Breaking the Jar
A man raised a baby swan in a glass jar, but as the bird grew it became stuck in the jar. The man was caught now because the only way to free the thing, was to break the jar, killing the swan.
– Zen saying, retold in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening
How easy is it to keep our children in a glass jar as we watch them grow (thankfully, death is rarely the outcome!). In an effort to love and protect and nurture them, are we inadvertently constraining them or keeping them confined to our own hopes and wishes? What happens when we hold them inside our expectations only to find when they grow, those expectations have to be broken and sometimes, there are some collateral injuries.
Helping our kids grow… that’s our job, right? But how are our own feelings and expectations tied to that process and those aspirations? How might they hold our kids back or give children the message that they need to please us? Ouch. Who wants to live bound by someone else’s expectations? How can one flourish under those circumstances?
Don’t get me wrong – boundaries and modeling are important, as are clear and logical consequences. But kids often know how to explore and do so with abundance and joy when not constrained by external reward or demands. And sometimes they grow in ways we cannot or did not anticipate.
- A friend lamented that her toddler peed five times at daycare, “Oh, but...” why not at home? It’s a step in the right direction. Toilet training will come soon. Maybe not by 2 and a half years, but definitely by adolescence.
- An eager parent of a first grader had been worried about her son’s (perceived lack of) reading . We’d talked often about how his skills were growing, but his confidence lagged a bit. By year’s end, he was reading. Constantly. Mom reluctantly confessed her true feelings, “Oh, but…” He was reading Captain Underpants. One of the most important things for new readers (and experienced readers) can do is self-selected books that stir some passion. Captain Underpants appeals to seven-year olds; it keeps them with a book in hand. It’s not high quality literature by many standards, but it is reading.
- My own child has required support and structure to stay organized, complete tasks, persist when work is challenging. As the year wraps up, he is doing nearly all of his work independently. I’ m happy for him. I’m relieved for both of us. I’m gratetful to the teachers who have challenged and supported him. “Oh, but…” I miss the time we spent together (even if it could be tense) working together after school. Being nearly 13, he’s not substituting our homework time with heart-to-heart chats. He’s skateboarding, having broken free of the expectation I held that he needed me to do these things with him.
We spend weeks modeling and practicing rules and guidelines in school. I tell my kids that my goal at this point in the year it to make sure they can do many parts of my job. Selfishly, that allows me do other things, but they can now do things I have done for and with them. I tell them,”You’re really ready for next year. I can let go of some of these things and turn my energy to something else.” Examples of the work I turn over are: selecting Morning Meeting greeting, checking portions of homework with a peer, doing errands further from our classroom, making choices about what to do in room without me listing choices. By turning over the reins, I’m empowering them, but part of me wants to say, “Oh, but…” and offer another way to do things. But I can’t, because it’s part of the letting go and seeing how they handle this next step.
We want our kids to do well with the challenges in front of them. It needs to happen sequentially, with scaffolding and support from adults who care, who know them well (and know child development well) and who have faith in individual children. Our job as adults is to help children grow into responsible, thoughtful, caring adults who know their passions and skills and understand how to use them to make the best of life.
Often we see them making progress toward goals or growing in small, incremental steps. But we hear that voice in our heads saying, “Oh, but …” Or perhaps that voice is quietly reminding us that they need us just a bit less, or at least, not in the same ways. And that can make us wish for a glass jar.
But life can’t be lived in a glass jar. We must be reaching and growing. We cannot always being wedded to a particular outcome. Embracing where they/we are and continuing to move forward is a gift to ourselves and our children.
As the school year comes to a close, we’re thinking about where we started and where we are now. We all had expectations for our children, as we will each year, each semester, each year. If we’ve done our best being a guide, a coach, a mentor, and we’ve looked honestly at their skills and how we can help grow those skills in developmentally appropriate and responsive ways, then there will be progress. “Oh, but…” it just might not be the progress you expected.
It might be the kind of progress that makes you say, “Oh, but…” Oh, but… don’t say it. Don’t think it. Remember the important thing is to see ourselves and our children for the strong, capable and powerful person we/ they are and to applaud that growth without holding them in that glass jar.