So much for that half-birthday cake. I spent that day with the stomach flu. Every week or two you ask me for it and I keep saying maybe, we’ll see.
I love watching you grow and learn. You’re doing a lot of both in the margins of endless hours with your cars and trucks and emergency vehicles. Your size 6 pants that you were swimming in two months ago are fitting just about right now.
I love seeing you begin to take possession of the call to “receive instruction.” It’s listed on your dry-erase chart on the fridge right along with brushing teeth and taking out the trash. I love that more often than not these days, when I get on your level and talk something through with you, it sinks in. One time a whole day’s attitude changed after two minutes of gentle rebuke in the van.
I loved seeing your delight the other day as you spelled your name all by yourself for the first time, lining up fridge magnets on the floor and feeling amazed at yourself. I love hearing you comment over and over again things like “Joshua. That starts with J!” or perhaps, depending on the day, “Joshua. That starts with G!” You get really excited, too, when you see a row of numbers, like the other day when you noticed the numbers at the top of the grocery store aisles. You can count to forty pretty successfully by yourself now and you are starting to figure out how to read a digital clock.
Your use of numbers is sometimes hilarious, like when you announced with great sobriety and self-confidence that when you grew up to be twenty-nine, then you would definitely be able to handle eight kids. Your words, not mine. Or the way your superlative of choice these days is “one hundred and thirty one” as in “I ate one hundred and thirty one bites, can I be done now?”
You enjoyed your very first Halloween last weekend, dressing up (the world is full of surprises) as a fireman. You got lots of mileage out of your borrowed costume, wearing it to school on Thursday and carrying your beat-up old fire truck along for show-and-tell, wearing it to a Spooktacular organ concert the next night, and wearing it, finally, to go trick-or-treating with three little princesses on Saturday.
I want to get you memorizing things, because your brain is just so sharp and strong. It only takes a couple days for you to memorize a hymn or Psalm that we begin to work on in our evening worship times. I feel pretty sure that you could recite the entirety of your current favorite story (Make Way For Ducklings) by heart if given the chance. I’ve been enjoying nudging you in this direction by leaving off lines from your current favorite poem, A. A. Milne’s King John’s Christmas. You get such a kick out of it and ask for it regularly, and now we’ve begun to talk about what will be in your Christmas stocking. Batteries, for one thing, for the electric guitar and the fire truck.
All these are things you are remarkably good at, and they’re not the only ones. There’s your brother, and I wonder if you’re so good at him because his programming isn’t very subtle: insert attention, get hilarious response. That baby adores you. He has eyes for you that he doesn’t even have for me, not to mention giggles. He studies you earnestly, endlessly. And you oblige with endless attention. What leaves me particularly thankful and awe-struck is the way you demonstrate your ability to empathize, and to read another human. This is not an ability I’ve been sure you possess, and it’s a gift to me to watch it begin to blossom in this relationship you’ve begun with your brother.
I want to write to you this month about the things you’re not good at, and what I want you to know (and do) about them.
You’re not good at staying on task. You can’t focus on anything unless it is adequately stimulating for your brain. You are smart as a whip, and you have the wiring of an engineer. So if I can feed you things that engage you on this level, flying chariots wouldn’t be able to drag your attention away. But 99% of the time you are (ahem) Easily Distractible.
I’d be rich if I could make money off of redirecting you. “Jacob, you’re supposed to be doing the trash. Why are you talking to Joshua? Why is the trash bag in the middle of the carpet?” “Jacob you are supposed to be doing the trash. Why are you going outside to the trash cans without gathering it from the house first?” Half the time these queries are met with an instant, silent course-change and the tiniest hint of grin that recognizes your own weakness: “Oh. Oops. Silly me.”
