Here is a story I tell about my son, Emmett, and our time together when he was little. I make presentations to mothers of young children whenever I can to encourage them to engage with their children despite the distractions of life, because it is the only way to build a relationship that will last a lifetime.
Emmett is two, at the time, my only child, and we are snuggled together in his bed reading a book at naptime. As I turn the last page and close the cover he says, “Again.”
I glance at the clock and see we really have all day, nothing pressing about getting to the nap urgently as we’ve started a little early and there’s time to spare.
“Okay,”I say, and we start the book over again. And just as he’d done the first time, as I turn the last page and close the cover he says, “Again.”
Wonder why, I asked myself. Maybe he wants to connect the pictures with the words. So we start again. Why not? Is there anything wrong with reading a book three times? And, as he’d done the first two times, as I turn the last page and close the cover he says, “Again.”
Maybe he wants to hear the story so he can memorize it, I think to myself.
I believe kids should have this kind of power for at least a zlittle bit of their day, because I do read it again. And because for whatever reason, some reason unknown to me, my child wants to read the book again. It could be because he wants to see if I’ll do what he wants, and in this case, of course, what could be wrong with reading a book ten times? He learns that he has that power over me to get me to do cool things for him. And isn’t that what I want? For him to grasp what my role in his life can be? Maybe he wants to hear a couple of those words over and over again because he is not clear on what they mean. Maybe he likes the sound of my voice because it’s soothing and he’s having a bad day. There are a million reasons why he might want me to read that book ten times in a row.
We do read it ten times, and I think along the way that he is testing me. Testing to see what the limit is to what I will do for him. He doesn’t know it but the limit is one hour, then I have to get back to my other jobs, and the limit is only things that are safe, and only things we can do from his bed because it is naptime. But he doesn’t test any of those. What he learns from me is that during that time I’ve spontaneously assigned as part of my one hour to him, he can get me to read the book over and over. He learns that I sometimes am willing to hand him some of the power in our relationship.
A year later Emmett is sitting at the kitchen table when I arrive back downstairs from putting the new baby down for a nap. I glance in the hall mirror on my way into the kitchen, adjusting my hair behind my ears. My hand gets caught in a mat of dried rice cereal deposited when the baby was pulling it earlier in the day. I have on only one earring too, as he’d been yanking on those as well. Emmett has set out the familiar Playmobil toys we’ve been using lately during our time together, and they are gathered on the table waiting for us. Under his arm is Byes, his stuffed elephant that goes everywhere with him, and Emmett, now three, is sucking his thumb.
Every day when Andrew, the baby, goes down for his nap, Emmett knows I will play with him. Sometimes it’s stories or crafts but lately it has been an ongoing story acted out with toys.
“I’m gonna be Rhino again, Mom.”
Rhino is a Hot Wheels car the front half of which has the head of a rhinoceros complete with white tusk, and is unusually well suited for bashing things. The fact that the Playmobil set is a covered wagon and horses, with a bearded father figure holding a whip, a bonneted mother holding a pink bundle of baby, and a boy we’d named Zeke who shoulders a plastic rifle while sitting high up on the wagon seat, doesn’t really matter. Rhino is a character we introduced once we’d run through a few week’s worth of wagon train stories and needed a little pick-me-up. He is just the thing to spice up life as our pioneer family crosses the high plains.
I take a chair next to Emmett and together we start assembling the little pieces, fitting the baby into the mother’s arms, and snapping the whip into Jedediah’s hands. Initially, months ago when the story began, I entertained myself by suggesting the name Jedediah for the father, negotiating with Emmett his option of naming all the other characters.
Next to us on the floor of the kitchen are two huge baskets of laundry, cleaned, dried and standing ready for folding which I know won’t be very soon, and possibly not even for days. The lunch dishes are sitting on the counter as are some breakfast ones, since I’d had to run out rather hurriedly in the morning to grocery shop and some of those were even still piled around the kitchen. As soon as we’d gotten home, we’d had lunch, I nursed the baby and got him down for a nap and now it was Emmett’s hour alone with me.
It is tempting to consider the need to put away groceries, (at least the perishables had gotten to the fridge), pick up dishes and fold laundry while we play, but Emmett would know I have divided attention, and I won’t stand for it. My message to him is that I care about him and cherish this time together. What good is it to say it, if I don’t really do it? Stuff can wait. Nap time is brief, and anyway, Jedediah has taken on the challenge yesterday of agreeing to a race with Rhino, and today is the day it is to take place. Both Emmett and I know this and we’ve both been waiting for Andrew, baby with more energy than two, to get to sleep so we can play.
“Mom, you get the wagon ready because Rhino has to get gas.”
“Oh, don’t worry, Jed and the family have a secret. We’re going to win this race.”
“Mom…Rhino has a secret too.”
“Okay, we’ll see.”
And so it goes for an hour. As we prepare our vehicles I notice a fresh bright yellow stain on my blouse as I lean into my stomach snapping back on the plastic cover from the wagon, which had come off in a tussle yesterday. Andrew is primarily breastfed still and his sometime’s explosive diapers leak onto my clothing. I try not to notice it while thinking up a ‘secret’ Jed can have to win the race against a gas-powered rhinoceros car. Emmett is pushing Rhino around the kitchen table in large circles, warming up for the high plains challenge.