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.”

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.

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In his debut novel, Kelly weaves a page-turning, plot-twisting tale that explores the spiritual depths of identity and relationships, amidst themes of healing, grace, faith, forgiveness, and freedom.

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Dr. Kelly Flanagan is a psychologist, author, consultant, and speaker who enjoys walking with people through the three essentials of a truly satisfying life: worthiness, belonging, and purpose. His blog writings have been featured in Reader’s Digest, The Huffington Post, The 5 Love Languages, and the TODAY Show. Kelly is the author of Loveable and True Companions.