My three-year-old, Clayton, loves to put things in order. He loves puzzles, loves to line his crackers up in neat, even rows. For many months, the game that gave him the most joy was one he called Organizing Shoes, where he took every shoe out of the coat closet, set them up in pairs in a long line down the hallway, and then neatly placed each set back in the closet.
When I was young, I would sit in church each week and count the people in the rows in front of me. How many had blond hair? Red shirts? Which row contained the most children? Which sort of people (old, young, tall, short, etc.) took off their coats and which left them on?
My younger sister was obsessed with filling in holes. She would color in her dolls’ puckered up lips, stick pencils in the holes in the window screens, and put her foot in the space between the spokes of her bike tire while riding. (Yup, not a good idea at all, as you might imagine.)
I think every child has some kind of quirky obsession, don’t they? We may laugh them off as adults, but I believe these quirks stay with us. They inform our personalities throughout life. They direct our interests and our strengths.
A few weeks ago, at the children’s museum, Clayton was busy organizing all the pegs by colors at the light board. He was planning to take them all out and then put them back in single-colored rows. (A bit like organizing shoes, I guess.) He was enthralled with the process and excited to see how it would turn out when he finished.
I was struck by the reactions of the other adults around us as Clayton worked. One commented on how smart it was of me to come up with this great early-learning activity. Another giggled at the little “OCD in the making.” Now there is certainly nothing wrong with either of these reactions, but they point to the ways that we try to use adult categories to understand our children’s behavior. In fact, Clayton’s heightened sense of order may be one of his greatest strengths. If we need to translate it into adult terms, we could see it as a common trait among many musical composers, code breakers, computer programmers, geneticists. But most importantly, it brings him joy.
It is so easy to encourage the traits in our children that we understand. Sometimes their little obsessions just seem so weird, so foreign, that we can easily ignore them. Children grow out of them quickly enough, right? Clayton certainly will not be lining up his crackers forever.
But I wonder what would happen if we humored our little ones, even encouraged them in their idiosyncrasies. What sorts of strengths would we be nurturing in them? How can their pleasure today translate into joy throughout their lives?
And what about you? Do your childhood quirks inform your life today?