I was at a used books store on Saturday evening. My roommate, BB, and I love our bookstore. It is a huge, and I mean HUGE bookstore. It's roughly the size of a grocery store, putting the new books stores to shame, and it is simply stuffed with bookcases. There is no wasted display space, no big silly signs, no journals or wrapping paper, just books, DVDs, and CDs.
The first time we went there, it was night, and the being brightly lit with big picture windows, it shone in the darkness, beckoning us into its warmth and light with promises of knowledge and safety. It did not disappoint us.
I wasn't feeling all that great on this trip, so I sat on the bench available to footsore patrons while BB walked the store after I'd made a quick trip to horror and sci-fi. I got myself an old Robert Bloch and two McAffreys for my mother.
Most of the people were the usual adults milling around with their baskets and carts, but there was one family I watched with interest, a mother and her 3- or 4- year-old boy. The little boy wanted to carry the basket. It was as long as he was tall, and a bit heavy for him. But he wanted to carry it, to show he was a big boy. It was the cutest thing I'd seen in a long time.
Mom didn't want him to carry the basket. "Is it heavy, mommy?" the little one asked. I would have said, "not really," but this mother said, "yes, very!" The little boy still said "I can carry it, mommy! Let me do it!" She handed him the basket, not really looking at him.
I watched as he tried to carry the basket in front of him, bouncing it off his little tennis-ball knees. He determined the basket was too heavy, and so he squatted down, laid each book carefully on the floor around him, and started experimenting. He put some back in the basket and picked it up carefully, just an inch off the floor, weighing it in his hands. He tested the weight of two books against each other, of one stack against another, and on and on. I was fascinated. Here was a little boy learning all kinds of things: how to estimate weights, the correlation between size and weight, his own limits, and logical problem-solving.
This went on for about five minutes. At the end, he had a stack of books in the basket he could reasonably carry, and two books on the floor. He picked up the two books and handed them to his mother. She took them, not even noticing. She was busy. Undaunted by his mother's disinterest, he picked up the basket and declared "I can do it!" He was shushed by his mother.
When she turned away from the shelf, she realized she was holding a pair of books. She looked down at her proudly smiling son, who was holding the basket up as high as he could, big goofy grin on his face.
She gave an exasperated noise, snatched the basket from him, threw the two books into it, and said shortly, "I told you it was too heavy." The little boy took hold of the handle and said, "I can do it, mommy! I want to carry it!"
"No, it's too heavy. Let go." She batted his hand way. The little boy looked crushed, and when his mother turned her back to him to look at another shelf, he put his hand lightly on the basket, still trying to help.
I was crushed and even offended on the boy's behalf. He was just taught that his contributions are worthless, that he cannot help, that his mother doesn't think he can do anything. In ten years, if the mother continues on the path she's on now, that little boy will be a surly, ungrateful, lazy teenager.
Little children cannot do their "fair" share. They can't actually DO much of anything. But if parents take the time to train their children in how to do things, then by the time they are able to really help, they will be able to, and they will have a will towards it.
The true purpose in teaching a child to fold clothes, cook food, wash dishes, or empty garbage cans is not to create an indentured servant. The purpose is to teach the child diligence, faithfulness, teamwork, independence, and confidence. The child who is not taught to work does not spontaneously become a hard worker just because he got a job at McDonald's. We have all been through the line with a surly, incompetent drive-thru worker enough to know that.
Seeing that little boy, who apparently had a naturally strong desire to work, being shut down by a mother who couldn't see her own son, just broke my heart. In the end, did it matter if that basket got dragged on the floor? Or if the mom had to carry a book or two in her hands? Of course not. What mattered was the chance for a mom to let her child do something hard for him, and succeed. What mattered was the chance to tie strings, to show love. And it was a missed chance. Miss enough of them, and you're going to run out.