Tommy is learning all sorts of things in school this year, and since he’s learning them from our dining room, sometimes the whole family takes part in his lessons. Last week, he ran into the kitchen screaming, “I need to find something that starts with the letter T!” which led to a mad scramble as we all tried to think of an object that fit that description.
His teacher is doing the impossible job of keeping dozens of 6-year-olds engaged, and part of that entails having a schedule with breaks. During these breaks, the kids often have “assignments” to complete, and either Chris or I will take a few minutes to help Tommy do his work.
The other day, as part of Tommy’s reading comprehension, he was asked to “make a prediction” about the story he was reading. It was a concept that was difficult for him, and Chris tried to explain it further. “It’s something that you think will happen in the future,” he said, as Tommy studied his face. “Like playing Roblox?” Tommy asked.
Chris wasn’t sure if this was exactly what the teacher was envisioning with this exercise, so he continued to talk about predictions. But Tommy just couldn’t seem to really grasp the idea.
Predictions are really hard for a 6-year-old. I guess that’s because the concept of time is so different for young kids. When I ask Tommy about something that happened in the past, he often cannot remember things that were much farther back than a few weeks. This is why his memories of his father are so few and far between.
Tommy also doesn’t have to pay the mortgage or make sure that he keeps his job, another important part of adult decision-making. As a first grader, he has little control over many aspects of his life, which can be frustrating, but it also means he can live in a world where he isn’t forced to make many decisions about the future. That’s not the case with any adult I know.
Instead, we have to constantly predict the future. This is true in the little things, like making sure there’s milk in the fridge every morning for cereal, and also in the big things, like putting away money to fix the roof or exercising regularly to stay healthy. If I think about it rationally, it doesn’t seem like a bad trade-off: I get more control over my life as an adult, and in exchange, I have more responsibilities.
Except it’s not just that. Because there’s one more thing that comes with the ability/necessity to plan for the future:
I actually never had much anxiety before Shawn died. Yes, I had the normal worries about my kids and my job and my relationship. But I didn’t worry much about whether the big stuff would work out. Shawn provided me with a level of stability that I took for granted. Once that was gone, the anxiety hit.
I tried to make it go away. I tried to remember all of the good days and the happy memories with Shawn. But the thing about anxiety is that it’s future-based, and when my anxiety got going, it usually wasn’t rooted in a rational analysis of my current realities.
As the months turned into years, my anxiety lessened. It still comes back when life is hard (see: coronavirus) but I’m able to manage it a bit better these days. And yet, when I actually do think about the future – when I let myself imagine what could happen – sometimes it’s overwhelming. Even if I’m thinking about good things.
Lately, I’ve realized how much wisdom there is in Tommy’s worldview. Sure, I’ll probably never get to the point where I don’t make any predictions, because I’m still a parent and a teacher and an adult. But maybe it’s time to make a lot fewer predictions. Maybe it’s time to think about the future not as a scary thing, but rather as a place that’s somewhat unknown – and may not be all bad. In fact, there could be some great surprises ahead.
That’s how it is for my 6-year old. His lack of predictive power sets him up to see the world as a place of wonder. Yes, bad things can happen. But amazing things can happen too. After dinner last weekend, we told the kids that we were going to roast marshmallows over our fire pit. “What??” Tommy screamed, a huge smile on his face, “this is the best day ever!”
And it honestly was the “best day ever” for him. When you don’t know what’s coming next, how great is it to find out that you get something other than shrimp and broccoli for dinner?
I don’t even like marshmallows. But that night, I ate one. I did it to make my kids happy but also because I wanted to capture a bit of Tommy’s worldview, the one where anything is possible.
Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.