One of my favorite stories to tell about life as a parent took place last March. I just got back from my longest business trip ever and was so excited to see the girls. Unfortunately, with everything going on with the trip, I never bought them a gift. I tried to find them something in Austin just before I returned home, but nothing struck me. I officially failed the easiest test of fatherhood: “when you go somewhere for a long time, buy something for the kids!” So as I approached the door and saw all the signs they made in honor of my return, I felt even worse. Of course, the girls never asked for a gift. They were so happy to see me that it didn’t make a difference. Now normally, that’s where the story ends. Personal connection wins out over materials goods. Dad is happy Girls are happy. Feel good story of the year, right? But there was an entertaining twist that I’ll likely never forget (nor will many of my friends let me forget)…
As I was upstairs unpacking, the girls were hanging around me and they were sharing stories about everything I missed. As I got to the bottom of my suitcase, I spotted a couple of bars of soap that I grabbed at the hotel at my first stop in NYC. These were no ordinary bars of soap–they were green and shaped like leaves. I grabbed them, thinking the girls might like them, but not really thinking much of them. After all, they were these free rinky-dink pieces of soap. Well, once I handed the soap to the girls, you’d have thought it was Christmas morning. Robyn sprints out of the room “MOMMY!!! LOOK!!! Daddy got us leaf soap!!!” Meanwhile, Iris looked at me and, with sheer delight, says “Daddy, can I open this now. I want to wash my hands with the soap and pretend I am using a leaf to get my hands clean.” I had never seen anyone so giddy about cleanliness. Now when I tell the story, people love to poke fun at the father that is such cheapskate that he wows his kids with free soap. But every time I tell the story, I’m beaming with pride. It wasn’t fancy. It wasn’t expensive. It didn’t have Dora on it. But they didn’t care. These girls have the ability to make their own fun and that makes me love the present and incredibly hopeful for the future.
The resourcefulness that these girls possess is awesome. I can’t ever remember Iris or Robyn ever describing themselves as bored. They take whatever situation is given to them and make a game/activity/project out of it. They aren’t looking to be entertained (while Robyn loves when we read to her, I also know that the minute she learns how to read, we’re history just like we are with Iris and her Nancy Drew books). They find their own entertainment. We’re not shutting them off to the outside influences. After all, they’re not strangers to the iPad and I’ve introduced them to my old friends Bugs, Woody, and Chilly Willy in the past year. But frankly, wherever we are, they’d be fine with a crayon (preferably multiple colors) and a blank sheet of paper. They’ll draw landscapes, characters, or maybe just a picture of the family. Iris will randomly make up games or ask us to give her math problems, while Robyn will spontaneously break out into song. And it really is all part of the plan.
I don’t like being preachy about this stuff, because I almost feel like I’m in the middle of an experiment. Cherise and I believe self-reliance for creativity removes constraints, lower dependence and expectations on others, and increases the ability to make your own fun. This idea didn’t necessarily come from my own childhood (I was a latch-key kid who lived off TV and circumstances dictated that). Still, an incident I had several years ago when I spoke to a high school class in Seattle about engineering had a tremendous impact on me. I tried this set of students excited about getting into engineering, but they were completely uninterested until I should them one of the gadgets Microsoft was working on. Suddenly, they were locked in but I didn’t pique their interest in engineering. They just wanted to know the price. They were terrific consumers, but they had no interest in actually building this stuff. Not to knock a bunch of innocent high school students, but it was as if the creativity had been marketed out of them by the consumer culture. I couldn’t stand the idea of that happening to my kids. It’s less about what Iris and Robyn want to do with their lives and more important that they try to make their unique mark, but that takes tapping into imagination. And I’m trying to do what I can bring that out as early as possible, even if the means aren’t traditional.
I try to take every opportunity to make this real. While Iris + Robyn love to read bedtime stories, we’ve started to make up our own and I ask the girls for help. We’ve invented several characters (including the stars “Kitty Ballerina”, “Puppy Princess”, and “Clara Mouse”–all the creation of Iris and Robyn) and evolved the storyline to continually include new adventures–a lot of which reflect the adventures of that given day. So when the girls to the zoo that morning, we tell a story with the characters going to the zoo and mix fact and fiction to create their own story. I’ll provide the framework for the story, but they’ll chime in or suggest the key events. And when the two of them do it together, they end up entertaining one another with twists and turns. I’m not saying the folks at Nick Jr. should beware, but by taking ownership and using their imaginations, I feel like we’re cultivating a valuable skill and (I can’t lie) enabling something I find incredibly entertaining.
When I was thinking about writing this blog post, I spotted something that has become one of my favorite items in the house. Apparently, Iris had played pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey at a party and thought it was fun. So she wanted to do it at home with Cherise and Robyn. Rather than asking mommy to buy it for her, she made one herself. But instead of pinning the tail on a donkey (“why would a donkey be missing a tail”), she created pin-the-crown-on-the-princess. She drew the picture of a princess (complete with her demanding “another!”) and made personalized crowns for her, Cherise, and Robyn. Every time I look at that piece of paper on the wall, I pause and smile the widest grin. I may treasure that piece of paper as much as practically anything else in the house because it represents so much to me. As I concocted this post, I decided to take a picture to share it with the world. As I focused the camera on the picture, I noticed something that didn’t appear to me before. On the letterhead of the notepad Iris used, it said “Live Simply”. Obviously, this wasn’t intentional, but how appropriate? Amidst material possessions, aspirations, desires, conflicts, and everything else, sometimes the best things in life are the simplest. And even though I spend so much time preaching it to the kids, it’s their response that validates that belief in a way that I couldn’t conceive of before they came around. And for that, I am forever grateful.