After my son’s birthday, he and I sat down to write thank you notes. We had the presents in front of us on the dining room table next to a stack of cards and stickers. William had a lot to say and his pencil couldn’t keep up. Writing felt time intensive, and fitting all the words he wanted to use on the small space of a notecard seemed impossible. So I was handling the writing. My son was talking in a fast flow of words I was supposed to take down directly, and then he’d sign the note at the bottom and decorate with a few stickers. The trouble was, some of the words he was using were not exactly appropriate thank-you card material.
“Tell her thank you for the trainset and I love it, but that the top piece is really hard to get in place and I hate that.”
I wrote, “Thank you for the trainset, I love it.”
Next he dictated, “Tell him the lunchbox is great, but that I tried popcorn inside and I hated it.”
I wrote, “The lunchbox is great.”
I was my son’s silent censor that day. I felt particularly sneaky altering his writing and knowing he couldn’t read it and catch me. He signed his name proudly at the bottom of each note. Eventually I tried to talk about it. “Sweetie, you don’t put the bad stuff in a thank you note, just the good stuff.” Though I’m sure this was the right thing to say, I’m not sure he really heard me.
Even little tasks like thank you cards arrive with unstated rules. Or, to put it another way, writing a thank you card isn’t just about learning how to write, it’s also about learning what to say. Fortunately, due to my sneaky moves, all the words we put there were worth sharing. We talked about the rules together, and I’m sure we’ll talk about them again.
All of this made me think about how we are buffers for our children. We cushion, protect and absorb little problems, giving kids time to think about the unstated rules at home before they misstep out in the world. As I noodled on the metaphor, I realized how many types of buffers there are. In rail transport, for instance, there are two kinds of buffers: a buffer to cushion the impact between two vehicles, and a buffer stop, which enables the vehicles to say on the tracks. Though I’m no train conductor or engineer, I too want to help my child in these ways – to protect him from unintended collisions and to keep him focused on how to best move in the world.