So when he started to pitch screaming fits whenever we tried to drop him off at his preschool or Sunday school class, we wondered what was going on. He had been in preschool for six months already, making friends and doing fine. He always said he had fun in Sunday school, and we always got good reports from his teachers.
But all of a sudden, teachers were having to pry his little fingers off the mini-van door to get him into school. We asked if there had been any kind of incident that would change his attitude. Everyone said no.
After thinking about it and talking about it, my wife and I began to realize that he wasn’t upset about going to school; he was upset about leaving us. He was fine up until the moment of separation, the moment he would have to walk through the door and live life apart from us. Then he was overcome by anxiety and uncertainty.
I wanted to do something to help him, but didn’t know what. Because he’s pretty smart and a good communicator (when I can’t remember a cartoon he’s talking about, he’ll re-create it in Lego, like he was an expert witness in a lawsuit brought by one of the cartoon characters: “See, here’s the part where the faulty Acme magnifying glass set the bird’s butt on fire. Remember now, dad? I rest my case.”), I just asked him. “What can we do to make you happier when we drop you off at class?” I said.
I suggested some ideas that I thought would comfort him. I considered giving him something of mine that he could hold onto during class, like my wallet or my cell phone (yes, those are terrible ideas, but a day where I don’t consider a bad parenting idea is like a Friday the 13th where nobody checks that strange noise coming from the basement).
The idea to make a drawing was his. He said that he might like it if he had a drawing of our family and our house that he could take with him to class and keep in his pocket. I said that I thought that was a great idea, and he quickly produced the picture that you see above.
On the next Sunday morning, we folded up the drawing and stuck it in the pocket of his shorts. He kept his hand on his pocket to make sure the drawing was in there, and when we got to his classroom… he walked right in. As Rachel and I were walking away, he was pulling out the picture to show to his teacher.
It worked, and it’s worked ever since. But why?
Wondering about that made me wonder about this: Why don’t my wife and I break down crying whenever we drop him off?
It’s hard to explain what makes us feel connected to people. Sometimes you can feel very close to loved ones who are distant. Sometimes you can feel a million miles away from a person who’s sitting right next to you.
It’s a skill of sorts. It’s certainly something you can learn to do better. And most people do, as they grow older, learn to connect with others and maintain connections. At least they learn how it’s done, even if they don’t necessarily do it.
Graham did a little learning in this period in his life, a time when he started to grasp the reality of separation. Mom and dad don’t stop existing when they leave the room. They’re still out there, somewhere, in the big, unknowable world. That’s got to be a little unsettling, the first time you realize it.
One of the fun things about having kids is you get to watch them go through these stages of figuring life out. And they do it without any of the adult camouflage that we wear to make it look like we have everything together. Graham’s solution to his fear of separation was a picture he could use to help him remember us together. Even when we weren’t physically close, that picture proved to him that there was such a thing a a connection between us. It was a physical symbol of a spiritual reality, for someone who hadn’t yet learned full confidence in things of the spirit.
Kids aren’t the only ones who need little talismans. Even grown-ups who are good at relationships (or maybe I should say, “Especially grown-ups who are good…”) know that there’s something about them that is magic — unquantifiable, unlearnable. It’s not physical but it’s real, and solid. We can’t see it but we know it exists because it alters the trajectory of our lives like a gravity well.
When something affects us like that, we instinctively want to be able to see it, to put our hands on it. It’s the instinct that leads to things like autographs, wedding rings, and stained glass windows. We need tangible symbols of spiritual things, because we know better how to rely on our senses than how to rely on our faith.
As Graham grows, I hope his mom and I can teach him that bonds like ours don’t need physical proof. And I hope that we remember that lesson ourselves, as his world gets bigger and he grows away from us. The physical distance can be great, even infinite. The connection — purely spiritual, unseeable, unknowable — stays as real as the rock beneath our feet.