How much of our stressful culture do we pass on to our children? I question that children always do what we say- but they definitely do what we do. I have often seen myself unintentionally following the patterns of my parents. I’m sure that I am passing information on to my own children as well, but I don’t know which messages are getting through.
In 2006, I built a tree house with my son. I did this because I traveled extensively and I wanted him to remember us doing something together. I also did this because I didn’t want him to perceive his mom as a mad woman who was forever stressed out, always running to save everyone’s world but her own.
At the time, he was about 9 or 10 and I was looking for a project that would engage us both. I have wanted a tree house since I was a girl. As an adult, I secretly bought a book, Tree Houses You Can Actually Build (by David and Jeanie Stiles, 1998). The most telling information it revealed was that tree houses are as unique as the trees they are built in and the people who build them. It was full of pictures. I dusted it off and handed the book to my son. He sounded like me 40 years ago. “Mom, these are sooo cool! Can we build one?” I told my husband that we were headed off to the hardware store to get materials. His response was brief: “I had a tree house once. It was a plank balanced on a couple of branches about 20 feet up in a tree that I climbed every day.” Back then there were no child safety laws; you just looked down and knew not to slip.
The trip to the building supply store was interesting. In my mind, traditional tree houses were imperfect things that were made of cast off scraps of wood, rope and old hinges, built over an entire childhood. In stark contrast, our 21st century project would be completed over a 4 day weekend with power tools and new plywood. When the cashier at the store, found out we were building a tree house, she asked my son, “So who’s going to help you build it? Your Dad? To my pleasant surprise, my son said, “No, my Mom- she’s an engineer. She can build anything.” I didn’t know he had so much faith in me. I didn’t exactly know what I was doing… I didn’t even have a good plan, just pictures in a book and an interesting tree which had given us permission to attach something to it.
The tree house proved to be a group project with my son and the neighbor kids hammering nails and holding things down while I ran the power saw and my husband lifted heavy things. The following week, I heard the neighbor kid say to my kid, “This is a cool tree house. We need to make some rules like, No girls in the tree house.” Again, to my pleasant surprise, I heard my son say, I don’t think my Mom would like that very much because- well, girls kind of built the tree house. I think we have to let everybody play in the tree house.” As a parent, I thought, Mission Accomplished. He understood what community was. This lesson alone was worth all the pain killers I had eaten over past week. My back suddenly felt better.
Childhood provides a small window of time to make a lifetime of impressions. He will be an adult much longer than he was ever a child. And, to some extent, he will become me. This means that if I actually become a more peaceful person, he will absorb some of this. If I just talk about it all the time, hmmm….. things to think about.
Today, my son is learning to drive and the tree house doesn’t hold the spell it used to. My husband replaced the rope ladder with a wooden stair so we don’t break our necks climbing up into it. But occasionally, if I’m looking for a quiet place with a great view to sip a cool drink, a lawn chair in the tree house is perfect. Sometimes I look out and see my son, running off to conquer a brand new world. He waves back at me over his shoulder, the future ahead.