"Mom. I don't like it when you put my rain pants on top of my lunch bag in my backpack...We go outside to play before lunch, but we have snack before that. When I take my placemat and napkin out for snack, I have to pull out my rain pants, and I don't like having to do that."
It is really remarkable to watch a very young person become more autonomous, thoughtful, and engaged in the day-to-day rhythms of life. When Wyatt told me about the rain pants, we were hurrying to get out the door for school. Fortunately, his comment caught me so off guard that I stopped for a moment and thought before responding. "Oh," I said after a beat, "I didn't know. I thought I was helping by putting them on top. Let's move the pants to the bottom so it's better organized for you." My reward for that moment of parental awareness was Wyatt's pleased expression of satisfaction as he helped me repack his bag.
Even though I know there's a lot more to it, I often feel like my "conscious parenting" amounts to whether I'm able to timely and lovingly manage the rhythm of our days. Some days are better than others. When I shout in exasperation, "I SAID HURRY UP! WE ARE SO LATE!" I know it helps no one, and yet, I still do it more often than I'd like. Things also run less smoothly when Marc is out of town. This past week was no exception. One day I overslept, by a lot. Another day, I noticed Wyatt's jacket was missing just as it was time to leave for school. The futile, frantic hunt around the house for the jacket resulted in our forgetting the broccoli we were supposed to bring for soup day. But thanks to a swiftness and focus I have never before witnessed in my child, we were on time for school the day I overslept. And thanks to his gracious teacher, we were immediately forgiven for forgetting our soup day vegetable. As she said, "The broccoli probably just wanted to stay home."
Maybe another way to describe the new autonomy I'm witnessing is to say that I'm watching Wyatt wake up to the world. Just this week, we have had conversations about life, death, peoples' battles with cancer vs. knights' battles with dragons, artistic expression, freedom, fairness, differences, and equality. These are the topics that arise when David Bowie dies of cancer and we prepare to celebrate Martin Luther King Jr. Day within the same week.
After I told Wyatt that school would be closed Monday for Martin Luther King Jr. Day, he did not give me his usual, "Yay! Three-day weekend!" cheer. Instead, he asked, "Why is there a holiday? Who is Martin Luther King Jr.?" I gave him a (hopefully) age-appropriate explanation about Dr. King's importance to the Civil Rights Movement and how Dr. King dedicated his life to achieving freedom and equality through nonviolence. Wyatt's question then became, "How will we celebrate Dr. King?" I wasn't sure.
I started researching children's books on Dr. King (this list and this list were helpful). I decided to order A Sweet Smell of Roses, which presents the leadership of Dr. King through the eyes of children. In the story, two elementary school-aged sisters sneak out of their home early one morning to join Dr. King on a march. The children experience community with their fellow marchers, and they experience hate from white bystanders who tell them they do not deserve to be treated equally. The illustrations are strikingly beautiful and full of emotion, and the words of the story are easy to understand and wonderfully lyrical. The story ends when the girls return home to their (understandably) worried mother who hugs them and lets them tell her all about the march.
The day the book arrived, Wyatt snatched it out of the box, snuggled next to me on the sofa and insisted that we read it over and over again. We discussed the pictures, including the races of the people in the pictures, and the story. He announced, "This is a great book. I love it except for that page where those people are mean and say that Dr. King and the other people aren't equal. That's REALLY not good."
In addition to books, I researched service projects and marches that we could join on the holiday itself. But none of the activities I found seemed exactly right for a child who's still shy of five years old. In the end, we opted to spend the morning working to beautify our community by picking up trash. Because activities with kids are so often improved by accessories (and because trash is gross), I wore disposable gloves and Wyatt wore disposable mitts. I mostly carried the big trash bag, because as Wyatt said, if he carried it, it would drag on the ground. While we walked through our neighborhood and into the next, we picked up everything we found--from cigarette butts and candy wrappers, to yogurt containers and coffee cups, to clumps of paper towels and cardboard cartons. We also said hello to everyone we passed, none of whom we knew. Three people thanked us for cleaning up, and with each "thank you," Wyatt stood a little taller. One of the people who thanked us was a shopkeeper who came out to give us drinks and new disposable gloves because, as he said, he saw how hard we were working.
At the end of our walk, about a block from home, Wyatt looked at the bag of trash we had accumulated and said, "Mom! That bag must be so heavy for you! Let me carry it." At that moment, we were within earshot of a couple of construction workers. Wyatt's comment was just too much for them to handle with a straight face. They tried to stifle giggles, said a few words in Spanish to each other and went on to commend Wyatt's efforts loudly in English, "Look! Such a strong, strong boy!"
Fueled by those compliments, Wyatt walked with the trash bag over his shoulder for about a half a block before giving the bag back to me. As we stuffed the bag into a trash can, I told Wyatt how happy I was with our good work. I felt satisfied that, in our own little way, we had contributed to creating a Beloved Community, thereby honoring a great man who dedicated his life to achieving freedom and equality.