Plan for sum­mer? Pass me an or­ange.

The Washington Post Sunday - - LOCAL OPINIONS -

It’s mid­win­ter in Washington, and this year I was pre­pared. I was pre­pared for par­ents to start fran­ti­cally mak­ing sum­mer plans for their kids. And I was pre­pared to take no part in the frenzy. Nope, this year I would not panic over sum­mer camps and ac­tiv­i­ties six months away. In­stead, I would take my cue from the Bud­dhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who wrote: If you are eat­ing an or­ange, just eat an or­ange. I would be mind­ful of what I was do­ing right now, rather than think about what would come next.

And, yet, in the past week, I found my­self suc­cumb­ing to the usual pres­sure. At first, it was just one slip. Ru­mor had it that the pool we wanted to join had a three­year wait­ing list, so I e-mailed to find out if we had any hope of be­com­ing mem­bers. But then a friend men­tioned a great gymnastics camp, and I thought I should see when it opened for reg­is­tra­tion. Af­ter all, I didn’t want my daugh­ter to miss out. Oh, and a neigh­bor re­minded me about sign-ups for T-ball . . . .

What was I do­ing? Cer­tainly not just eat­ing an or­ange.

It is all too easy for us as par­ents to join the race to nowhere. No doubt our in­ten­tions are good; we sim­ply want the best for our kids, to give them a range of op­por­tu­ni­ties. But that comes with a cost: the loss of liv­ing in the moment.

As adults, we strug­gle to es­cape our never-end­ing to-do lists, our con­stant plan­ning for the fu­ture and our re­play­ing of past events. Be­com­ing trapped in th­ese con­cerns is a recipe for worry and anx­i­ety and is, un­sur­pris­ingly, a com­mon topic in self-help books. But kids don’t have this strug­gle; they live in the moment nat­u­rally. Watch a 5-year-old and you’ll see her en­grossed in play, not mak­ing plans. Ask a 3-year-old what he did to­day, and he’ll fo­cus in­stead on the cater­pil­lar on the side­walk. Talk­ing about the past or fu­ture with chil­dren can feel like pulling teeth. Why should we try to make them?

When we fo­cus on the fu­ture, we ne­glect be­ing in the present with our chil­dren. Worse, we teach them not to sa­vor the here and now.

Let me stop to say that, of course, plan­ning is a nec­es­sary part of adult­hood. And for most work­ing par­ents, it is es­sen­tial to find child care dur­ing sum­mer (of­ten in the form of camps). But we take it too far. Does it all really need to start in Jan­uary? In other parts of the coun­try, par­ents do not plan so many months ahead. Per­haps we Wash­ing­to­ni­ans need to step back, slow down and shift our at­ten­tion to what we are do­ing with our chil­dren now, rather than on what they have to do next.

I keep learn­ing this les­son the hard way. When my daugh­ter was in preschool, her teacher sug­gested not ask­ing, “What did you do in school to­day?” She cau­tioned that young chil­dren op­er­ate in the present, and that if you per­sist in ask­ing them about their day, they will even­tu­ally say some­thing just to please you. Her ad­vice fell on my deaf ears, and one day I proudly told this teacher about my daugh­ter’s re­sponse to my prod­ding: She loved dress­ing up as dif­fer­ent in­stru­ments for the class sin­ga­long. The teacher re­sponded gen­tly that there were no in­stru­ment cos­tumes and had been no class sin­ga­long. I was stunned. She had been right. My 3-year-old cre­ated this an­swer to sat­isfy me. Her re­al­ity was not in the past but in what was hap­pen­ing in the present.

So I caught my­self re­cently when I asked my 6-year-old if she wanted to do gymnastics camp or art lessons this sum­mer. My daugh­ter ig­nored my ques­tion any­way, in­stead gal­lop­ing around the house on an imag­i­nary horse with her brother. Why was I forc­ing her out of this moment? What ben­e­fit would she gain?

My kids know how to just eat an or­ange. I do not. Per­haps I need to step back and learn from them.

Chris­tine Neumer­ski, Takoma Park


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