MENLO PARK, CALIF. — As young parents, my husband and I felt that at age 6 and 8, our children were old enough to be cleaning their rooms and making their beds. But they thought otherwise.
One particular afternoon I found myself nagging (in vain!) at the children to clean up their rooms and begin their homework. Frustration mounted with violin practice. Our son and daughter had begged to take violin lessons, but the initial euphoria had worn off. That day's practice ended with each of them bursting into tears. Clearly, this was not one of the rewarding moments of motherhood!
I retreated into our bedroom, closed the door on the turmoil, and prayed. In one of those felicitous flashes of inspiration, I realized that I needed to change my methods of "mothering." My nagging, repeating myself, even self-justified shouting were landing on deaf ears. These really weren't the kinds of communication skills I wanted to share with my children. The tasks my children needed to do were important to their development. But they had "turned off" my voice. I needed a new voice, a childlike loving "fairy-voice" which the children would listen to.
The next day while the children were at school, I had great fun tidying their rooms. On their desks, in plain sight, I left the first of many little 3 X 5-inch cards: "Dear Bill (the other card was addressed to Sarah), I noticed your room was messy this morning and I'm sure you like it clean. I like a clean room too so I've put everything away. Please let me visit a clean room tomorrow. Thanks. Love, the House Fairy."
When the children returned home that afternoon, they didn't seem to notice the clean rooms, at first. But they sure loved receiving a little note from the House Fairy. Of course, they looked at me and rolled their eyes. They knew who it really was, but they enjoyed playing along.
The next day, their rooms were fairly tidy before they left for school without my having to say a word. Indeed, there was another note from the House Fairy waiting for them, thanking them for their nice "gift" of a clean room and gently asking them to play a certain violin piece. The House Fairy would be listening. Each day, thank-you notes would be worded a little differently to keep the ideas fresh.
Sometimes the House Fairy would propose a little challenge: "If you can finish your homework and check it before dinner, I'd like to watch a special [a children's special] television program with you tonight." Sometimes some M&Ms, or some colored markers, or some other little item would be left in recognition of jobs especially well done the day before. Sometimes reminders were needed: "You made your bed so nicely yesterday; I wish you would take as much care getting the wrinkles out of the gavotte [that week's violin piece]."
I can't remember how long "the House Fairy" continued leaving her love notes. When they were no longer age appropriate, we used various versions of Post-Its. The bathroom mirror became the reminder center of our home. Appointments, notices about visiting relatives, lesson schedules, and changes in plans could be posted. Phone call messages and incoming mail were taped to the mirror.
We all benefited from and appreciated the idea of sharing reminders and daily details of life through notes. We saved our verbal exchanges for more important communication, such as discussing the value of friendships, planning strategies for success at school, reviewing aspects of good sportsmanship, and daily reconfirming how much we loved one another.
Although our children are now adults, I believe the true legacy of the House Fairy notes survives in our frequent and enjoyable communication.