December 18, 2012 § 11 Comments
Both mornings this past weekend I was up by 5, slipping downstairs with as much quiet as I was able to muster (which, according to Penny, is not any too much) to light the fire and make coffee. It takes a while to boil water on a wood stove, and to be honest I’m occasionally tempted to sidle out the porch where our summer kitchen resides and where blue flames leap at my command, as if I’d simply wished them into being. But patience is a virtue I am very much lacking, and I am as yet young enough and optimistic enough to believe I might still learn it, so most mornings I resist the quick and dirty technique, and instead pull a chair up to the open firebox door of the wood stove and wait. It’s not so bad, really, sitting by a fire in an otherwise darkened kitchen with my family only a half-dozen or so feet above me, drooling into their pillows and (I tell myself) dreaming of how much they love me. There is something pleasingly patriarchal about it, and in my weaker moments I am able to fool myself into believing that my early morning activities are strictly altruistic in nature – warm the family, protect them in the darkest hour – when in reality, I simply woke up early and wanted a goddam cup of coffee.
It was a fine weekend, passed largely in the out-of-doors. On Saturday, all four of us gathered around an impromptu set of sawhorses devised of the tractors pallet forks, making what will be by far our most extravagant holiday gift, a @(#*%*F)@_*^. With the exception of intermittently flaring tempers and hurled curses, the boys were in a solicitous mood, intent on being productive members of our @(#*%*F)@_*^ production team. As for myself, I remained mindful of my still-fragile patience and therefore maintained a considerable degree of equanimity in the face of their occasional fumbling.
Truth be told, both boys are reaching a level of competence that equates to actual, honest-to-goodness help. As their parent, I can’t help but find satisfaction in their evolving capacity to wield tools and devise all manner of toys and implements. They are forever building things: Trebuchets, slingshots, props for magic shows (the guillotine, complete with our largest and sharpest kitchen knife, was a tad alarming), complicated farming machines modeled after the life size versions residing on the neighboring farms. Every so often, I get wound up about the quantity of fasteners they use (have you priced nails lately?), or the piles of scraps left in their wake, or their constant clamoring for supervision so they can use a power tool. “Papa, will you come to the basement for a minute?” is generally how these requests are framed. Of course, it’s always a lot longer than a minute. And of course, it’s almost always time I can spare, even when I think I can’t. Even when I say I can’t.
So yeah, it’s gratifying to watch their skills grow and expand. Hell, any parent can relate to that. But as I’ve mentioned before, there are times I worry that by choosing to educate them at home, and by choosing to surround them with a particular set of opportunities to learn a particular set of skills, we are defining them. Furthermore, could it be that my satisfaction in their abilities is really just a projection of the skills I value, the ones I wish I’d been exposed to at their age? Yeah, I think that could be, at least in part.
I have argued before that learning in one area is not mutually exclusive to learning in another, and I believe that to be true. Still, the reality is that a child’s day – just like an adult’s day – is comprised of only so many hours, and time spent learning one thing is by default time not spent learning another. That’s ok; we’re not infinite sponges, able to soak up anything and everything to which we’re exposed. But it does remind me to remain keenly aware of how my boys are spending their time. Of how I’m spending my time.
In short, this is what I hope for my children: That they’ll be able to translate the specific to the general. In other words, that the process of learning is what sticks with them, that all the friggin’ trebuchets and bows and arrows and hay wagons and so on that I’m always buying nails for and tripping over and cleaning up after embody only one particular aspect of their construction. And that the other aspects – the scheming, imagining, designing, persistence, the inevitable acceptance of failures – will be around long after the wood and nails have rotted into the ground. If I’m really lucky, I’ll get to see if actually works out like this. I’ll just have to be patient.