now have Peanuts and Warrior Cats drawings too…Sometimes what we as parents see as “too young” or “too old” for our kids, isn’t as it appears :)

    Now to find room for all those books – ha!

    • Audrey, That is a very cool discovery about El’s drawings! I would love to see some one of these days (over a glass of wine). I have a really vivid memory of reading and rereading all of the All Of A Kind Family (by Sydney Taylor) books as a kid. I read them even though they were easy for me because they were a comfort and I was fascinated by the setting, characters & the small illustrations. Check out Andrea’s comment–she’s a friend & my kids’ school librarian. She makes a really good point about those picture books.

      And yeah, the space for the books…! Our house is strewn with them. Oh well :)

  7. Loved this post. I also love and loved bookstores as a kid and adult. I remember that feeling too- and just as I was getting ready to reply my 3 yo asked me to pick him up and twirl him up to the fan, to which I had to laugh as I didn’t just say ‘NO, why would I do that’..but instead thought of your words and made him laugh back. I will really try to keep this in my memory bank.

    • Well done, Farrah! I’m such a stick in the mud sometimes & I realized reading your comment that it takes just as much energy to say no all the time as it does to just tickle your kid or wrestle or what have you. Thank you for that reminder! XO

  8. I think one of the most difficult lessons to learn as a parent is the fact that our little ones mirror everything we do, for good or for bad. When your little one starts acting out in frustration for whatever reason, and you see yourself, that’s a reality check!

    • Hi Shoshana, Oh my goodness, sometimes I’ll hear something I say come out of my daughter’s mouth verbatim and it stops me dead in my tracks. You are right: reality check, big time! Even unspoken stuff–rolling the eyes or hand on the hip. It’s a minefield :)

      Thanks so much for reading & commenting!

  9. You are doing fine as a parent, your blog proves it. But you missed the point of the bookstore/parent lesson. That woman was the archetypical “every-parent” who kills the joy of reading. I see this everyday. Parent AND teachers who say to children, “that is the wrong book. It is too hard, or too easy, or too immature, or too something.” I noticed all the books your little customer was attracted to were filled with great art. Picture books are a gold mine for all ages. That is the blog you could write and post in the independent bookstore. We live in the golden age of picture books and if parents are not buying them, they should checking out loads of them from the library and encouraging their children to do the same. Special bookstands should be for sale that display picture books open so the lovely art within the pages can be admired when the book is not in reader’s hands. And they should be read by people of all ages for many contain fantastic art and poignant or simple stories.

    Re-write. And tell me the tattoo maniac is out of business and his nasty hands can no longer touch the public.

    • Miss Andrea! I love this comment. And you are SO right about picture books. Parents of school aged kids are so afraid to buy their kids picture books for fear that they aren’t getting enough reading practice. I love the art, too, so I keep buying them for my kids (and it helps to have a 2 yo in the house). I notice that my kids will spend much more time reading picture books than they will YA books. That’s why I love Mercy Watson and the beginning readers that are accessible to kids who are just becoming fluent–the reading level is just right and the artwork is great.

      Why don’t you be a guest on my blog and write about this very subject? I’d love to host you!

      • ummm, guest? Doesn’t that mean just replying longer? Would love to elaborate… hope for a snow day tomorrow and I’ll ramble and jamble on about picture books…

        I have much to say about most of the topic you write on. Keep going, star!

  10. I was always so glad that my son was a reader that I never said no to books unless they were adult books. So he started secretly reading my books.
    That taught me a lesson. There was way more stuff in my books that I would not have had him read, then there was in the ones he wanted. So I didn’t say no anymore (unless I thought that it would have sex in it).

    But it’s always a learning process. We make so many mistakes with our children, and yet, if we love on them everyday, they are resilient enough to overcome our mistakes….and be the people that they are meant to be. (They learn from our mistakes, too. That can be a very good thing.) This is why there is no such thing as a Parenting Handbook. We are individuals just as they are, and the growing up process is for ALL of us.

