A few months after my oldest son was born, I felt confident and on top of the world. The months prior to his birth, I gradually added to my toolbox and researched everything from sleep training and homemade baby food to the language I would use when he played independently and interacted with others. I would let him make mistakes, but I would also use praise centered around the character traits I valued most. I was an assistant principal and similar to my school’s mission, I would teach my son to be self-motivated. I would teach my son to think critically. I would model for him the value in helping others. I would teach him the value and joy of lifelong learning. As a family, we will take him to art museums, restaurants, playdates, zoos, and parks.

This parenting thing was  going to be cinch.

The Chaos

Self-motivationI do not remember the exact day, but only remember it was warm. It may have been late summer or early fall I can’t recall. But I remember what our doctor said and can still hear her chuckle and tone of voice like it was yesterday. “Huh! Would you look at that? Twins!” Twins. We were a hybrid car-driving, 400-square-foot-apartment-living family of three living in New York City. Twins?

The Reality

If you were a fly on the wall in my home, you would not see what I pictured years ago while anticipating the birth of our oldest son. Eloquent phrases aren’t at the tip of my tongue. Instead, eloquent phrases incorporating specific praise have been replaced by phrases ranging from, “Don’t wash your face with toilet water!” to “Don’t lick the dog!” On a good day, my three boys, now ages 6, 3 and 3, eat their recommended dose of fruits and vegetables.

It is easy, amidst the chaos, to ask, “Whatever happened to that toolbox?” It is easier to see missed opportunities than examples when I taught my children to be self-motivated, to think critically, to help others, and to discover the joy in lifelong learning. However, a few months ago, I saw an example of a lesson learned in the chaos, a lesson I might have never taught during those wonder years.

Principle 7 of 11 Principles of Effective Character Education focuses on the importance of fostering self motivation. This principle has been useful when it comes my interactions with my children. Here is one example. 

My oldest son loves legos. In the days leading up to his sixth birthday, he asked for “Big kid legos” and not “6-year-old legos.” We purchased a few sets and on a rainy Saturday, let him play independently while I chased his twin brothers. During rare moments of silence, I occasionally heard my oldest son ask for help. At one point, I glanced in the kitchen on my way to get band-aids, and I saw a tear or two. I reminded him that he had all of the tools necessary and encouraged him to try again.

Hours passed and just before dinner, my oldest son ran out of the kitchen with pink cheeks and eyebrows raised smiling from ear to ear. “I did it, Mama! I built it all by myself!” And on that rainy Saturday afternoon, I saw the beauty in chaos. I saw the lessons my son learned when he worked hard to attain a goal. However, instead of me teaching my son to be self-motivated and to think critically, he learned these lessons when he struggled and I can only hope, discovered the joy in lifelong learning. Although I might have been more articulate during the wonder years, I also would have jumped to assist. It is difficult to watch your child struggle. It is difficult to find beauty in chaos. But once it is found, it is completely worth it.  

At the end, I found my toolbox afterall. It never actually left my side. The tools in there were simply tools I use more often than others. Each day, I strive to add to my toolbox and in between laughter and screams, I sharpen the original tools. 

Meghann PenissaireMeghann Persenaire is the assistant principal at St. Hope Leadership Academy, a 2016 National School of Character in Harlem, New York.