Generosity: The 3 a.m. Visit From Your Child
By Jeremy Bangs
From the moment my daughter learned to walk and get out of bed on her own, she has woken me up in many terrible ways.
It began with her standing between the edge of my bed and the doorway, silhouetted by the hall light, calling my name. To my sleep eyes, she looked exactly like that creepy kid in The Shining who talked through his finger. I freaked out every time. My freak-out would scare Livvy half to death and the dog was totally confused about who he should attack and … it was just a lot to deal with at 3 a.m.
After I was diagnosed with sleep apnea and got myself a CPAP machine, Livvy figured it would be less traumatic if she quietly coaxed me awake by yanking violently on the hose attached to the mask strapped to my face. It was like being woken up by the sort of face mask penalty that, in the NFL, would get you a $20,000 fine and a one-game suspension.
As time wore on, she cared less about how she woke me up and worried more about just telling me what was going on.
“Dad! I threw-up in my bed!”
“Dad! The dog threw-up in my bed!”
The past couple years, she gave up on talking altogether and just started solving problems on her own. Without a word, she’d slip into my room, plop her queasy dog on chest or groin, yank a pillow out from under my head and fall asleep peacefully beside me as if that was the plan all along.
Who does this? Comedian Jim Gaffigan does an entire bit about how kids are terrible roommates. His point – we wouldn’t put up with this kind of thing from anyone else. Is it always all about them?
I got my answer not long ago early on Saturday morning.
“Dad! How do you turn on the stove?”
I don’t even remember getting out of bed. I didn’t gain consciousness until I was halfway down the stairs and even then, I was already thinking about where the fire extinguisher is and how well I’m insured.
I melted when I got to the kitchen. Next to a carton overflowing with broken egg shells was a mixing bowl loaded with uncooked scrambled eggs.
Beaming with pride, Livvy informed me that she followed a recipe for scrambled eggs.
“It says it serves two people. I just don’t know how to turn on the stove,” she said.
I showed her how and explained how to do it safely, especially since I hadn’t yet resolved my questions about the fire extinguisher or the insurance. Then I let her finish cooking.
A few minutes later, she handed me a plate of incredibly salty scrambled eggs. On the side were two slices of wheat toast that looked like they’d been buttered with a shotgun. It was the finest breakfast I’d had in years. And I told her so.
I’ve done what I can to teach Livvy about generosity over the years. We’ve done some charity work. We’ve donated some outgrown clothes and toys. We’ve talked about sharing the car radio and TV remote so I don’t go insane. It’s satisfying when she understands those lessons at the time.
But it’s when I see spontaneous acts of generosity that I know she gets it. It’s not always a grand gesture like breakfast. Sometimes, it’s a handful of Skittles that are all your favorite color. Other times, it’s a comment from a teacher about how she helps other kids in class or just watching how she plays with her friends. When I see these things, I make a big deal about them. That’s the key.
Lately, I’ve been on this kick that parents overthink things too much. We can be guilty of forcing lessons upon kids at awkward times or pushing an agenda on a kid who just isn’t listening right then. It doesn’t mean that you can’t direct the learning process. Helping form them in character is crucial, but the art of parenting, I’m starting to think, comes down to recognizing our opportunities to teach and to praise and being ready when those opportunities arise. If we’re not paying attention, we’ll miss them. If we’re not prepared, we won’t capitalize on them.