The Best Way to Age in Reverse This Holiday Season

Five words from the mouth of a six year-old kid were the last straw.

Several years ago, I arrived home after a long day to find my oldest son in the kitchen with his kindergarten homework—I think he was trying to glue two pieces of paper together without gluing himself between them. I asked him, “How was your day, buddy?” Hard at work, without looking up, he responded, “Good.”

Then he added, “I got a lot done.”

Merry Christmas

Photo Credit: c@rljones via Compfight cc

I got a lot done.

Those five words weren’t his words. They were my words. Regurgitated back to me. The words of a father who had spent most of his life trying to prove his worth through work and achievement and success. Sometimes our kids become a mirror for ourselves and the reflection is a wake up call.

Thomas Merton writes, “People may spend their whole lives climbing the ladder of success only to find, once they reach the top, that the ladder is leaning against the wrong wall.”

I got a lot done.

It sounds great. Until you hear it from the mouth of a child. Then it just sounds like a ladder leaning up against the wrong wall.

Success or Play?

Where I live, winter has arrived. And when the first snow comes with it, my kids make snowmen and throw snowballs and they enter the house shedding wet clothes like molting snow creatures and they think of hot chocolate and the winter school break and staying in their pajamas until noon. They revel in the messy season.

Meanwhile, I think about shoveling and snow blower repairs and sloppy kitchen floors and a longer commute on icy roads. When the snow comes, I think about how much I have to get done, and my kids think about how much they get to enjoy. I think about cleaning up messes, and they play in the mess. I think about keeping life neat and orderly, and they think the neatest thing is to revel in all the disorder.

Where I live, the holiday season has also arrived, and the divide between adult and child will widen. As adults, we’ll guarantee a successful holiday by getting a lot done—cards in the mail, presents bought, parties planned, holiday concerts attended, endless to-do lists completed. Meanwhile, our kids will enter into a season of awe and wonder and mystery and generosity and gratitude—they will frolic in the joy of a messy Christmas.

The messier the merrier.

Sometimes we look at our kids and we see what we used to be and what we still want to be—people oblivious to the ladder of success, forsaking achievement in favor of a little play. Play is directionless, inefficient, underachieving, wholly messy, and entirely disinterested in accomplishment, competition, and hierarchy. Success is about getting to another place, while play is about enjoying the place where we are.

Some say failure is the opposite of success. I wonder if play is the opposite of success.

And I wonder if play is the gift our children are inviting us to receive this holiday season.

Watermelons and Yule Logs

Several years ago, when my son told me he got a lot done, I realized I needed to let my kids teach me how to play again, how to embrace mess and inefficiency and fun and whimsy. I realized if I didn’t let them teach me, I was going to teach them all about the ladder of success and the wrong kind of wall to climb.

So, we started throwing watermelons out of a second-floor window.

One summer night, as we cut open the big green melon, I suggested we throw the thing out of an upstairs window onto the driveway, videotaping it as it splattered on the pavement. It sounded a bit crazy, but trading in perfect success for messy play often feels a little nuts.

Several years later, the watermelon toss is a firmly established summer tradition at our house. The neighbors come over and we videotape it and we affirm life is best when it’s messy and playful and just a little bit out of our control.

I’m hoping a kid who can replace “I got a lot done” with “I got in a food fight with the driveway” will be able to cling a little longer to the sacredness of play, will embrace the mess of this life rather than trying to eliminate it, and will know his worth is the same whether he’s getting a promotion or getting watermelon juice all over his shoes.

And I think every time we allow this merry season to become a little messy, and then play in it with our children, we are declaring which walls we want to climb.

I’ve never seen a Yule log hit the driveway from two floors up. But I can’t think of a good reason not to.

Question: What gifts do your children give to you during this season and throughout the year? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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Preview of Upcoming Posts:

  • December 20: “Me and a Magnolia Tree: Why I’m Going Back in Time”
  • December 27: “The Top Ten UnTangled Posts of 2013”
  • January 1: “When I Partied Like It Was 1993”
  • January 8: “A New Year’s Resolution That Will Solve 90% of Your Relationship Problems”
  • January 15: “Words from a Father to His Daughter (From the Makeup Aisle)”
  • January 22: “The Key to a Man’s Heart (And Why He Gets Road Rage)”
  • January 29: “Why Egalitarianism is Emasculating (And Why That’s a Good Thing)”

Radio Interview: Click here to listen to my hour long radio interview with Chris Efessiou entitled, “Raising Kids Who Know Their Worth and Their Purpose.” I talk more about raising kids whose success arises from a sense of worthiness.

Free eBook: My eBook, The Marriage Manifesto: Turning Your World Upside Down, is available free to new blog subscribers. Click here to subscribe, and your confirmation e-mail will include a link to download the eBook. Or, the book is also now available for Kindle and Nook

Disclaimer: My writings represent a combination of my own personal opinions and my professional experiences, but they do not reflect professional advice. Interaction with me via the blog does not constitute a professional therapeutic relationship. For professional and customized advice, you should seek the services of a counselor who can dedicate the hours necessary to become more intimately familiar with your specific situation. I do not assume liability for any portion or content of material on the blog and accept no liability for damage or injury resulting from your decision to interact with the website.

