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March 6, 2008
In The Village
Cleaning of 'wonderful handprints' can wait
by Orson Scott Card

I heard a wonderful story last Sunday from a good friend of ours -- let's call her "Kari Hilton" (because that's her name).

She and her husband and their seven children had gone to Idaho from North Carolina for a visit with her parents. Lots of other family also came, and Kari's parents' home was full of children of all ages.

As you can imagine, the house was in a nearly continuous uproar. As she left, Kari imagined how relieved her mother must be that she could finally get the house back to rights.

A few weeks after the visit, though, they were talking on the phone and her mother said, "You know the full-length mirror at the end of the hall? I haven't been able to bring myself to clean it yet. I can't bear to lose all those wonderful handprints."

I thought back to our own earliest years as parents: toys spread all over the living room, guests coming over.

We had only two children then, ages four and two, but as any parent knows, even one is enough to achieve nearly complete concealment of the carpet. Our youngest was old enough to learn to put toys away after playing; but she had mastered the art of being "too tired" so that her older brother would do the whole job for her.

Since my wife was quite pregnant at the time, it fell to me to help our little girl learn that "tired" or not, when you get out the toys and make a mess, it's your job to pick it up. "I'll help you," I said.

That was fine with her. As long as "helping" meant doing the entire job while she observed. Or, better yet, left the room and did something much more entertaining than watching Daddy clean up.

This would not do, of course. There were lessons to be learned. So I tried to make a game out of it. I picked her up and held her over the floor like a high-powered vacuum cleaner, her arms dangling, and told her, "Pick up all the toys, little vacuum!"

Her arms continued to dangle, about as useful as old kite strings hanging from winter trees. Apparently my attempt at making a game of it wasn't going to work. She was little, but she wasn't stupid. She recognized work when she saw it.

I was not going to let her best me in what was now a contest of wills. So I got a different hold on her so my hands could grip her wrists, and began to move her arms to pick up the toys.

She still held her hands limp, refusing to grip anything.

"Don't you know that I'm not going to let you win this?" I asked her. "Just give up and do it."

But whom did I think I was talking to? This was the little girl who had spent a solid year in sacrament-meeting-reverence training, sitting out in the foyer on my lap, gently but firmly pinned down so she could not move or play or see interesting things.

Her brother had learned the reverence lesson very quickly: It isn't fun in the foyer; better to be quiet and stay in church where I'm allowed to sit on the bench and read or draw silently.

But my daughter did not know she was learning a lesson. She thought she was teaching one. The lesson was: I will never, never, never give up. So for a year she wiggled and wriggled out in the foyer, refusing to be still, refusing to cooperate, insisting that things would go her way. Who did I think I was, anyway? The boss of her?

Oh, well, yes, that had been my delusion.

After a year she finally decided she had taught me enough, and then happily drew and read silently beside her brother on the bench -- and I got to attend sacrament meeting again.

That was the little girl I was dealing with there -- the most stubborn child ever born.

I ended up using her limp hands like tongs to pick up every single toy, one by one, and drop it in its box. Not for an instant did she cooperate.

I was doing three things at once:

1. I was cleaning up the living room so that it would be ready for guests to come over without my wife having to do it. This job, though, I could have accomplished myself in about one-tenth the time.

2. I was teaching elementary responsibility to an extremely bright two-year-old who was perfectly capable of learning the lesson.

3. I was having a contest of wills with a child who had an infinite supply of silent noncooperation in her soul.

It was that third task that was the most dangerous one. The contest of wills did need to take place, because for me and my wife to do our job as parents, we needed it to be completely clear to her who held the power and authority in the home.

If, once having entered into the contest, we ever gave in, she would learn the lesson that if she resisted long enough, we'd give up and she'd get her way. This is just about the worst lesson you can ever teach a child -- parents who teach it early in their child's life make themselves useless to the child when, later on, the kid desperately needs boundaries for safety's sake.

Even stubborn children need boundaries -- just because they refuse the gift doesn't mean they don't need to learn to receive it.

The danger was that in this contest of wills I might take it personally. As an affront, as disrespect, as "bad behavior" or, even more mistakenly, as a "bad child."

In short, I might get mad.

It's moments like that when parents need to think about those handprints on the mirror.

Yes, we were having a struggle. Yes, I had to win it. It was my job and I was determined not to fail in it -- because I loved that little girl and wanted her to learn the obedience and self-control that she would need in order to function in society when she got older.

But, because I loved her, I could not let myself think of her as my foe -- I could not let anger enter into my heart. I could not think of what I was doing as punishing her for "being bad."

Instead, I continued to treat it as a game. "We are a crane, picking up the wrecked cars and taking them to the car crusher!" I laughed at her stubbornness.

I even laughed when I said, "You're killing me! My back can't handle this!"

And by the end, she was laughing, too.

She was two years old. I doubt she remembers the incident.

And don't for a moment think I was a perfect parent who never got angry.

But that time I did not. And so it became, in my memory, a treasure. Handprints on the mirror. A time when, even though I was the relentless father who would not give in, I was close to this beloved child and filled the lesson with play and laughter -- as best I could.

Our goal in life is not to keep our houses clean. Our goal is to raise civilized children with the skills they need to master their own worst impulses. So when the kids make a mess, when they disobey, when they're careless, our response is not to judge and punish them, but rather to judge and teach them.

When they grow up and leave -- as that little girl and her older brother have long since done -- we'll wish for the Legos spread all over the floor, the spills, the fingerprints, the decorations taped to the windows and walls, the paper cuttings like confetti that keep turning up in odd places for several years after the project.

When the temptation to be angry and scold comes into our hearts, we need to think ahead to the time when we'll miss this "naughty" child, who is, after all, only doing the job of growing up, playing, exploring, and trying to avoid unpleasant consequences.

There's plenty of time to clean the mirror after they're gone.


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