It’s no secret that I am a runner and that I run with my kids. Sometimes with both of them in a double jogging stroller. This weekend I headed out for a run with my boys and, as usual, I started out without really knowing where we would go. After a mile or two my oldest son said, “Mama, why do we always have to go the same way?” I thought about it. I didn’t realize that I always go the same way when I have them with me, but it was true. Every single time I run with the double stroller, I go the same way. It’s a challenging, but not super difficult, four-mile loop that has nice scenery, a moderately hard hill and some downhill fun, which turns almost dangerous when 100 pounds of stroller and kids builds momentum and pulls me faster than I can comfortably run. I complain about it every time. And yet, here we were, running it again. I told my son that I didn’t know why, but that it just felt good and it seemed like a good way to go. And then I pondered. And pondered. And pondered some more. My pondering brought to mind some similar scenarios.
- At the park I watched as a two-year-old child struggled to make her way up the climbing structure. The first time, it took her several minutes. She struggled and whined, and I was pleased to see that her father supported her but didn’t help her up. She made it to the top, turned around and yelled, “I did it!” Then she slid down the slide and ran straight for the bottom of the structure again. Again, she made her way up, still slow but with notably less whining and grunting, got to the top yelled “I did it!” again, slid down and ran back to the beginning. She went up no less than 10 times. Every time faster, more sure of herself. And every time feeling accomplishment at the end.
- A parent of an eight-year-old girl worries in my office about her daughter, “I see her struggle over and over again with this one friend of hers. I really think she just needs to get a different group of friends. I tell her that, but she won’t listen to me. She just keeps having the same fight with this girl, every night.” Over and over again.
- A one-year-old boy chooses a book for story-time. A caterpillar is hungry, eats so much food, gets fat and turns into a beautiful butterfly. “Read it again, Mama!” The tired mother thinks she would rather read just about anything other than this same book. Instead, she turns to the beginning and reads… “In the light of the moon…” Pretty soon, the boy is saying the words with her. “Read it again!”
- A parent tells me that she is worried about her adult son. “It’s like he has to recreate the wheel. Why can’t he just listen to us? Why does he have to make every mistake that his father made?”
- A five-year-old begins to recognize words. “Look!!!! There is the word STOP!” she yells out at every corner on the long drive home. Her excitement is clear; she is sure that she is the first person to ever make this discovery and she has to share the news! It’s monumental.
- A preschool boy turns a stick into a weapon. A rock becomes a car. A ball with a board on top becomes a mode of transportation. Invention. Discovery. He is, in all actuality, reinventing the wheel. And oh, it feels so good. “Look! I made a work truck!”
- My two-year-old stands on a chair to reach a high object, the chair falls and he crashes to the ground. He cries out, yells at the chair and, still crying, stands the chair up and tries again. The chair falls again. I am tempted to get it for him, or tell him he can’t have it. Instead I tolerate my fear and sit close. He cries louder, pushes me aside and stands the chair up. Still crying, he climbs up, this time with the chair against the wall and his hand on the wall to hold himself steady, he wobbles as he reaches up and grasps the object. Tears still on his face, his smile lights up and he holds it out to me. I take a deep breath and congratulate him on accomplishing his task. I walk out of the room and later see him doing the same thing in another location. He figured it out and is trying out his new skill. Over and over again.
Reinventing the wheel. It is, in my opinion, the very essence of life. Figuring something out for oneself. Experiencing the joy of discovery, the challenge of improvement, the satisfaction of mastery. This is what life is all about. Sure, someone can physically lift us to the top of the play structure, or tell us how to negotiate friendships or buy us a toy that has pre-fabricated components, but the reality is that those things will not be our experiences. They will be someone else’s experiences, someone else’s discovery. They will be slightly foreign and, in the end, we will set them aside or ignore them and find our own way to learn our own lesson.
We recreate the wheel because we want to feel the pain, we need to whine and be uncomfortable. We want the challenge of the jungle gym, the difficulty of relationships, the complication of figuring out how to transport heavy objects. We want the pain because without it we cannot feel the joy and pride and accomplishment on the other side. We will not get to stand at the top with our hands reaching high and scream at the top of our lungs, “Look at me!!! I did it!!!” And we don’t just want to do it once, we want to master it.
I realized that even now, as an adult, I run the same loop because I know I can do it, but I haven’t mastered it. I have reached a level of comfort with my loop that allows me to think about things like form, or speed or upping the ante by pushing two kids and a stroller up the hill. I know how my body feels at different places along the loop, I know where the sidewalk is cracked and where I have to step to the right or turn to the left. My knowledge of how my body feels gives me comfort, while I can still push myself to make it harder, more challenging. And it feels good. I can compare my current performance with my past and I know I am getting better. Without anyone telling me. I am learning about my body, my limits, what I am capable of and what I can still work on. So over and over again, I recreate the wheel and run the same loop. Someday, I will master it. Then it will be time to find a harder hill.
It’s just like the little girl on the playground structure. Next time you’re at the park, pick a kid and watch them. Chances are, they will be doing the same thing. Finding something that challenges them, and then doing it over and over again. Each time, getting more and more secure. When I watched the little girl, I noticed that she was extremely mindful about her body. She was paying attention to where she put her hands and her feet. She made small adjustments each time until it felt right. She was learning about herself. Learning about her world. Without anyone telling her.
Sometimes it’s amazing to watch someone reinvent the wheel. Sometimes it’s painful. The eight-year-old girl figuring out her friendships is hard to watch. It nearly killed me to watch my son fall a second time from his chair. We want to shield them from the pain. We want them to learn from what we already know, take our wheels and make their lives easier. But whether it’s a jungle gym, a favorite book, a friendship or a running loop, we are destined to recreate it. Each of us. In our own time, in our own way, we need to shape our own wheels. Hopefully there is someone there cheering us on. Ready with tissue or band aids or blow horns or confetti. Recreating the wheel is hard work. And it’s what life is all about. Let’s get to it. And let’s get out of our kids’ way. Their wheels are waiting!
*Amazing photo credit to Tumbleweed Infant House.