    • Beautifully said, Jo! And you are so right about the growing up process being for both parents and children. It is humbling, but in a good way.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts about kids reading more mature books. I often get parents coming into the bookstore with kids who are excellent readers, who have read all the YA books and are ready for something more challenging (but not necessarily more mature in nature). There must be a list of books that are good for bridging that gap, right?

  11. This is a great reminder to step back and watch how we’re acting and listen to how we’re talking. We can shoot our children down without even realizing it. I am definitely going to be more aware of things now.

    • Hi Kimberly, Thanks so much for reading! It’s the unspoken stuff that I’m really trying to work on. The other day my daughter asked me why I was so angry (and I wasn’t, actually, just tired). It made me think about what I’m communicating to my kids without even thinking about it. The work never ends! :)

  12. I just had a fight with Karly. My first real one ever. (She’s twelve in a half so I consider this a miracle, but still. It sucked.) Especially since it was about what she should wear to a birthday party.

    Without making the story a long one, I am cold and she is hot. (Temperature-wise.) It is in the 50’s here (chilly for California, for an evening party) and I wanted her to wear jeans and a long-sleeved shirt. She wanted shorts and short-sleeves.

    We fought. Mostly because I felt that I, as her mother, would seem ridiculous for letting her wear shorts.

    She said, “Why do you care? They are MY clothes?”

    She wasn’t dressing trampy. Or disrespectfully. Just what her internal thermometer was telling her would make her most comfortable. And I wouldn’t trust her. I eventually let her change into what she’d chosen (making her take a sweatshirt justincase); but by then, she said she felt guilty and didn’t want me to be upset.

    So. Nobody really won. And I don’t know if I did the right thing. I am convinced she will be cold. Either way, I took away some of her joy today.

    DAMN. I sometimes wish I were one of those lame parents who don’t care.
    (But not really. Still.)

    • Julie, I’m so sorry that you had your first fight with Karly. That must’ve felt like very strange, scary and uncomfortable territory. Hopefully the take-away for Karly was: I am loved and cared about even if it’s not something I agree with. And: If I just always carry a sweatshirt my mom will be chill (no pun intended).

      Aside: I, too, have a real issue with the thought of my kids being cold. Ruby is always a little furnace. She humors me and puts her jacket on when she goes outside, but always, always takes it off as soon as she gets on the school bus. And she always gets off the school bus with her jacket stuffed into her backpack & it really kills me. Every day.

      We’re pretty much screwed either way. But darn it, our kids know we love them!

  13. This is interesting, because part of me strongly believes that parents today don’t say ‘no’ nearly enough to kids. So initially I was in agreement with the mom. But we have a lot of rules in our house and only a couple of exceptions.
    1) We never say no if they want fruit. If they’ve been gorging all day and we think they’ve had too much, but want a piece of fruit, they always get it.
    2) Usually anything book related we say yes to – unless its another star wars book. But a real book with a real story, they win.
    Great post, very well written.

    • Richard, When I’m in ToysRUs or Target I completely agree with you. Kids begging for more junk? Not so much. (Although in a pinch I will get the 2 yo a $2 Matchbox car so I can have 15 minutes of peace.) And I wouldn’t have disagreed with the mother saying in a respectful way something like, “Hey kiddo, we’re just here to look today. We have books for you to read at home.” Kids need to know how to deal with being told no, absolutely. What I was reminded of was how I talk to my kids. Am I making them feel stupid? Am I being brusque because I’m tired, etc.?
      p.s. I love your exception #1. Smart. And, have you seen this book?

  14. I can’t believe I picked this to read tonight. I had such a crappy day today and tried not to take it out on my kids. Some days it just takes a lot to get through the day . But now it is over and tomorrow is another day…thanks for sharing your story.

    • Paula, There is always another day and heck, we are human. Parents make mistakes, that’s just how it goes. I think as long as we are always trying to do a little better every day the end result will be good, you know? I’m sorry you had a crappy day yesterday and hope that today was a lot better!