What I mean to do about this is pretty simple: First, I mean to give you a lot that will engage you so you can feel your brain working at capacity, doing the dance it’s good at. Second, I mean to hound you. Kindly, patiently, with lots of encouragement, but I will hound you. What I mean is, I am not giving up on you and labeling you as “that kid who can’t focus.” I mean, maybe sometime it will be useful to label you as ADD, and if that time comes I’m not afraid of it and I don’t want you to be, either. We’re not pretending that you’re not bad at this stuff. But the only thing that deficiency means is that you will be working a whole lot harder at it than most people, and then you’ll be good at it. Good enough, anyway. And that will be satisfactory.
It’s the same with empathy and emotional engagement. You are no good at this. It means I am constantly feeding you scripts: “Jacob, she’s crying. Look at her. See her face? You shouldn’t still be having fun if she’s crying. Jacob, you need to go over there and you need to touch her arm where you hurt it and you need to say ‘Oh, Merry, I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to hurt you! Are you OK?'” Some people come up with these ideas on their own, and I’m hoping maybe eventually you’ll be one of them. For now, I’ve got your back. And I’m not labeling you as “that kid who can’t relate to people.”
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that your deficiencies are OK. They are real and significant, but everyone has their own set of them, so you have nothing to hide. The question I want you to ask is “What am I going to do about this?” I don’t want you to be a victim to it and I don’t want it to fence you in. I want you to live a rich, functional, healthy life in which you can focus on taking out the trash and notice when a friend is having a bad day, and all that means is we have our work cut out for us, you and I. No shame here: just taking responsibility. Committing to be all that you can be. For happiness and for love.
Speaking of responsibility, we talk about it endlessly and it is a concept I think you are starting to get, even if the execution is a little rough most days. For you it means your shoes and the food on your plate and putting your backpack and your bike helmet away. It means that little dance that happens in the morning that starts with making your bed and ends with taking out the trash and joining me on the couch for worship. Those things are your business. Not mine.
We’re learning a few ground rules for how responsibilities get handled in the Powell house: First, no silliness in these moments. Second, focus. Yeah – that one. It’s tough. So we’re talking about times when you have to focus and we’ve decided there are three: when you are handling your responsibilities, when a grown-up is talking, and during worship. I think this is a set of simple ground rules that will grow with you nicely. For now, it means I can call your bluff when you’re giggling downstairs instead of making your bed, or spitting instead of brushing your teeth. Later, it will grow to mean all sorts of things.
On the other side of the equation from all this is something else I’ve been learning and pondering when it comes to things you aren’t. One afternoon I was commenting to a dear friend of our family’s that I worry sometimes that you don’t feel loved enough, since we are on top of you all the time for this and that. I feel like Daddy and I don’t find enough opportunities to celebrate and affirm you. We don’t delight in you as much as we theoretically could.
Hannah had an answer ready for that which was exactly what I needed to hear. “I think it’s safe to say that he doesn’t feel unloved,” she said. And then she told me a story from that morning at church. She’d seen you and tried to engage you in conversation: “Hey Jacob! How are you?” You didn’t even slow down as you ran past her, answering her question happily, easily: “I’m four and a half!” After all, “How are you?” doesn’t seem to be a question you care too much about at this point. Her observation was that your lack of self-awareness (part of that list of things you aren’t good at) makes the issue pretty simple. You don’t spend a lot of time sitting around wondering if people love you. I mean, heck, most of the time you don’t even notice when you are hungry or need to pee. You just do your brainy, distracted thing and everything else is not worth your trouble.
So this is me, not worrying about whether you feel loved. Your happy, confident, thriving. You are learning not to be a jerk to your friends. You are learning to compensate for your distractible personality by choreographing important things and learning them like a dance. You are learning to look at me when I talk to you and not to answer me with a big whiny “What!?” or “Why?” If I’m tough on you, it’s because I want you to handle these issues as a preschooler so you don’t waste time thinking pouting is a good tactic when you’re an adolescent, or spending all day staring out the window past your studies because you’ve never experienced focused work before.
But you can rest assured that I love you. I love the heck outta you. I love your smartness, your simplicity, and even your hilarious compulsion to leave anything and everything mid-stream. Especially your shoes. I’m not out to change any of this, just to equip you to be your own master.
I love you.