Kid-Sized Problems

When The Knucklehead was five, we were spending our first Christmas in a new apartment. After I tucked him in one night, I peeked in on him and noticed something on the wall by his bed. I couldn’t make out what it was, but he’d drawn on the walls. He was still awake and looked at me, waiting for my reaction.

I was more surprised than I was angry – I don’t ever remember him doing something like this before. “What’s all this about, buddy?” I asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“We can’t draw on the walls, you know that.”

“I’m sorry.”

“C’mon, let’s get it cleaned up.” I got some cleaner and a sponge, and let him scrub it off. I didn’t want to wait until morning; I like addressing a problem right away so we can get past it right away. I didn’t raise my voice or lecture, because I didn’t need to; he knew what he’d done was against the rules, and was fixing it. After a few minutes, the wall looked good.

“Please don’t do that again,” I said. “If you need something to draw on we can always figure something out.”

“OK, Dad.” I kissed him on the forehead, and I never saw him do that again. And I never found out what he had drawn on the wall, or why he’d done it.

Until last year.

The Knucklehead and I were reminiscing and I mentioned that night. “I remember that,” he told me, laughing. “I was drawing a map for Santa. I was worried that he wouldn’t know where to find me. I didn’t want him to miss us.”

* * *

I sure wish I knew that at the time. Knucks, like most kids, probably figured that he was in trouble, and the less he said the better. Maybe I could have asked more, but I didn’t know how to do that without it sounding like an interrogation. But I felt bad, because now I’m picturing this five-year-old kid lying awake worried that Santa wouldn’t be able to fill his stocking. It doesn’t sound like much of a problem to an adult. In fact, it sounds kind of sweet. But to a little kid? Man, you’ve got a world of trouble on your mind.

As adults, with adult-sized problems, it’s easy to forget that. We worry about losing our jobs. About money, and the future. About bearing the responsibility of other family members on our shoulders. We worry about interest rates, climate change, war, injustice, the “check engine” light on the dashboard. We worry about identity theft, and local crime, and loved ones overseas. We worry about our adult relationships with parents, siblings, spouses. We worry about how to keep our teenagers safe. We worry about shadows on x-rays. We worry about the roof, the water pipes, the price of oil. We worry about who will care for us when we’re old.

And those are just the worries of adults whose lives are humming along as planned in middle-class America.

What do kids worry about? Bullies. Spanish vocab tests. Toys breaking. Push-ups in gym class. Whether their clothes are as cool as their classmates’. Asking girls/boys out. Who will be at the party. Getting shots at the doctor’s office. Whether or not they’ll learn to hit the curveball. Memorizing the line in the school play.

And those are also just the worries of kids whose lives are humming along as planned in middle-class America.

So when we adults hear the problems of kids, we don’t tend to take them seriously. We wax nostalgic back to a time when things were that simple for us, not remembering the very real stress we felt at the time. We smile, and say, “oh, I wish I had your problems!” Or we tell them that when they grow up they’re going to have real problems to face, and what will they do then?

And I dislike hearing that, because the message it sends the child is that her problems don’t matter. It tells the child that his stresses and fears are not being taken seriously. Worse, that the feelings he has are wrong. That’s not helping.

Because when kids face their little problems, their little plates are full. Every new problem to a child is the worst problem she’s ever faced in her life, because she’s never experienced this before. Problems, to kids and adults, sometimes look like huge walls. You can’t see over or around them, and as you get closer they fill your vision. You can’t imagine life on the other side, because all you see is this wall. For kids with limited experience in problem-solving or anything else for that matter, it’s hard to imagine that wall ever not being there. That’s a huge stress on someone, little or big. When talking to kids about their problems, be sure to give them room to express that.

Because when we look back on or childhood problems, the big difference is we’re looking at problems that have already been resolved. Maybe we faced our problems and triumphed over them. Maybe we failed, and discovered that what we thought was the worst thing that could happen wasn’t the end of the world after all. Maybe the problem set us off on a new course. Maybe the problem simply went away, a temporary stress. What we know now, and didn’t know then is that there is life on the other side of that problem. There is another side to that wall, and we’ll be on it looking back one way or another in time. Whether we’re happy with our solutions or not, we still learn from them, and we still move on. We can see that looking back. Kids can’t.

* * *

I had all this on my mind as I wrote a letter to The Knucklehead this week. It was on my mind because he recently passed his twentieth birthday, and whenever the odometer turns over another zero, it’s a big deal. I wanted to write something wise to mark the occasion, but was coming up short. Mostly because I was looking back at my own twenties, which had some great highlights, but were also a decade of almost unrelenting stress (along with undiagnosed depression). As I thought about the problems I faced then, I realized that when you hit your twenties and start to enter the adult world, you begin to feel like the safety net has been pulled away. You feel the call and the terror of independence. Somewhere along the way in the next decade or two, “home” is no longer a place other people have prepared for you, but something you must make for yourself. It’s a whole new set of experiences, challenges, tests.

But what isn’t new is that feeling of stress you get when you’re facing a seemingly insurmountable problem. You may not have had to face the issues before you’re facing now, but you definitely have lots of practice in feeling like your plate’s full. That feeling – of being overwhelmed, of being filled with doubt, of fear of failure – is something we’ve all faced at every station in life. It helps to remember that. “I’ve had this feeling of dread before in my life,” you can tell yourself, “and each time I’ve gotten through, whether the results were as pretty as I wanted them to be or not. I survived.”

Even though you face problems you’ve never faced before, you have resources and experience you never had before, either. And you know something now you couldn’t have known as a child: I can handle tough problems. I may not be able to solve them all, but I can survive them. This stress has been here before, and it will come again. But it is not permanent, nor is it insurmountable.

Thinking of life in those terms, you can see how much scarier kid-sized problems are for kid-sized humans. That’s why I like to cut little kids some slack when they’re running around feeling like their world is ending. For all they know, it is. We adults, young or old, know better.

Though it never hurts to have that reminder.

So as The Knucklehead breaks into his twenties, all I have to say is: You got this. You’re ready. “Not feeling ready” is actually a good thing, it’ll keep you sharp. It’s never stopped you before. So relax, focus, and be on the lookout for the unique pleasures only your twenties can provide. Don’t lose them to worry. And to what sorts of pleasures do I refer?

Your first crappy apartment. Your first dog, all of your own. Some of the most memorable road trips of your life will take place in your twenties.

Tuck in.

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4 Responses to Kid-Sized Problems

  1. neighsayer says:

    nice. I like that: empathy, but with an explanation, just in case we all can’t just feel it. Good work.

  2. Wonderful post. And a great reminder for all of us.

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