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Lesson Number One

“You can do one all by yourself, Mommy.”

It was our first trip to All Fired Up, the paint-your-own ceramic shop in Carytown. Mistake number one was assuming I could get away with purchasing a single item to paint that day. It was more about funding than anything else. I’ll just watch, I remember thinking. Maybe I’ll help her a little. Apparently, 4-year-old Sam had a different idea.

Mistake number two was reaching for the paintbrush. Her paintbrush.

Before I knew it, she was standing in front of a wall stocked with chalky mermaids, butter dishes, and soccer ball banks. Sweeping her arm á la Vanna White, Sam showcased the options for me. “You can pick one out right here,” she advised politely – and practically skipped back to the table and her work.

I didn’t paint anything that day; it wasn’t in the budget. Nor did I try to help – not even a little.

Several years ago, there was an article in Reader’s Digest by a local mother who took help to a new level. When her son, Louie, was in first grade, Martha Randolph Carr could tell he was struggling with language arts. “To avoid labels being placed on my young son,” she wrote, “I did what I thought was best: I started reading to Louie.” Every book he came in contact with, whether for school or for fun, she read aloud to him. Her system worked through the elementary and middle grades, where Louie earned mostly Bs on his report cards. But by ninth grade, Martha said the workload grew too heavy for her to manage. Slowly emerging from a place of denial about her son’s difficulties, mother had no choice but to get out of the way. That’s when son finally found the help he needed.

Of course, Martha’s story is a world away from everyday experience.

Or is it? A friend in New Jersey told me about her son’s longhouse.

It wasn’t the most creative longhouse in the woods, or the sturdiest, or even the largest. But it was his, she said. And despite my friend’s efforts to upgrade her son’s project, he stood by his work. The night before the project was due, a last check on Facebook revealed just how far another classmate’s mother was willing to go to help her fourth grader. Not only did the mom finish the project while her daughter was at swim practice, she had the gall to post pictures of the museum-worthy longhouse replica she had crafted.

In the past few years, I’ve heard of assignments that come home from school with Parents are allowed to help! scrawled across the bottom. Perhaps educators think if they throw mom and dad a bone occasionally (Go ahead guys, build that dream volcano!) we’ll leave the rest of the schoolwork to our kids. While working on a project together can be a bonding experience, I’d prefer to come up with those on my own. Like raking leaves for instance, or cleaning out the garage.

One of my kids’ favorite teachers did find a middle ground. She assigned a particularly intense project one nine weeks and with it, included special directions for parents that looked like this: It’s okay to brainstorm for ideas. It’s not okay to write your child’s topic. It’s okay to suggest a few key words for a search. It’s not okay to bookmark four key websites.

Several months later, Sam and I went back to that ceramic studio. Her dad’s birthday was around the corner and she had already decided to paint a coffee mug for him. “I’m painting something all by myself this time,” I told her on the way there.

I had learned my lesson. Things would go better, and both of us would have more fun if I picked out something, too. When we walked in, I scanned the shelves and was quickly reminded of the vast selection. She read my body language perfectly.

“Don’t worry, Mommy. I’ll help you,” she said.

What I didn’t realize that day was, she already had.

Karen Schwartzkopf has her dream job as managing editor of RFM. Wife, mother, arts and sports lover, she lives and works in the West End with her family, including husband Scott, who not coincidentally is RFM’s creative director. You can read Karen’s take on parenting her three daughters – Sam, Robin, and Lindsey, also known as the women-children – in the Editor’s Voice.
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