February’s doldrums are upon us. The festive season is long gone, and summer break is far beyond our reach. As an antidote, I would like to recommend Mem Fox’s classic picture book Harriet, You’ll Drive Me Wild! (Harcourt, 2000). If you are anything like me, you will relate to the protagonist in this story immediately – and her experience might help you redeem the Dog Days of winter.
This book tells the story of Harriet’s mother, who is struggling to work down the day’s ToDo list. Her daughter inadvertently opposes her at every turn by making mess after mess after mess. She knocks over a glass of juice; she dribbles jam all over her jeans; she accidentally pulls the tablecloth onto the floor; she drips paint on the carpet; and so on and so forth…
Mother begins the day with admirable patience, but her irritation inevitably grows as Harriet continues to wreak havoc in the house and make herself a nuisance. “Harriet, my darling child,” Mother repeats through increasingly gritted teeth, “Harriet, you’ll drive me wild!”
Finally, after putting Harriet to bed for a nap, Mother takes advantage of the first quiet moment she has found all day by sitting down to balance the checkbook. Just when she is beginning to make real progress, Harriet executes the coup de grâce. Getting up from her nap illegally, the child rips a hole in her pillow, covering everything in the room with feathers.
“There was a terrible silence,” says the narrator. It is more than Mother can take. She loses her patience and her temper and, ignoring Harriet’s repeated apologies, vents her frustration in a tirade. She yells at Harriet at the top of her lungs.
As homeschool parents, Missy and I can relate to this story, particularly in February. This it the time of year when the grand plan we made back in September, our homeschool ToDo list, has been thwarted by mess after mess after mess. We only got half as much done before Thanksgiving as we planned, and momentum for the rest of the year has pretty well petered out. Memorial Day, when we usually quit for the summer, seems light years away, but still we will never finish the curriculum by then. The combination of unreachable expectations, spotty past performance, and lack of vision for the future makes us feel like failures. The Dog Days of winter are here, and we sit cooped up inside for weeks at a time with nothing but our own inadequacy to keep us company. It must be February -- the wheels of the homeschool wagon are falling off again!
At these times, Missy and I both find it hard not to lose patience, like Harriet’s mother, and take our frustration out on the kids. After all, they don’t seem to care. And they should care, because we are doing this all for them. Is it too much to expect that they would at least pull in the same direction?
So we yell at them – out loud on occasion; in our hearts continually. And, in the terrible silence that follows, we come face to face with yet another failure. Not only have we failed at school administration, curriculum design and teaching; we have failed at parenting as well. Not only have we failed to give them the schoolroom lessons they needed; we have also failed to provide them an example of godly character – of patience, kindness and self control. Not only are they going to grow up illiterate and unprepared for the world; they are also going to bear for our sake the punishment of God, who promises to “visit the iniquity of the fathers upon the children unto the third and fourth generation.” (Exodus 20:5)
In these times of real anxiety, we find profound relief in the dénouement of the story of Harriet and her mother. As soon as she regains her composure, Mother immediately regrets her outburst and apologizes to Harriet. “I’m sorry, too, “ she says wearily. “I didn’t mean to yell, and I shouldn’t have done it. But sometimes it happens, just like that.”
Here’s the encouraging part: Harriet understands! For the first time in the story, she relates to her Mother, person to person, and responds in kind: “Big mess,” she says. “Really big mess,” Mother agrees. And then they both begin to laugh. They spend the last moments of the story acting out their love for one another, laughing about their experience and cleaning up the feathers together. Their relationship is restored – or, more accurately, established – by Mother’s willingness to be a failure.
This story reminds me that my creaturehood, with all of its limitations and sins, is the one thing I have in common with my children. We are failures, all of us, and it is only in our sin that we can really relate to one another.
Think about the story again for a minute: what kind of relationship with her mother did Harriet enjoy while Mother was trying to model patience and self control? Not a very good one, unless you count irritation and neglect as love and concern! It was only in mutual confession, repentance, and forgiveness that they loved each other, and these things came in on the heels of Mother’s temper tantrum.
If I present myself to my children only as an example of godly character, they will inevitably conclude that we have nothing in common. If, on the other hand, I share my own sins with them and walk in repentance, they will see not only that I am a creature as they are, but also that I am the same kind of creature, with the same specific weaknesses. It turns out that that the dire warning of Exodus 5 might actually be a blessing, rather than a curse! How much better for my sons to share my own sinful tendencies, than to struggle with others to which I cannot relate? Our shared sinfulness is a built-in platform for establishing real relationships – a gift, indeed, from God.
The good news is that because of Jesus’ success, you are free to fail. Because you are the one that Jesus loves, you are free to fall into the sins and character flaws you inherited from your fathers and cannot avoid passing on to your children. You are free, in so doing, to avail yourself of the mercy that only comes to sinners, and to stand with your children on the ultimate common ground: as objects of the undeserved, unfathomable, and unceasing love of God.