A few years ago, when my children, Sophie and Sam, were 5 and 3, we spent a cold December evening decorating our tree. The Vince Guaraldi Trio was playing Charlie Brown Christmas music in the background, and the kids took turns picking which ornaments they wanted to put up. The bottom of the tree was a little over-decorated, but that’s ok! It was a wonderful experience, the kind of moment that, when you think of having children, you picture in your mind.
After the festivities, I went downstairs, lit a fire, and read the paper for a bit. About 15 minutes later, I went back upstairs to get a drink of water only to discover the kids by the tree. They’d taken all the decorations off. Scenes from the How the Grinch Stole Christmas popped into my head. I wondered if they made off with the silverware and light bulbs while they were at it. Sophie and Sam looked up at me, and they could see that I was a little angry. “What are you guys doing?!”
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Sophie, worried they were in trouble, said, “Dad, it was so much fun, we thought we’d do it again.”
Ah, one of those parenting moments when you feel like a complete heel. Thankfully, I gathered myself quickly. “That’s terrific! Do you want me to put the CD back on?” And round two of tree decorating resumed, even more wonderful than before.
Why can’t we do that? Who says we can’t put decorations on, take them off, and put them back on again? I completely missed the boat on this experience. As adults we think, “It’s perfect. It has to stay like this.” The beautiful tree is our goal – but for kids, it’s the whole experience that matters. They don’t care if the tree looks beautiful; they care about making it beautiful.
In his short essay, “The Station,” Robert J. Hastings* writes about our tendency to see ourselves on a long journey. We can’t wait to arrive at the station; when we do, that is when our life will really start. That’s when our dreams will come true, when we’ll have everything we need, when we can be happy. We’re missing the point. “So,” Hasting writes, “stop pacing the aisles and counting the miles. Instead, climb more mountains, eat more ice cream, go barefoot more often, swim more rivers, watch more sunsets, laugh more and cry less. Life must be lived as we go along.”
As we become adults, we tend to become much more close-minded, implementing rules on how things ought to be. The parameters we put on life – the tree must be decorated once only, s’mores are only for summer, this is how you approach this type of problem, this is how you act in this situation – get in the way of our enjoyment.
They get in the way of creative flow experiences, those moments when we allow ourselves to become so engrossed with what we’re doing that nothing else matters. We’re too busy for that, too busy multi-tasking or worrying about what we should be doing.
My children didn’t have rules governing how often they could decorate the tree, and you know what? They had a great time; they had an experience that we, as adults, close ourselves off from, lose out on. If we can discard our own rules once in a while and let ourselves enjoy the journey, we open ourselves to having more creative, flow experiences. We get out of our own ways and start to, as Thoreau writes, “live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.”
Thanks, kids. That was a pretty great Christmas present.