Let children be children by concentrating on what truly matters

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

My four-year-old daughter and I had an argument one morning. It was early fall, the leaves turning the bright colors of a patchwork quilt. The first cool of frost was in the air. In her jeans, beloved T-shirt with the heart on the front, and a jacket, my daughter turned up at the front door wearing her new white gloves.

I reached for her chubby hands. ''You can't wear those gloves out to play.''

She stared up at me. ''Why not?''

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''You'll get them dirty.''

''No, I won't.''

Ignoring the obvious uncertainty of that, I went on, ''Anyway, they're for dress-up. They'll look silly at play.''

''No, they won't. I want to wear them.'' Her lips trembled. Moistened, her eyes seemed to grow bigger.

So she won that one. As I watched her from the living-room window pedaling along on her tricycle on the sidewalk, my eyes were caught by those white gloves. They shone back at me as if they were mirrors.

I reviewed uneasily my fine-sounding adult argument about the gloves. Yes, the gloves would be dirtied, but - they would wash. Yes, they did look silly, but - who would care? The mailman walking his route, a neighbor going to the store, a playmate?

Did it truly matter she was wearing her gloves?

No, it didn't.

Clothing has caused discussion in our family in other ways, too. Our junior high daughter once refused to wear yellow with navy blue, asserting they ''didn't match.'' Her ideas of what does match clash with mine time and again. But since neither of us is Christian Dior, does this truly matter?

Testing myself with this concept of what truly matters isn't original with me. It came from my mother, who I realize (now!) was usually very wise. She believed that, when it was a matter of common sense (wearing rubbers or boots in rain or snow) or safety (not running into the street), it's vital to be firm. Otherwise, it's useful to test many childhood preoccupations as to whether they truly matter, since the freedom and joy of childhood is easy to squelch with what we call practicality, a euphemism for imposing adult standards.

Reflecting on this, I thought: Perhaps my responsibility is even greater than my mother's. Isn't the age we live in more of a threat to children-being-children than the so-called olden days? Granted, children shouldn't take over our lives. They have to learn what is acceptable, what fits into family patterns. However, with skill and understanding, they can be eased into this, not forced.

Moving around the house after my argument about the gloves, I considered other areas where my children and I differ: in tidiness, and in determining when a job is done adequately.

I quickly found examples of untidiness in our seven-year-old son's room. These included his fort in the middle of the room - constructed of pillows, old covers, upended chairs - which he had warned me not to touch, plus a pile of rusty coat hangers, salvaged whipped cream containers, discarded desk fixtures piled higgledy-piggledy in a corner, ''precious'' things brought home from cans set out routinely on our block for trash pick-up.

Of course, I had to admit our son did make efforts to clean his room at times , though in my opinion it never helped much. He shoved his desk, books, chairs noisily and busily around, providing a result I could only compare with what would have been made by a high wind whipping through.

In the question of doing jobs the way I felt they should be done, I only had to remember the circus our son put on in the backyard. His plans were so vague that, when he sent all the neighborhood youngsters home to get a penny for admission, I almost intervened. It was good I didn't. Much to my adult surprise, the children had a wonderful time doing almost nothing and apparently went home feeling they had received their money's worth. So much for what truly mattered!

I also can remember the little vase of petunias my four-year-old put in the center of the table I had set with my best china and silver for a dinner for my husband's boss. I had saved that center spot for my own arrangement of garden flowers. I almost barked at my daughter to take ''those things'' away but caught myself, though the vase was old and cracked, the flowers broken off at varying stem lengths so the effect was a little tipsy, while some petunias, past their prime, were wilting as though hanging their heads in shame.

Our four-year-old, though, was head up and beaming. In her view, she was helping Mommy!

Musing on all this, I returned to the living-room window to watch her on her tricycle. This time it was not the gloves that caught my eyes and were shining back at me, but her smiling face. What happiness! What joy! I realized then that if I could keep my mind on the concept of what truly matters, our home life would be calmer. Best of all, I could be making a gift of unmeasurable value - that of letting my children be children during their growing years.

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