Many years ago, my family frequently socialized with another family. We liked the mother. We liked the father. We liked the children. We liked the parents together and we liked the children together. That said we finally came to the conclusion that as much as we liked each of them individually, we needed to limit our exposure to them as a family.
There was something about their family dynamic that caused the children to constantly cry, whine and fight, while the parents took sides, over-reacted, and frequently lost their tempers. It was high drama chaos that left my family feeling like a live audience for a particularly icky reality TV program. Of course every families occasionally falls into cycles in which everyone behaves badly. We’re human, after all, but this family was a special case. It was a spiral in which they are all aware they spun – we had many long conversations about it – but from which they seemed incapable of breaking out.
I find myself reflecting on this family around the holidays. I know that some years they have a Christmas tree, while other years they’ve celebrated Hanukah. I think they’ve occasionally done both, while I know that the plan for this year is to kind of ignore the holidays altogether and take a vacation in the sun.
The mother is a brilliant, warm woman with a crackling type of creativity that can leave the unprepared breathless. As the emotional center of the family, she is a vociferous proponent of chaos. “I can’t stand doing things on a schedule,” she says. She is joyfully late for everything, continually forgetting her promises, while at the same time unexpectedly undertaking monumental tasks of compassion and thoughtfulness. (She thinks of me, incidentally, as a kind of fuddy-duddy who rarely does anything spontaneous.)
One thing I know about children, however, is that as wonderful as chaos theory can be for the right kind of adult, it is generally problematic for kids. Routines and rituals are the building blocks from which secure, confident children are built. Regularity of this kind allows our children to anticipate and make predictions, it allows them to prepare themselves for what’s coming, and it provides a template from which to begin developing beliefs about their world. To a newborn, all is chaos. Much of what a child does is simply strive to make order. They need the rules, schedules and limitations in order to exercise their own, unique genius. As Goethe wrote, “In limitations he first shows himself the master.”
The 2-year-olds who arrive at Woodland Park are already happily conversant with the “limitations” of their families. Our first job in preschool is to create a place in which the children can begin to develop that same kind of trust in the bigger world. At this point in our school year, I would be surprised if there is a single one who can’t recite our daily routine. We have a core batch of songs that all the children know better than their parents and through which we will continue to ritualistically cycle for the rest of the year. The children are becoming increasingly familiar with the rules at preschool and are thriving in the knowledge of what is expected of them. The best evidence of this is that so many of them are now testing the edges of the rules, working on gaining a more precise understanding of the limits.
Traditions and rituals work in a way similar to rules and limits, creating a rhythmic order out of chaos.
As we engaged in our Woodland Park community tradition of sharing our holiday memories, I wondered what my own daughter, Josephine, will say when she sits in similar meetings as an adult. She’ll probably talk about Christmas and Hanukah gatherings of family and friends, and presents, traditions she shares with her larger community. But what are those traditions – those annual rituals – that she shares only with the smaller community of our family? One of those rituals for me is the annual Hobson family wrapping paper fight, which I shared here a few days ago.
I discovered what I suspect will be one of Josephine’s future memories by accident several years ago. Each year from the time she was born, we drove somewhere like Issaquah or Carnation to cut our own tree. We have a 15-foot living room ceiling and we wanted a tree that scrapes the rafters. After compulsively tying and re-tying our Frasier fir to the roof of the car, the sappy trunk hanging in front of the windshield, the tip jutting some 6 feet behind the car, we would set out for home. It’s not a trip I looked forward to. That year, even before we got out of the lot, 5-year-old Josephine reported, “I don't think it's slipping, Papa.” For the next 10 miles she provided regular reports on the status of the tree, informing me with code words (“If I say ‘slip’ that means the tree is slipping off the back of the car. If I say ‘fall’ that means it fell off.”). As we accelerated onto the freeway, she said, “This is the dangerous part.”
“What do you mean, ‘dangerous part’?” I asked.
“This is where you always say that if the tree falls off you’re not going to go back for it, and we have to have a Chubby & Tubby tree.” (This is a now defunct local institution known for it’s inexpensive holiday trees.)
I'm guessing that this will be one of the things she shares in that future parent meeting: the annual “Hobson family white knuckle I-90 dash.”
I love my family’s traditions and I’m tempted to think about those children of chaos with pity; no two holidays alike, disorder reigning, but the truth is that there’s nothing to pity. They are bright, happy kids for the most part, loving and loved. Removed from the midst of their fighting, whining and grumbling, I can even see the patterns of their own unintended traditions. There’s a sort of ritualistic aspect to the fighting, the tears, the soothing, the scolding. It’s not pleasant to me, but in its own way it’s as predictable and orderly as anything any of us do. The shape of their love for one another is circumscribed, the limits affirmed, order is created from the chaos.
As adults these kids may very well seek to create quieter, saner, more orderly traditions for their own families, but I suspect they will speak fondly of a holiday-free beach vacation in the middle of winter.