“Dennis, your stories are excellent to use for teaching moments. Very intriguing, well-crafted, challenging, yet clearly answers the situation. I am going to use these stories for my great-nieces, -nephews. I just love stories which are a great way to make specific points or good for teaching moments. Former Secretary of VA, Eric K. Shinseki was a wonderful storyteller and it made a difference in how he related to people, especially veterans.” –Dr. Irene Trowell-Harris, Major General, USAF (Ret)
Alpha strained at it. I knew she was trying, but I could also tell she was becoming frustrated and close to giving up.
I’ll cut away from that scene for a moment to say this: I believe, as a parent, you have to let your children take their efforts all the way to the wire… and beyond sometimes. I think you have to watch them—let them—struggle with things great and small. And they must see them through even to failure. We must resist the compulsion to do things for them, whether to relieve their frustration or because of our own urgency. “You’re taking too long…” we tell them trying to move them along faster because of our time agenda… they’re on our clock, and we’re waiting. So, we step in too soon.
But every time we do that, we teach our children something negative and limiting: we tell them it’s okay to give a token effort. And embed that easily becoming frustrated can lead to someone stepping in to do things for them. Or that stretching it out while complaining is how to handle a difficult challenge… that if someone needs it bad enough, they’ll help them do it.
I know sometimes we have to step in; we have to help our children. I don’t dispute that. But we have to be careful not to create and reinforce that expectation in them (or other family members… and even close friends). We must choose when it’s an absolute necessity, and to not to do so lightly because we have a low frustration threshold of our own to deal with. If possible, don’t give into it. Do the right thing for your child and maybe learn something beneficial yourself.
I opened this with Alpha in a mighty struggle. She gets frustrated and angry too quickly, and I’m afraid she gets that quick temper from me. But I practice what I preach… what I just told you. And like I said struggles come in all sizes, and their magnitude is not in proportion; their timing and context can make the most trivial seem momentous. So, it was in this case.
Her—Alpha’s—challenge that morning was something she’d encountered before, and I had shown her how to deal with it… how to beat it and win, but that apparently hadn’t stuck with her. We had finished breakfast, and I drank my coffee as she and Beta worked to complete their preparation for school. In less than 30 minutes, they’d have to go.
“Come on…” Alpha cried, and with that announcement, I knew it had begun; the frustration. I looked at her. “I can’t get it…” she complained to Beta. Something came to mind; an iconic image of a woman… she represented those who rallied, served their country and did what needed to be done in a time of war. I stood, came to the center of the kitchen and raised my arms and voice:
“There was once a tiny battle within a great war.”
They stopped, turned from what they were doing at the kitchen counter, and looked at me as I continued:
“She was young, this warrior, and alone. Those that were stronger, the men and women that had stood by her side and those who led them, were all gone. She was the last one standing at their objective, the building they had sought and fought to get to. She stood, in her simple blue one-piece uniform with its Women’s Corps collar badge, in the room that held what would end the struggle; its release would save the world… and herself too.
“She was the least experienced—she wore a headscarf to hide her recruit camp, fresh-cut, short hair—and the weakest. But she had fought alongside the others. At the entrance, the bone-deep wounds in her legs were too much; weak from the loss of blood, she sank to the floor.
“The long room before her was littered with shards of glass and shredded twisted bits of metal that covered the floor. At the far end was a pedestal, as high as she was tall, and on it was what so many had died to reach… and to release. She would have to crawl.
“She cried as she dragged her legs behind her. When she reached the pedestal, with dozens of new lacerations that left a trail of scarlet smears along the path from the door to where she lay, she was close to successfully completing the mission. She cried more as she pulled herself up, knowing she did not have long. Her slashed legs would not hold her weight, so she clawed up the dais, reaching one-handed to grab the canister that contained what was so precious to so many. And at this moment, was what she could not do without.
“Her legs gave away, and she collapsed, holding it, cradling it, in her arms against her chest. On the floor, gasping, she pushed into a sitting position as she gripped the top of the container. It was only 5 inches in diameter and perhaps 8 inches tall. Incredible that something so small contained what was so needed.
“Giving thanks, it would soon be over, she twisted the top. It wouldn’t open. She tried again. It was stuck. She straightened, pinning it under one arm pressing it tight against her side, feverishly working to free the contents inside. ‘No!’ She screamed and was on the verge of giving up. Then she remembered something a wise man, the leader of her group, had told her… something important.”
At that point, I stopped talking. Alpha and Beta looked at me… waiting. I pointed to what Alpha had struggled with and made a gesture of holding it, tilting at an angle, and then rapping it lightly against the countertop. I made an unscrewing motion. “You can do it…”
Alpha exclaimed, “Oh!” picked it up, tapped it twice. At the first try, it still didn’t turn… she tried again, left-handed—Alpha’s a leftie—and it gave… and the lid smoothly spun off.
“Unleash the mayonnaise!” I cried. “The world is saved…” I gave her The Dad Look; she understood exactly what I meant by it. Alpha smiled as she finished making her turkey sandwich. I know she’ll remember this bit of advice the next time she struggles with a jar lid.
I know… I know. It’s a somewhat extravagant story—and yes, this is almost verbatim how I told it to them—for a minor incident, just a small point and part in my daughter’s day.
But then… it was about more than just opening a mayonnaise jar.
ABOUT ALPHA & BETA:
I have four daughters. My oldest has grown up during a period when I worked for others and then myself. My second oldest was born 15 days after my resignation from my corporate job became effective on January 2, 1996. So, she’s seen my life as an entrepreneur and business owner from day one. Those early years in business were hard, as they often are, and I became like the father in ‘Cats in the Cradle‘ (the Harry Chapin song). Always busy, too much to do and not enough time, eaten up with stress and worry about many things. Then, in 2008, I made some changes and pursued what I do today. Writing and publishing. And that made a world of difference in having time for my family. The two youngest—twins I refer to as Alpha & Beta—have had more daily time with me as they grew up than their two older sisters… and much of it has been through my new lens as a writer. So, our conversations and kitchen table discussions—several times—have turned into a series of ‘stories.’