Dad Next Door: The World According to Pip
A little encouragement from across the fence
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Not long ago, my sweetheart and her 6-year-old launched one of their epic artistic adventures. Pippa (who has that love of decorum known only to the first-born of English parents) decided to codify the strategies that would lead them to success. On a large piece of paper, she wrote: “test for the best” at the top, and “Rules” down the margin. Then she carefully inscribed the following list, complete with checkboxes, underlining, and random capitalization — just because:
nice and messy
do not fuss
don’t freak out
be PleaSd with Your work
I thought it was a kick-ass list, so I hung it up on my refrigerator. And seeing it every day, I’ve come to realize that these are pretty good rules for life in general, especially with children. So, with some added interpretation (that I admit goes beyond the framer’s original intent), I’m pleased to share Pippa’s Rules for Life and Parenting.
“nice and messy”: Let’s face it, life with kids isn’t tidy. They spill things, break things, poop on things, and chew on things — and usually you’re too exhausted to clean it up, much less stop it from happening. It can get metaphorically messy as well. Plans go off the rails, schedules fall apart, and the day is swallowed up by chaos before it even begins. You can’t defeat the forces of entropy, but you can embrace them. Messy isn’t a problem, it’s the hallmark of a vibrant, kid-filled, well-lived life. Have you ever been in one of those houses where you could eat off the floor? Where the bathroom fixtures shine like the silver at Downton Abbey? What kid would want to grow up in a place like that? Your house isn’t messy, it’s nice and messy.
“Pretty Colours”: This rule is not about the barrage of pastel and neon colors that assault you in the My Little Pony aisle at Toys “R” Us. Rather, it refers to the ability of children to appreciate beauty wherever they find it. When a kid stops to examine a rainbow oil slick on a puddle, a trampled dandelion, or the metallic blue body of a dead housefly, they aren’t doing it just to make you late for your hair appointment. They’re doing it because life is full of tiny miracles that grown-ups forget how to see. The visual world of adults would be as dull to the eyes of a child as our olfactory world would be to a bloodhound. But if we try to experience life with the same immediacy and curiosity as our children, we can again learn to see the world as they do.
“Good attituede”: Everyone gets grumpy. That’s indisputable. But it’s also true that grumpiness never does you much good. So if you find yourself slipping into your angry, pouty or resentful place, just remember that your stay there won’t be useful or enjoyable for anyone, including you. Snap out of it. Sometimes really bad stuff does happen, but most grumpiness just comes from moderately annoying stuff, and in those cases your attitude is a choice. Choose a good one.
“do not fuss”: Instead of getting grumpy about things that have already gone wrong, some parents spend their time worrying about all the things that might not go right. And before long, everyone around them (kids, other parents, pets, grocery checkers… ) starts to absorb that anxiety and match it with their own. Soon we’re all so stressed-out that no one is having any fun at all. At times like these, try to keep your sense of perspective. A skinned knee is not a medical emergency. Disappointment is not emotional trauma. A sudden change of plans is not the end of civilization as we know it. Why pay in advance for anxiety bills that may never come due?
“don’t freak out”: While grumpiness and fussiness are merely unproductive, freaking out is counterproductive. That’s because nothing terrifies a child more than seeing their parent in a panic. So even when all hell is breaking loose — or especially when all hell is breaking loose — keep your cool. Even if you don’t feel calm, pretending to be calm will be way more helpful than you’d think. Take a deep breath and clear your head.
“be PleaSd with Your work”: Yes, you will screw up. A lot. Yes, you will do things that embarrass you, that make you wonder why no one had the foresight to prevent you from having kids in the first place. But try to take some credit where credit is due. Despite all your shortcomings, your kids are amazing. You love them. They love you. These are no small victories. Be pleased with your work.
And thanks, Pippa. You’re a Zen master masquerading as a very small tornado.
Jeff Lee is nice and messy, even when his kids aren’t home, in Seattle.