When our children were very young, my husband bathed them every night in a pint-sized assembly line, one or two at a time. He strummed his guitar and sang lullabies, folk songs, goofy Woody Guthrie and Jerry Garcia tunes.
Now our children bathe independently. If they have had the grimy, backyard kind of day they love we have to empty the tub and start over with fresh water three times. The days we consider our best end with clean, sleeping kids and dirty footprints in the tub.
There usually is a ring of grime at the water’s edge. Foliage floats to the bottom sometimes; remnants of slide-tackles, stolen bases, hide-and-go-seek and mud puddles. The residue in the tub reminds us that the kids played outside, unsupervised games that did not involve electronics or the Internet.
One of the trendiest words for parents is “grit.” For bathroom parents like us, it’s a mighty useful word. Children acquire grit in wide-open fields, campgrounds, neighborhoods and baseball diamonds. They also can find it in those rare families and classrooms where there still are expectations, chores, limits and a central authority.
The term is new, but the quality of character it hints at is not. Grit is commonsensical, a trait generally admired, one so essential it’s hard to imagine success of any kind without it. So much of modern parenting involves meticulously protecting children from discomfort and unhappiness, grit seems like a new discovery. It’s not. Frustration and failure always have been a part of the human experience. Stamina always has been essential.
The problem for bathtub parents is that we find ourselves distracted by a niggling sense that our children are falling behind. Though we decided not to enter the Rug Rat Race, we end up hurrying to keep up with parents who are aiming for a different goal. Thinking of grit gets us back on track.
These days my husband and I are trying harder to be the type of parents we admire. We suffer through the consequences of our children’s bad plays, bad decisions, missed shots and mistakes, but we try not to interfere in the ordinary course of discomfort. Some days we forget, some days we wimp out, but we stay the course.
Most parents didn’t set out to act like helicopters or tigers or marshmallows. Parents dedicated and thoughtful enough to read and reflect on their interactions with their children do not need another reminder that we are screwing things up. We appreciate an earthy word like grit to give us traction and renew our confidence.
When our children enter the tub looking, in their proud grandma’s words, “filthy dirty!”we consider it a good sign. We did the best we could that day, hoping that our backyard brew of dirt, skinned knees and elbow grease produces the grit they will need as they move on to broader fields and tubs of their own.