--2 Mother Tongue: Neverending Stories
Sept. 25, 2017
Courtesy of Mummelgrummel via Wikimedia Commons

Mother Tongue: Neverending Stories

A mother's procrastination habits are contagious

April 18, 2014, 11:00 am
By Lauren Whitehurst

The assignment was due the next day. Actually, it was due the day before. In the middle of completing the assignment, it became clear that the draft was twice as long as allowed. I’d have to arrange for another set of materials to redo the whole thing. Within the hour. This was my 6-year-old son’s kindergarten write-your-own-book project, by the way.

This also is nearly exactly the story of many, many assignments in my life. Theo is assuming—and I am teaching? enabling?—my worst work habits! At 6! From overwriting to procrastinating, my proclivities are channeling straight through to my son. I looked from his book draft to him, wiggly in his chair. Years of Theo pulling all-nighters to finish too-wordy papers and study for exams passed before my eyes—along with years of me staying awake with him in troubling solidarity.

It started out fine. He dictated his story—he was way into it and way detailed—and I transcribed. He copied my careful printing into the formatted “rough draft” pages, numbered them, and wrote a title in fancy, curling letters: The Adventures of Theo and Murphy on their Transforming Sub. Murphy is Theo’s stuffed monkey.

Theo dove into his drawings with a Sharpie rainbow. His precise submarine boasts a hatch, a periscope and the letters CVS—because the sub’s parts came from CVS. (Who knew?! I have new respect for the versatility of mass-market pharmacies.) As Theo’s sub dives, it assumes features of an angler fish, that pale, creepy creature swimming ocean depths with its teeth-erupting mouth. A fishing-rod growth arcs from its head, dangling a lighted lure to draw curious fishes into its maw.

Angler fishes are cool monsters, and a submarine that replicates one is very cool, indeed. You can see how Theo and I got carried away here. He wrote the story in the draft book and then started rewriting it on the official glossy pages provided for the final version.

His letters started out legible, but his focus soon waned. Sitting down for homework/book work became an escalating whine-fest. Piercing. Wracking. I was busy and overscheduled, juggling my own projects, (missed) deadlines, kid activities, appointments and overlapping calendars that didn’t include the book’s due date.

It loomed, but vaguely, and it seemed to move further into the future as days progressed. Also, it became increasingly difficult to ask my tired kindergartner to do homework after I’d dragged him and his sister through errands and meetings. He needed to play: outside, with Legos, dress-up, whatever! At the very least, he needed to play first.

Inevitably, however, play plus dinner plus emotional sibling negotiations plus bedtime routines equaled zero book-writing time. Theo finished a couple pages here and there, but I didn’t push it. Neither did I pay attention to his pagination.

Then, one day after school, Theo mentioned, offhand, that everyone had turned in their books. He dropped his backpack and ran to play. I ran to the computer, pulled up emails from his teacher and discovered that, yes, it was the due date.

I spread the book on the kitchen table. I organized while Theo wrote and drew. Sylvia sprinted behind us in her tap shoes and occasionally leapt on my head from some nearby platform. Soon enough, Theo had two official pages remaining, and I realized I should’ve heeded pagination. Theo hadn’t numbered the pictures, so he’d created a 22-page book. The page limit was 12.

I have heard my parents laugh about the uncanny replication of my childhood self in Theo. If my childhood self had known Theo, we probably would’ve hung out. We play similarly. Apparently, we work similarly, too, and now I needed to halve his story. Fortunately, as an inveterate overwriter, I’m a practiced word-slasher!

I called Theo’s teacher: We needed a new set of official pages. She was incredibly gracious, driving to school to get them and delivering them to our house. I said “Thank you!” so many times she told me to stop thanking her.

“Okay, buddy,” I said to Theo, feeling the familiar, focusing adrenaline of a tight deadline and a night of work. That I felt this on behalf of my kindergartner is, at best, unhealthy. “We’re going to do this, and you’re doing great, and we just need to focus and power through!” Everyone performs this little self-pep talk, right? What age is too early to introduce it to kids?

“I know,” Theo said. “It’s like when Daddy has a deadline and has to work hard.” And he maintained remarkable focus until he was nearly falling asleep on his project’s glossy paper.

I am not sure how to feel about my kindergartner employing his parents’ work habits. Horrified? Or merely unsettled?

Theo loves telling and illustrating stories; he’s enthusiastic about describing details. His book wasn’t burdensome when it began—it seemed fun, like something we’d do ourselves anyway.

If I’d paid more attention, of course, he wouldn’t have had to do it three times. Also, by prioritizing playtime for a week, we created a last-minute scenario. Play was more important, though: He’s 6! Was this early play-hard/work-hard inculcation? Is there value in leading one’s kindergartner to the late-night brink of a next-day deadline?

“That’s how the world works,” a friend said with a shrug. This is true, often. But do 6-year-olds need to know that?

Theo is proud of The Adventures of Theo and Murphy on their Transforming Sub, and I’m proud of his tenacity. Soon, his class’s stories will return from the publisher as hardbound books. It’ll be a big deal for the kids to hold them and read their own work.

Over the next weeks, though, we’ll be getting outside, moving and playing. I’ll seek to keep Theo engaged in learning, but not overwhelmed. This is a delicate balance for everyone. It’s a life skill that I’m still learning—and figuring out how to model for my children.


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