Kelly is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-founder of Artisan Clinical Associates in Naperville, IL. He is also a writer and blogs regularly about the redemption of our personal, relational, and communal lives. Kelly is married, has three children, and enjoys learning from them how to be a kid again. You can find him on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Nela

    Those are such true words,. I work in a school, with bunch of 7, 8, 9 year old kids. And I watch them every day how they are trying to create any fun in the classroom, from copying homework to using a ruler. And I see how their hopes and trying every day get stopped by teachers or any other adult. And when I think through, I can just hope that those kids will stay persistent in they game and joy,and that we can find a way to embrace their energy. As for me and all of us “grown ups”, hope not to miss the right leathers.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Nela, it sounds like you truly enjoy the gift of being with those children. They are lucky to have you there to cherish them!

      • Nela

        Thank you. I am learning, every day. And people like you, who share their thoughts of life and their feelings, are helping a lot. You make me smile to our faults and differences, our humanity. Keep on going, I am looking forward to you search.

    • karen eisele

      I volunteer in a first grade classroom and have seen the same things that you describe. Kids are under so much pressure now a days in school and home that the end result is meeting the high standards set by educational systems or social status(thus making the adults look good) instead of developing the child. Here where I live there is a volunteer group whose soul mission is to go into classrooms and give children time to play, teach them to play. What a sad comment on our society. I am sure that the kids you work with feel your joy and in turn are better for it.

  • Jennifer Koski

    The difference I’m noticing between your definition of ‘success’ and ‘play’ is that success places tasks above/before others, and play values and cherishes the real people in our lives.

    • drkellyflanagan

      I think that’s a great way to look at it, Jen. I think for me, at least, the search for success does manifest as “doing” things, rather than “being” with people. Richard Rohr talks about power, prestige, and possessions as the three Ps of “success.” Maybe people is the fourth P and it belongs to play!

  • Jennifer Newell

    Perhaps I am off base here but one of the gifts I have been given this year comes as my kids are growing up and taking on responsibility for themselves, their classes, and in some cases their laundry. As they take on some of the busyness of life for themselves it frees me up to enjoy time with them. I really enjoy watching a show with my kids and talking afterwards. Time is something I treasure. I am thrilled when they want to sit and just talk about nothing. So in my case maybe it is not about being messy as much as not being planned. Biggest mistake during a holiday season happens when we are overly booked with too many good things that your joy is taken away.

    • drkellyflanagan

      Jenn, it’s great to hear from you, and I couldn’t agree more! I think it’s important for kids to have a role in the family early on. It distributes the work load and creates more time for togetherness and play.

  • karen eisele

    Every month I have a theme day with my granddaughter. it is a day when I blend History, Science, Literature and math into fun activities that will enhance her. Whether it is building a kelp forest from crepe paper hanging from my ceiling or making batteries using pickles on National Pickle Appreciation day the emphasis is always on the playing, the fun. A day she can make a mess and not worry about her mom yelling at her for it. But I wasn’t always this way. For so long I measured my life by how many degrees and letters I could put after my name and the real badge of honor was the weeks I could log in over a hundred hours at work!. I was so busy making a living that I wasn’t living.
    I work in a long term care facility now and it is interesting that my residents don’t share the stories of the “Great business meeting I attended” or “:you should have seen how I handled that big account” They share stories of their time spent with families and friends or regrets they had about missing family evants because of work.. Somewhere we lost the wonder and awe of life. We can’t give up being grown-ups and being responsible and having to earn money to pay the bills but we can find the kernal of joy inside us and let it pop wide open to help us balance the adult and child side of us. We all need time to play. I am glad Kelly that you found this out much younger than I did and I just might have to steal your watermelon idea-it does sound like fun and I just happen to have a second story window overlooking my driveway…bombs away!

    • drkellyflanagan

      Karen, I want to be a part of your “blend day!” It sounds like a blast. And I love your story about working in the long-term care facility. It reminds me of Henri Nouwen’s story of working at a home for disabled adults. All of his achievements didn’t matter one bit to them, only his ability to be with and connect with them mattered. Karen, bombs away!

      • karen eisele

        If ever you are in New York you are more than welcome to join us-I am not sure if it is more fun for her or for me either way we both look forward to it. I asked her once what she would remember most about me after I die and without hesitation she answered “Your theme days” . That meant alot to me and reminds me once again why I won’t spend more than 48 hours a week at my job.

        • drkellyflanagan

          Karen, I like the way you place a limit on the number of hours you spend at work. And you just gave me a great idea: sit the kids down and ask each one, “When you’re grown up and moved out, what will you remember the most about our time together?” Then do way more of that!

  • Natalie

    My son who is almost two reminds me everyday how much beauty and learning there is in the daily mess and grind of life. That being able to absorb the special moments of connection and fulfilment in an ordinary day is where we really do find a happy life. I was writing my husbands Christmas card this afternoon and I was a little dismayed that my handwriting wasn’t as neat as it could be. But I quickly reminded myself that the focus of the card was the message of love and gratitude it conveyed and these are at their best when they are laid out like gold nuggets – rough around the edges but of immense value and beauty in their unique form. Merry Christmas and Seasons Greetings 🙂