The earlier we start

My three-year-old preschooler recently arrived home with an assignment—create a project on a paper bag depicting “what home means to me.” The students could draw, attach photos, or use any other creative impulse to express their version of home. But whatever that version was, it would be displayed in the school hallways with the rest of the class’s finished work.

I understand that this is meant to encourage a shared discussion and experience for parent and student. But the idea that the work would be displayed made it difficult to follow the advice I always share with parents here—step back, don’t do things for your student that they can do themselves, and allow them to make their own mistakes. Still, we were resolute not to over-involve ourselves.

The discussion portion of the project lasted all of ten seconds before he scribbled wildly with a blue pen and proudly announced that it was an apartment downtown where he lived with all his friends. Apparently, his vision of home in that moment was not our home at all, but a different dwelling in a different location where he lived with friends but not his parents or sibling. It felt like a foreshadowing of the weeks before he leaves for college.

As of this week, Classroom A’s projects began popping up on the school hallways, most of which are elaborate parent-driven depictions involving photos of family gatherings, images of pets and siblings, and artistic renderings of various activities taking place in the home. And perched up there next to all of them is my boy’s indecipherable scribbling.

Did we do the right thing? Could we have coaxed him to watch us create something more meaningful that would have left us proud to see it depicted on the hall’s walls? As is so often the case for parents, I have no idea. I’m not a child rearing expert. I don’t know if we should feel proud or humiliated. That’s the parenting challenge. There’s no manual, no well-defined best practices or step-by-step procedure. You do what feels right.

But I do know that if we can’t step back now, how could we possibly expect to do so later when the stakes feel even higher? The future for every family is clear. Kids grow up, they move out, and they must find their way in the world. At some point, hopefully in the much distant future, parents won’t be around any longer to manage their lives even if they wanted to. We don’t get to control that eventuality. But we do get to control how we prepare ourselves and our kids.

And the earlier we start, the earlier we’ll all be prepared.