From Chores

Teaching our kids to be kind takes constant work

Cultivating Kindness with Dirt


It was a sunny day, warm but not hot – the perfect day for gardening. My two-year old son had a variety of things to keep him occupied – diggers and tractors, a rubber ball on stand-by for when the trucks lost their appeal. I dug the trowel into the earth and began loosening the soil, cultivating the ground in order to transplant my overabundant irises.

Teaching our kids to be kind takes constant work

A rock landed in the iris next to me. “We don’t throw rocks,” I said. “We throw balls.” This had become my default secondary sentence after something other than a ball was thrown. The rocks kept landing next to me. I repeated myself a few more times before I embraced the futility of my words. I put down my trowel, took off my gardening gloves and walked over to the rock bed. How could I teach him not to throw rocks when the rocks were so tempting? Shiny bits of quartz peaked through the rose tinged stones, there was such variety of shades and sizes, some smooth, others mottled and rough. There were rocks from the beach that we’ve collected and brought home and there was the odd piece of beach glass dumped into the pile from the jar of once-treasured pieces stowed away in a jar full of water. Squinting while staring at a piece of smooth opaque pale green glass it became clear that tractors and balls were no match for these minerals. I looked around. What could be more appealing then rocks? Dirt of course.

Armed with a shovel and pail I asked my son to help me garden. He abandoned the rock bed and ran. Before I let him dig we walked the garden’s perimeter touching and smelling leaves and flowers. We’d done this before and he always smiled when I rubbed my hands in the lavender and brought them to his face. I repeated gentle when he reached out to touch the leaves and petals.

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 9.24.07 PMAs he scratched at the soil I uprooted one of the irises. He immediately came to play in the empty hole. Certain words are often on the tip of my tongue – the don’ts, the be careful’s – words that make me roll my eyes at myself as I’m saying them. I swallowed. I said nothing and watched him sift and sort, dirt spilling onto the path. I encouraged him as I worked, telling him we were making new homes for the plants to live. I planted. He played. I left the hole where that first iris had stood and told him it was his. He didn’t throw another rock. That day.

It must be confusing, learning when we can and cannot throw since we skip stones on water, and stones themselves are ball-like. He likes to throw rocks, sometimes. Don’t all kids? I can redirect, distract, divert, and satisfying the senses by playing with dirt, with water, or muck. We have years of this playful activity ahead of us – him throwing rocks and me repeating the word gently as we touch and sniff at the plants and flowers the pepper our land. “Gently” he said, pulling at the tall thin leaves of daffodils like he would a cat’s tail at first. His grip loosened, I could see the ease in his hands and a fanning out of the leaves.

Kindness is not learned overnight. Just like a garden that needs to be tended, teaching my son healthy relationships with humans and plants and animals and even abstract things like emotions, requires the same work as cultivating fertile soil. You can neglect it, and weeds will creep in. There’s no guarantee that my son will always be thoughtful, just as from one year to the next a garden will yield more flowers or less depending on a number of factors, not just attention to the soil. But I can remind and guide and be gentle.

My partner’s mother used to say to him, ‘gently and with kindness’ when he was frustrated or about to argue. He’s listened, because he is often the first to say those exact words when we find ourselves stretched, overtired, at the tipping point of fiery words with each other or our son. Playing in the earth is gratifying on so many levels – being in touch with our physical environment, being outside, being focused and present, paying attention to the bugs and butterflies that share this world. Planting food brings gardening to another heightened level – one that keeps us tied to the health of our planet, which of course ties into the health of humankind. It slows us down and brings our awareness to just how minute we are in the universe. If it can allow for a pause, for my son to break from his instinct and desire to throw, then bring on the mud. Stains are easier to overcome than bruises.


Ever wondered about birth order and how it impacts your family?

Why Birth Order Complicates Setting the Table


The dance occurs nightly. “L,” I call to my youngest son, “come set the table. Dinner’s nearly ready.” After one or two summons, he arrives with a big smile.

