Yesterday the bedtime routine was tough in our house.
I was tired, and short on patience. When I’m tired and short on patience my kids pick up on it, and they don’t, how do I put this nicely, act like their best selves.
To be fair, I wasn’t acting like my best self either. So we had that in common.
It was just one of those nights. You know the type. Despite your best intentions, you just can’t quite keep your cool the way you intend to. The day is too long and dinner is too chaotic and the laundry is threatening to topple over and bury you right there in your own bedroom.
We’ve all been there.
If, like me, you find yourself outnumbered by your children you have most definitely been there. You may fancy yourself a zen master but I dare you to maintain your zen after stepping on your 12th lego after a night of approximately, I dunno, ZERO SLEEP.
(If you haven’t been there no need to pipe up now, I’ll just assume you have access to a high grade tranquilizer and maybe a supply of kittens to keep you company, instead of small children).
Anyway, there we were, just me and three little humans that I managed to create despite the fact that I don’t know how to make a lasagna.
Everybody was upset, it was getting late, and my husband still wasn’t home from work.
My oldest son and I had already battled over pajamas and cleaning up the toys and yada yada yada whatever nonsense you battle over when one of you is overtired and in Kindergarten and the other of you is overtired and too old for this level of exertion.
At a certain point, the fighting died down. The bickering was on hold and everyone was getting ready for bed. And my 6 year old said to me, “When you’re mad at me you hate me.”
It was a question, the way he said it.
Lately whenever he’s being scolded for anything, or even redirected, he seems acutely sensitive to it in a way his younger self was not. He takes things personally.
I was like this as a kid, too. And as a kid, I remember needing a lot of reassurance from my parents, especially when they were mad at me.
So I get him.
“I never, ever hate you. Not when I’m mad at you. Never.”
He seemed to take this under consideration.
“You can be mad at someone or not like their behavior but that doesn’t mean you hate them. Ok?”
His body was easing up.
I stretched my arms out to show him how much I love him. I stretched them really wide.
“You’re forgetting something” he said.
He was pinching two fingers tightly together, pantomiming something for me.
I had no clue what he was showing me.
“What’s that you’re doing with your fingers?”
He moved his fingers up and down, pretending to tug on something.
And then it clicked.
“The invisible string?”
He nodded and smiled.
The invisible string.
A few weeks ago, we read a book together called “The Invisible String” by Patrice Karst, Illustrated by Geoff Stevenson. It’s a simple, sweet story about how we are never alone; we’re always connected to everyone that we love through a very special string. You can’t see it, but you can feel it in your heart.
The book was written to help calm a child who’s fearful of separation from a loved one. It was given to me by a friend when my mother died.
She thought it would be useful for my son as a way to understand that even though he can’t see his grandma, he’s still connected to her. The book does go into that territory – how we are always connected to everyone we love, even when they die.
The lesson my son took from the book was different than what I expected him to get out of it. I’d forgotten it even touched on the fact that we can still love one another when we’re mad.
But my son, he remembered this.
That’s the magic about good children’s literature (about all good literature really). It gives a person – in this case a very tired, overwhelmed, small person – a way to process a concept and work through an emotion.
It gives a kid another tool to understand his own life, and to be able to move through feelings that are uncomfortable. It gives parents that chance, too.
Teaching kids about emotions is huge work. It’s a lifetime of work. We are all still learning ourselves. Having literature to help us along this path is a gift.
It is infinitely valuable to read to our kids for many reasons, but this one has to be right at the top.
I gave my son a hug.
“That’s exactly it buddy. Exactly it.”
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