I read a fair number of parenting books. What can I say? I like to read, and most books position parenting as a skill, or set of skills, which can be improved. Which means whatever oops moment I had yesterday can be undone today. Which means I can get better at being a mom. But the one book I keep going back to for parenting advice isn’t a parenting book at all. It’s a memoir by Patti Smith.
Much of M Train centers around her time in Michigan, where she lived with her husband Fred “Sonic” Smith and raised their two kids. Towards the end, Smith sits with her almost 4-year-old son on a beach. As she reaches for her pen and paper, the pair have the following exchange:
— I am going to write, I told him. What will you do?
He surveyed the area with his eyes, fixing on the sky.
— I’m going to think, he said.
— Well, thinking is a lot like writing.
— Yes, he said, only in your head.
What makes this moment so powerful for me is the assumption behind her question: she tells her kid straight up that she’s going to be busy, and puts the responsibility on him to figure out how he’s going to occupy the time. In her description of hanging out that afternoon, she doesn’t mention carting along fruit snacks or dolls or picture books. The iPad obviously didn’t exist back then, but she likely wouldn’t have brought one along even if it had. The point is that she expected the boy to entertain himself.
Her question is doubly powerful because she doesn’t offer any suggestions about what he should do or how he should do it. She doesn’t mention the sand he could sift or the sticks he could turn into light sabers. She doesn’t encourage the child to go climb a tree or count to 20 in Mandarin. She neutrally comments on his choice to think, comparing it to her own endeavor, yet she offers neither praise nor judgment.
30-odd years later, how many of us lug around legos and loveys? How much memory (and money) have we spent on educational apps? Our diaper bags resemble portable bomb shelters, stocked for any eventuality — from long lines at the store to lack of diggers at the playground. We rush in with a puzzle or snack at the first sign of anything other than rapt attention.
Toys have their place, of course, in our kids’ lives. I’m not saying we should keep our kids locked in white rooms, stop buying them stuff, or assume they can make due no matter what the circumstances. Maybe we could see what happened if we tried, even with the littlest ones and even for a little bit, to let our children entertain themselves. What if we acted a little more like Patti Smith?
No doubt this mental shift would lead to some meltdowns and icky moments. There would definitely be some boredom. Eventually, though, there would also be some inner peace and self-confidence, for them as well as for us. As for me, I’ve been trying this attitude out on my 2-year-old, with varying degrees of success:
I put him on the floor, nestled him with blankets, and told him I’d be on the couch, reading. I explained that I really like books and wanted to read near him for a few minutes. He looked at me for awhile, then grabbed a book himself and started “reading” to his ghost Beanie Baby. Uninterrupted time: eight pages (about 10 minutes), at which point he climbed into my lap and swatted my book away.
I told Baby that I had to do some things in the kitchen, which is walled off from our living room (so he can’t see me when I’m in there). I did not point out his loveys, his books, or his toys. I did not do anything besides say that I would be in the kitchen. Uninterrupted time: one rinsed cup (about 30 seconds), at which point Baby charged at my legs with his plastic saw and hammer.
After several rounds of “Wheels on the Bus,” I got up and sat at our kitchen table. “I’ve got to answer some emails over here,” I said. “Why don’t you draw some pictures?” Baby grabbed his crayons and paper but eventually gravitated over to his cars and trucks. First he lined them up on the coffee table, then he parked them beneath the coffee table. Then he zoomed in the general vicinity of my foot. “Play trucks, Mommy,” he said. Uninterrupted time: three emails read, one answered (about five minutes).
I caved. I couldn’t resist his tiny pleas. But, hey, five to 10 minutes is better than no minutes, right? And I’ll indeed be continuing to employ the Patti Smith Parenting Method in our house.