A child may find joy where you had anticipated a Serious Life Lesson.  And that’s okay.

I discover the counter graffiti at breakfast:

Mom: “He’en? What is the rule about markers on the counter?”

He’en: [pausing a forkful of (pink-colored, flower-shaped) pancake with a guilty start] “Um . . . I’m sawwy?”

“I am sure you’re sorry, but what is the rule?”

“No dwaw-een wifout assking.”

“That’s right. This is permanent marker. That means it’s very hard to get off.  After you eat your egg, you will help me scub it off.”

He’en: [cheerfully, through a mouthful of egg] “O-kay!”

After breakfast, the child is installed with sponge, soap, and a mandate to scrub until the black mark disappears.

She sets to.

[scrub scrub] “I yam skwubbing.”

“Yes, you are.”

[scrub scrub] “Whew. Diss is HAWD.”

I am feeling deeply satisfied right about now. Not because I’m a sadist, but because I’m German and Norwegian. Growing up, our household was Very Serious about life lessons. I’m doing my job. I’m being a good parent. Yay me.

“That’s right, it is hard.  Keep scrubbing.”

[scrub scrub] “Whew. I am TYE-yud!”

“That’s right. And when you draw on counters, and places where you shouldn’t, others get tired because we have to work hard to clean it up.”

He’en: [contrite] “Eye unna-stan.”

I am now content that the Lesson has Been Learned. I can afford to be magnanimous in victory.

“Okay, honey. I will try Comet later. You can stop scrubbing now.”

“Iss oh-kay. I will keep skwubbing.”

“Okay, if you want to.”

Time passes. I wash dishes. Scrubbing sounds and the occasional gasp of effort emanate from the other end of the kitchen. Until:

“Mom! Yook!”

She has worked up a half-inch layer of suds and now waves the sponge as if she’s conducting Ride of the Valkyries.

Mom: “Oh, that’s very . . . um . . . don’t throw soapsuds, honey.”

He’en: “I haff made a Y! Two yines up, and one yine down!”

She points, then adds another flourish with the sponge. Suds cascade off the counter and onto the floor.

“That’s very nice. Um . . . the counter . . . could . . . oh, never mind . . .”

“Come SEE! I am vewwy fast, so you can’ see me goin’! ”

Scrub scrub scrub scrub . . . scrub, scrub.

Suds are now ghosting around the kitchen like snowflakes.

He’en:  [joyously] “Now I haff made an H! It goesss two up and one acwoss. Come see!”

“Come see your H?”

“Yes! Okay!  I am done wiff dis counter!”

She slides off her stool and brandishes her sponge with a bright sparkly look.  Suds and water run down her arm. They puddle on the floor. Her bathrobe is sodden. She never has looked more cheerful.

“Dat countah is ALL clean!  Now what else kin I skwub?”

She powers through the other two kitchen counters, the microwave, a set of cabinets, the front of the fridge, and the stepladder before her arm gets tired.

I suspect she has no recollection that this delightful activity began as discipline. But, you know what? That’s OK.

It’s OK: Today’s Takeaways

  • There’s a difference between a punishment and a life lesson.
  • A child can learn a life lesson through discipline — and sometimes a situation calls for nothing else! — but misery isn’t mandatory.
  • Allowing her to find (and keep) her joy does not make me a bad parent.
  • Learning and joy can co-exist.