I’m fortunate that my children are not likely to read my blog because I am about to share a secret with you that involves them. If you happen to know my kids, shhhh. Let’s keep this between us.
Parenting is tough. Before we become parents, most of us fall into the easy habit of judging those who already are--their choices, reactions, communication. If we’re being honest, we’ve all thought to ourselves a time or two, “Good lord, I certainly won’t be doing that when I’m a parent. What in the world are they thinking?”
Suffice to say, three children in, I don’t judge any more. Every family, every kid, every parent is different. What works for one does not necessarily work for the other.
All three of my boys are sensitive in one way or another. My middle son is particularly sensitive about friendships. He is fiercely loyal to his friends and probably puts more pressure on his friendships than most. This adds some difficulty when natural, age-appropriate socialization challenges arise. Being a season when friendships are naturally tested and evolving, third and fourth grade presented some particular stressors.
One afternoon during a particularly fraught time with his friends, fate in the form of a feathered friend literally landed a most unwelcome gesture. At lunch, a bird flew over the area where my son and his friends were hanging out and crapped right on my son's shoulder. Any other time, my son would likely have been able to laugh along with his friends at his misfortune, but his emotions were raw and the unwelcome embarrassment was the last straw. He was devastated.
As soon as he got in the car at pick-up, he started crying. In his 8 year-old mind, his friends would never let him live this down. The shunning would continue unabated now that the bird had marked him with the scarlet letter “P” for POOP.
The adage, “You’re only as happy as your least happy kid,” is so true and at that moment, was very real for us. Even though my wife and I knew his pain would soon pass, his anguish was real. We tried each of our parenting jedi mind tricks--diversion, reasoning, allyship, you name it. The only thing that seemed to pause his exasperation was my assertion that getting pooped on was a sign of “good luck.”
“Really?” he inquired. “Yes!” I assured him.
Not really knowing if it was true and only having a vague recollection of some superstition that being pooped on by a bird was a sign of good luck, I ran with it. And who wouldn’t? It was the only thing that seemed to stop his crying.
Thus the embellishment began.
“Yes, being pooped on is a great sign of good fortune. In fact, in some cultures it is celebrated.”
“Reeeeeaaaallly?” he pressed.
“Oh, yes, for sure.”
Phew. While we hadn’t exactly averted the crisis, we at least got him calm. We decided to take him out for dinner that night at one of his favorite restaurants hoping to employ some masterful diversion tactics. On the way there, I told my wife that I was going to stop at the ATM to withdraw some “good fortune.”
When it was time to pay for dinner, I told the family to sit tight; I had forgotten my wallet in the car and was going to retrieve it. What I was actually doing was strategically placing a $20 bill (quite a large amount for an 8 year old) on the ground in the parking lot right by the back passenger door our son would soon open.
I returned to our table, paid the bill, and we exited to the car. The setting couldn’t have been more perfect. It was cold, dark, and dreary with a heavy rain coming down--a perfect literary backdrop for the emotions he was feeling. Running from the restaurant to the car trying not to get too wet, my son reached for the door handle looking down to avoid the rain. There in a puddle by his foot he found a drenched $20 bill. He picked it up and quickly jumped in his seat.
My wife and I stared blankly out the window as we backed out of the parking space waiting for our son to share the news of what he had found. After a few moments of reluctance (out of fear that he might be in trouble for taking the money off the ground), he spilled the beans, “Mom. Dad. I just found this $20 bill on the ground.”
“Really? Wow! That’s amazing. Congratulations. That is so cool.”
“Can I keep it?” he asked.
“Yes, of course. That’s some awesome luck. I’ve never found that much money before. Way to go.” I replied.
As his mom and I fawned over his good fortune and his younger brother righteously questioned the fairness of his older kin experiencing such luck, an idea struck him.
“Hey. Do you think maybe I found this money because of the bird pooping on my shoulder today?” he quipped.
“Hmmmm?” his mom responded. “Sure sounds like it. I mean getting pooped on really is some serious good luck. Looks to me like your good luck is already coming to pass.”
With a son’s satisfied smile from ear to ear, our family returned home with a weight lifted off our shoulders.
The next day, our son couldn’t wait to tell his teacher and classmates about his good luck. The unwelcome poop was now a badge of honor and our son had the cash to prove it! For the next several weeks, any time something good happened in his life, our son would say, “Must be my good fortune at work.” It was amazing (and dare I say…a stroke of parenting genius) how this small calculated moment of wonder changed our son’s outlook on his embarrassing event, his relationship with his friends, and the power of magic.
Now I’m sure some might criticize me for lying to avoid life’s hard-knock lesson that my kid might necessarily need to learn. I would argue, though, that when we are given the gift of parenthood, or grandparenthood, or uncle or aunt-ship, we are bestowed with an amazing opportunity to create wonder in the lives of the kids we love.
When I was a kid, my grandmother used to “race” cars when she’d pull up to a red light next to a young adult driving a “cool car.” Little did I know that she would motion to them to “fake” race her and “let her win” to impress her five year old grandson sitting in the seat. This is the same grandmother who could also magically predict when the light would turn green. (I was at an embarrassing older age when I realized that she was just watching for the opposite light to turn red.) And who knew that years later as a parent myself her trick of secretly placing “lost” money in strategic places for me to find would come in so handy at such an important time for my own son.
I think we parents should use our powers to create wonder much more often. Wonder--with its awe, inspiration, and mystery--is a powerful emotional experience that lifts us beyond our temporal or natural existence, into a world of possibility outside of ourselves to a realm just beyond our ability to comprehend or define. It’s a place where we can let go of time and space and simply embrace that over which we have no control. There is always something beyond our momentary situation upon which we can dream and find hope. It is in its sheer irrationality that wonder carries its magic. For a child whose brain and psyche have yet to develop advanced skills of perspective, this sense of wonder is a powerful tool to take them outside momentary pain, disappointment, boredom, and banality.
It’s been three years and my son still doesn’t know that the magical, face-saving $20 he found on that rainy day after dinner was placed there by me. He remembers his good fortune fondly and brings it up even today. I don’t ever want him to know. So...shhhh. You better not tell him. Wonder is a gift. Don’t spoil it.
Erik Burmeister is the Superintendent of Menlo Park City School District in the heart of Silicon Valley.