“You called?” His eyes glimmer with mirth.

“Time to set the table,” he’s reminded. A pause ensues as if he’s trying to translate the message into his native tongue. The pause lengthens, and when he meets my eyes, his grin has broadened.
“Cool Papa Bell,” L says referring to the all-time great Negro League baseball player, “once stole home plate from first base.” I’m reminded that he’s evading something, but he’s so genuine, and I do love sports. Indeed, stealing home from third is quite a feat. But to do it from first base…. My musings are turning toward sports, away from household chores. Then, I snap out of it.

Ever wondered about birth order and how it impacts your family?

“L, the table,” frustration seeping into my reminder.

My boy nods, raising his hands both in surrender and in a calming gesture. I start to relax as he moves toward the cabinet to fetch the plates. Then he spins and begins a goofy dance with the counter. Hands on his head and still smiling, he wiggles his skinny hips.

“L,” I say with conviction, “SET THE TABLE!!!!!”

“Alright,” he says in a falsely soft voice, “no need to shout.” Smiling still, he gets two plates and traipses toward the table and puts them down carefully.

“That’s good, Luka,” I say trying to keep my voice steady, “but you forgot to put down the placemats, and there are four of us who eat here.”

He nods at me. I got this, Dad. He swivels his head toward my wife. “Hey Mom,” he asks with wide grin, “do you think there are grey wolves living on Mount Rainier?”

“L, SET THE FRICKIN’ TABLE!” I roar. I want to throttle him.

The Psychology of Birth Order

Such frustrating behavior could drive a father crazy. Understanding L’s motivations, I decided, would make his table-setting shenanigans less irritating. Alfred Adler (1870-1937), a Freudian psychiatrist, developed the Psychology of Birth Order in which he postulates that when one is born has an impact on one’s personality.

Could L’s being youngest explain his behavior?

Adler describes the personality of the first-born, second-born, and youngest. (He also considered the only child and twins, but that did not apply to my family). According to Adler, the first-born is reliable, conscientious, structured, cautious, controlling,and achieving. The oldest child develops the above parent-pleasing traits in an attempt to regain the undivided attention that he enjoyed before his sibling’s birth. Adler’s theory is not absolute.

My eldest is not at all cautious, for instance, but the wisdom of Adler’s paradigm still resonates. My oldest boy is very structured, conscientious, and high-achieving although I am pretty sure that he would not say that he acts thus in an effort to gain my wife’s and my undivided attention.

But as to my younger boy and his table setting— has Adler any thoughts?

He identified the following characteristics in the second born child: people-pleasing, somewhat rebellious, good friend, social and peace-maker. Youngest child characteristics include fun-loving, uncomplicated, manipulative, outgoing, attention-seeking and self-centered.

As with my older boy, my youngest does not conform totally to Adler’s traits. He is neither attention-seeking nor self-centered. Elsewhere, he conforms quite nicely to Adler’s description. He is somewhat rebellious (i.e. table setting) and has formed many strong friendships. L is social and helps to solve problems in school. True to the theory of the Psychology of Birth Order, my youngest is fun-loving, outgoing and can be manipulative. His approach to table setting backs this up nicely. He moulded the situation to get out of his task, but did so with a smile and an array of jokes.

Adler seems right on here, but I feel unsettled by the notion.

Being manipulative has a dark connotation that seems too harsh for L. He’s not a sinister puppet master pulling strings, just a smiling boy avoiding a tedious task. I’ll throw a bone Adler’s way and stick with the term manipulation.

Luckily, the Austrian psychiatrist has an explanation.

Due to his birth order, the youngest is least capable and experienced. To compensate for this fact, he develops social skills that allows him to get others to do things for him. A simplification to be sure, but the last couple of nights, during our table setting dance, I’ve looked upon L, bemused. “That’s my second born/youngest,” I’ve thought with a knowing smile.