  15. My heart was breaking as I was reading. I am with you, as a mom I sometimes forget that my 2-year old’s points really are valid….to them…. This especially broke my heart because it was about books. It’s one of the things I pride myself in as a teacher especially….my room full of 7 and 8 year olds can read WHATEVER they want! If it’s too hard, they know enough to put it back and wait until later in the year. How will they grow to love reading if we limit them?

    • There is no one who believes his points are more valid than a 2 y.o.! Mine is so passionate about what he feels.

      Your students are very lucky to have you. It sounds like you create a wonderful teaching environment.

      Thank you so much for visiting!

  16. Absolutely heart wrentching! You painted a very detailed picture for me and when the Mom refused the books my heart dropped! I hope when it comes to books that I can always say yes or let me find it on Amazon. I always try to buy one book for Little Man whenever I want something from the book store, gotta make it fair. I only refuse toys because I know Little Man doesn’t play with them as much as he wants them. I am a book collector and had a bookshelf full of kid books before I ever had a kid and now I get to watch Little Man look at books and read, which is less often than I would like. Lets hope the mom did not break his readers spirit. BTW Where the Wild Things Are is the best book ever! I made my son a Max costume :)

    • Thanks so much for stopping by and reading! It was a painful scene to watch, but a good parenting reminder: pause & think before I say no to something. I love Where the Wild Things Are, too. Sendak’s artwork is just magical. I bet that Max costume was amazing. :)

  17. So damn true. We just redecorated my 9 year old’s room. At first I was driving the ideas – she would say “what about purple and yellow and blue and black all together” and I’d be like “you don’t really want all of those about something more muted?” And I could see the deflated look on her face. ..and decided it was just paint and it was her room..and I let her do the whole design and seriously she did a better job than I ever could do. From now on – my kids are pretty much in charge. ;)

    • Tracy, Key words being “pretty much” :) I’m shooting for that, too. I have a really hard time with my daughter’s clothing choices sometimes (not that they are inappropriate, they are just kind of dorky now & then). That deflated look gets me every time!

  18. Okay, wait. You work in a bookstore? You keep getting more freaking perfect every day.

    And about the situation, yeah, it stinks. And yeah, we’ve all been there at some time – not thinking about the *whole* impact of our words. Hopefully there are plenty of moments in which the little boy gets to explore the joy of books without boundaries. It seems like he’s been encouraged in a love of books at least a good amount of the time.

    Thanks for the reminder that we should watch our diction and syntax in the face of hope and desire.

  19. So glad you shared this story. It is definitely a reminder that I need, too often I am moving quickly and my reactions aren’t encouraging enough. It is so important for our kids to make choices and take pride in themselves. Thank you.

    • Leighann, That is what I fear the most–that I will make them turn away if I don’t keep an open heart & open mind. I have to keep reminding myself to do better. :) Thank you so much for reading!

  20. These images are so well captured – it’s really cool that although we’ve never met I can imagine your voice as if you were telling each and every one of your blog posts over whatever we would be drinking (wine).

    I say “no” and “don’t” a lot. Shaping the little bonsai’s, bending the branches not breaking them is something that we always try to consider, my co-parent and I. But withering? I fear I’d never thought of that – and now that I have, I feel better armed not to let it happen, too often, again.

    Thank you for a thought provoking post.

    • Hi Mel, Thank you so much for your sweet words. I like the image of child as bonsai. We’ve got to be careful not to trim them back too far lest they stop growing, right?

      I so appreciate your company here :)

  21. Just wanted to let you know- I was at the library tonight with my kids and my 4 year old picked out a book meant for the 2 and under crowd (a Pat the Bunny style touch and feel book). I immediately thought of this post and we checked the book out. She loves to touch the different textures, and them compare them to the different textures in her room. Compare and contrast- that’s learning too right? Who says books have to teach reading.

    • Way to go, girl! That’s the way to do it. There’s a really cool book that the NYTimes gave a glowing review and it’s mostly textures and braille (the title is escaping me at the moment). It’s meant to be enjoyed by everyone. Thanks for sharing!

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