The Sink of Stuff and raising a friend

By ELIZABETH QUINN,

I really loved writing the column a few weeks back that included a list of things I hope my daughters know before they leave home. I could have written dozens more than I did.

It was fun because it’s pretty easy to think of things you hope your children learn. It’s harder to figure out how to teach them those things.

Before I had kids, I had plenty of ideas about what I wanted them to know and what kind of people I hoped they would become. It wasn’t until I was a couple years into parenting that I realized that knowing what you want them to know is the easy part—it’s figuring out how to teach them those things that’s complicated.

I’ve read articles about how to raise includers, how to instill healthy eating habits, how to deal with a bully, how to not raise a bully, how to teach emotional intelligence, how to promote positive body-image, how to teach self-control, how to instill empathy/responsibility/confidence, how to freaking cook brown rice so it’s not gummy—I read a lot of articles.

And while I used to have a lot of specific ideas about who I hoped my kids would be, I don’t anymore. Now, I just want to raise the kind of person I would want to be friends with as an adult.

At first I thought about saying, ‘the kind of person I would want to be stuck on a deserted island with,’ but I’ve watched enough episodes of ‘Survivor’ and ‘Naked and Afraid’ on the Discovery Channel to know that you want a stick-in-the-mud Boy Scout-type in that situation if you want to actually make it off that island. A good human whose company you enjoy is probably just going to starve to death with you. So, I’m going with someone I would want to be friends with as an adult.

I’ll keep reading those articles because you never know when you’ll come across a life-changing tip and for the rare times they suggest something you’re already doing—that’s an ego boost we all need from time to time. But the recurring theme of most parenting advice I’ve read is this: model what you want to see. Includers raise includers, people who stand up to bullies raise kids who know how to, parents who show vulnerability and share their insecurities unleash children on the world who show empathy to others. You can’t raise a child who has a positive body-image if all you do is talk about dieting and how your thighs are so fat.

All the experts have thousands of different rules and systems and bits of wisdom on how to raise good humans, and lots of it is probably very helpful, but they all agree that none of it works if you aren’t practicing what you preach.

Meanwhile, I’m over here telling my kids to use kind words, and then hearing them say, ‘Go already, idiot,’ when someone is too slow off the green light—I mean, can there be any doubt where they learned that from? Their father is far more likely to be the idiot taking too long to go when the light turns green, and I’m the one with road rage issues.

I have no idea what I think I’m accomplishing when I’m screaming at my kids to stop yelling. Saying, ‘LOWER YOUR VOICES!’ at the top of my lungs is probably not going to work. Ugh, being the kind of person you want your kids to grow up to be is a lot harder than you’d think.

I don’t have any kind of plan for how to get better at this. I haven’t found an article titled, ‘How to Be the Kind of Person You Want Your Kids to Be’ or even ‘How to Stop Doing the Things You Don’t Want Your Kids to Do.’ Instead, I’m just winging it—like everybody else I know.

I’m bad at systems and I really stink at follow-through and I am consistently inconsistent with consistent consequences. I don’t even know how I keep a straight face when I ask my daughter if cleaning out her messy school binder would help her keep track of the papers she forgot to bring home that day, when there is a room in my house called The Office of Shame and there’s a sink in the bar area called the Sink of Stuff (it’s a really good place to put stuff I don’t want the littlest ones to see because they aren’t tall enough to look down into it AND I pass it on my way out to my car so it’s a really good place to put things that need to be returned and/or dealt with in some other way, at some other time than right this second—whatever, it’s not perfect, fine it’s not even working—that’s what I’m saying).

She hasn’t called me on this hypocrisy yet, but that day is coming. I’ll deal with it around the same time I finally take those Christmas pajamas back to Target, ok?

Model what you want to see. It’s harder than it sounds. One day my kids will make fun of my messy office and make jokes about the Sink of Stuff and I’ll have to own up to being the one who taught them that idiots take too long to go after the light turns green. I think I can live with those.

There are some things I know I will not be able to live with, though. There are some things that I want my kids to look back on and know that I modeled what I taught them every chance I got.

My pastor, Chuck Poole, often talks about striving to be the kind of people who ‘stand up for and sit down with the people that Jesus would stand up for and sit down with if Jesus were here today.’ I cannot imagine the shame I would feel if my children ever have cause to say, ‘You taught us this and you told us to do that—but who did you stand up for and sit down with?’

I love reading historical fiction as well as what some would call ‘dry’ history books. Every year at the Mississippi Book Festival, I find myself attending at least one panel discussion with a bunch of history professors and biographers of dead presidents and generals.

When I walk in, all the men in their 70s look at me like, ‘Aww, isn’t she cute,’ or my favorite was when one man who—if his eyesight was any indication—has probably survived two century changes, asked if I was there to do research for a college class. I told him yes, of course, and then I sat next to him because he was my new favorite person ever. He dozed off before they finished introducing the panel.

I love learning about different periods in history and wondering who I would have been then. Would I have hidden Jews in my attic? Led downed Allied pilots through the Pyrenees to safety in Spain? Would I have marched from the Selma side of the Edmund Pettus Bridge? Would I have stayed in my pew or left with the groups of black and white students from Tougaloo and Millsaps who were turned away or arrested for trying to integrate churches during the Jackson Church Visit Campaign of the 1960s? I have no idea.

I know what I hope, but I have no way of knowing. I can only look for ways to stand up for and sit down with those people and organizations working in the same spirit today.

If I want to prove to myself that I would have done what I hope I would have done, then I have to find ways to confront injustice and be a voice for those who don’t have one or aren’t listened to today—and there may not be any Allied pilots being shot down in Jackson but there are plenty of injustices to stand against and plenty of marginalized and forgotten folks in our own neck of the woods to lift up; let’s not kid ourselves about that. 

How to stand up for and sit down with will look different for every person who looks around their community and asks what they can do to help. For me recently, it’s meant marching with the Human Rights Campaign of Mississippi in the St. Paddy’s Day parade, donating to Stewpot Ministries when I couldn’t make it to their Taste of Mississippi event, pre-ordering a Stennis Flag specialty license plate to add to the collection of Stennis Flag paraphernalia I already own (bumper sticker, garden flag, framed block print by Laurin Stennis) and supporting Grace House Services at their Drag Brunch fundraiser.

I will be the last person to tell somebody how they should model behavior to their kids or how to support their community—I will actually help you muzzle someone who tries to tell you how best to do that for you and your family; that’s a call we all get to make on our own.

But I saw a t-shirt recently that is the perfect motto for what I want to model and what I hope my kids aspire to be; it said, ‘Blessed are the Damn-Givers for they will Right-Side the World.’ I didn’t buy it because, while I may have a bit of a potty mouth in private, my mother would kill me if I wore it in public and I’m also interested in modeling ‘listen to your mother’ to my kids.

I don’t know how to stop putting stuff in the Sink of Stuff or keep the Office of Shame less shameful—I’m really hoping there’s a recessive gene lurking in the DNA of one of my kids that will result in a need to organize things for their mother; they may be out of luck on seeing that modeled otherwise. But I really want to raise damn-givers. So, that means I have to keep looking around for the people Jesus would stand up for and sit down with—and give a damn. 

Elizabeth Quinn makes her home in Northeast Jackson with her husband Percy and four children.

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