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Life with JJ

You’ll never catch a fish if you do it that way…

Patrick Guntensperger

Parksville, British Columbia

Raising a toddler not only teaches parents more about their children, it teaches them about how they became the people they are. Taking care of JJ all day while Yolanda is at work has illuminated a great many things about myself; some things that I always assumed were innate or simply functions of the way I am come into focus and show me that they were, in fact, taught and learned.

 While Yolanda is at work, I stay at home to write when I can and to act as the primary caregiver for JJ between his three mornings per week pre-school schedule. So I clean the house, shop, prepare meals, and do the many things a three year old needs done for him: read him stories, give him baths, argue about whether he can go to the playground in the rain, change the staggeringly malodorous occasional mishap in his pull-ups, and chauffeur him and Yolanda to their various commitments. This arrangement, while it detracts from, even devastates, any possibility of concentrated writing, gives me an unparalleled opportunity to spend time with my son. He learns the basics from me; how to put his socks on, how to handle a spoon, how to pull my finger to produce a fart, how to tidy his room, and all the other vital life lessons. But what I hadn’t realised until I got into this endeavour is how much I would learn from him.

 As I watch JJ acquire knowledge and experience I am profoundly aware of the importance and impact of my input. When I hear him repeat out loud something he just heard me say five minutes earlier, when I hear him employing my expressions and even inflections in his burgeoning speech patterns, when I see him push the button to retract the convertible roof of the car – something he had seen me do only once – I am made aware of how much of our behaviour is learned from those who raise us. And that awareness is a reflection of what I’m learning from him.

 People are constantly telling me, indeed it seems to be common wisdom that one should live in the moment, that one ought to be process rather than goal oriented. In fact, it has only been in the last few years that I realised that there is a great deal of wisdom in that recommendation; it took getting married, having a child, and going through an extended nightmare to become repatriated and set up a home with my family to understand that, while it is necessary to keep a goal in mind, living in the here and now is the only way to maintain balance and any measure of happiness. Had I not made up my mind to reverse my lifetime habit of just focusing on the goal and ignoring the day-to-day, I would have cracked under the pressure of my three year battle to get my son recognised as such and to extricate him from Indonesia’s grasp. Instead, while maintaining my determination and pressing ever onward, I also determined that I would do my best to enjoy the time with my Indonesian family, hang out with my little boy in the swimming pool, travel around the archipelago a little bit, dine out frequently, and generally enjoy the charms of Indonesia that I had vowed I would never experience again.

 What’s interesting is that I had always thought that my goal-driven perspective was a part of my nature, was somehow hard-wired, and that my changing it was a personal struggle with my innate character. What I learned from JJ was that failing to appreciate the moment is learned behaviour and is actually contrary to our natures; as children, the moment is all we really know and we are deliberately taught to shift our focus to future goals.

 Imagine a typical scenario: a father teaching his little boy to fish. The little boy is about three or four years old and has never held a fishing pole before, but is excited about the idea of fishing, and thrilled to be doing it with Dad. Sitting on the dock, the little boy starts waving the rod around and likes the whooshing sound it makes and is fascinated by the ripples made by the bobber as it whips across the water. The predictable response by Dad is to tell him to stop playing with the fishing pole and keep it still if he wants to catch a fish; focus on the aim of the exercise rather than succumbing to the inclination to enjoy the moment.

 And that scenario plays out daily; it may even be the most commonly observed interaction between adults and toddlers. The child is climbing into her booster seat in the back of the car but gets distracted by a seatbelt strap; she pulls on it and lets it retract, then repeats the action, delighted to have discovered a new inanimate object that responds to her intentions. Mom’s reaction? “C’mon, Honey, stop playing around or we’ll never get to the playground”.  At the beach building a sandcastle, the child forgets to up-end the bucket of moulded sand and switches focus to the tactile experience of rubbing the wet sand between his palms. Similar reaction. The most frequent admonishment a child is likely to hear is to focus on the goal and to ignore momentary passing interests.

 Certainly it’s important that children be guided toward their goals and taught that it takes effort and focus to accomplish anything worthwhile; nevertheless it must be possible to teach a child how to achieve goals without robbing him of his curiosity or his wonder at the extent and breadth of the world to which he is being introduced. There must be a way to help a child grow up with a sense of purpose but still maintain the capacity for enjoying life, for recognising beauty, for experiencing sensual, simple, non-directed pleasures.

 We can teach them, as most of us were taught, to forego ephemeral, transient moments of joy in favour of the larger goal at the end of the struggle; the problem is that when they grow up, they might have to teach themselves to reverse those habits in order to maintain their sanity.


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