It’s midwinter in Washington, and this year I was prepared. I was prepared for parents to start frantically making summer plans for their kids. And I was prepared to take no part in the frenzy. Nope, this year I would not panic over summer camps and activities six months away. Instead, I would take my cue from the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote: If you are eating an orange, just eat an orange. I would be mindful of what I was doing right now, rather than think about what would come next.
And, yet, in the past week, I found myself succumbing to the usual pressure. At first, it was just one slip. Rumor had it that the pool we wanted to join had a three-year waiting list, so I e-mailed to find out if we had any hope of becoming members. But then a friend mentioned a great gymnastics camp, and I thought I should see when it opened for registration. After all, I didn’t want my daughter to miss out. Oh, and a neighbor reminded me about sign-ups for T-ball . . . .
What was I doing? Certainly not just eating an orange.
It is all too easy for us as parents to join the race to nowhere. No doubt our intentions are good; we simply want the best for our kids, to give them a range of opportunities. But that comes with a cost: the loss of living in the moment.
As adults, we struggle to escape our never-ending to-do lists, our constant planning for the future and our replaying of past events. Becoming trapped in these concerns is a recipe for worry and anxiety and is, unsurprisingly, a common topic in self-help books. But kids don’t have this struggle; they live in the moment naturally. Watch a 5-year-old and you’ll see her engrossed in play, not making plans. Ask a 3-year-old what he did today, and he’ll focus instead on the caterpillar on the sidewalk. Talking about the past or future with children can feel like pulling teeth. Why should we try to make them?
When we focus on the future, we neglect being in the present with our children. Worse, we teach them not to savor the here and now.
Let me stop to say that, of course, planning is a necessary part of adulthood. And for most working parents, it is essential to find child care during summer (often in the form of camps). But we take it too far. Does it all really need to start in January? In other parts of the country, parents do not plan so many months ahead. Perhaps we Washingtonians need to step back, slow down and shift our attention to what we are doing with our children now, rather than on what they have to do next.
I keep learning this lesson the hard way. When my daughter was in preschool, her teacher suggested not asking, “What did you do in school today?” She cautioned that young children operate in the present, and that if you persist in asking them about their day, they will eventually say something just to please you. Her advice fell on my deaf ears, and one day I proudly told this teacher about my daughter’s response to my prodding: She loved dressing up as different instruments for the class singalong. The teacher responded gently that there were no instrument costumes and had been no class singalong. I was stunned. She had been right. My 3-year-old created this answer to satisfy me. Her reality was not in the past but in what was happening in the present.
So I caught myself recently when I asked my 6-year-old if she wanted to do gymnastics camp or art lessons this summer. My daughter ignored my question anyway, instead galloping around the house on an imaginary horse with her brother. Why was I forcing her out of this moment? What benefit would she gain?
My kids know how to just eat an orange. I do not. Perhaps I need to step back and learn from them.