Suburban Snapshots

Hurry Up: The Value of Other People's Time

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Like the millions of other kids posed in adorable outfits with brand new backpacks and eager expressions, Anna started kindergarten last week. We have many friends in our neighborhood, all with "walkers" — these are the non-bus-riders, not the undead, to clear up any confusion — who live in the neighborhoods closest to school. Alone, this is a five-minute walk. On days when Anna wants to go use the school's playground, it's maybe a ten-minute walk. This morning, from the time we left the front door until we were navigating the chaotic circle where coffee-guzzling parents play Frogger from the curb to the smiling principal's welcome at the door, it took forty-two years.

When this post was first published and started appearing over and over in my news feed as the You're Doing It Wrong Post du Jour, I thought you know, I really do let my kid accomplish things in her own time. I've waited for tons of rocks to be collected and filled my car with all manner of leisurely-gathered pinecones and dandelions. It takes a legitimate effort on my part — I was raised in New York, we talk fast, we walk fast, and we get out of the way — so I learned to break my stride for a dropped penny or tossed gum wrapper. I remind myself that things are still new for her, and that childhood is so brief.

But I think it's important to teach our kids that other people's time — including their own parents' time — is meaningful too. That sure, my getting to the dentist on time or making my dinner reservation within fifteen minutes might not rank with the things I'll be grateful for on my deathbed, but they do matter. It's disrespectful to assume the person on the other end of your lollygagging has that time to waste; think about how you feel when you're sitting for so long at the pediatrician with two healthy kids and one sick one that by the time you leave they're all on amoxicillin.

So I lost it a little bit this morning. On our walk to school, as we collected friends and parents each time we turned a corner, with harried grown ups driving mindlessly through our neighborhood, I must have reprimanded Anna a hundred times to pick up her pace and pay attention. The enriching part of this experience is her learning to negotiate traffic and crowds, it's about understanding street safety and socializing, and not to gather and inspect rocks from the same driveway she stops at every time we take this route. The distance we walk isn't to be spent whining that I should carry her backpack, and I want to have conversation beyond threats of leaving that backpack in a stranger's driveway if she can't manage to wear it, or urging her to speed up, or watching her fiddling with her name tag, oblivious to oncoming bikes and cars. I'd like us both to enjoy the groggy, morning company of our friends but to walk with purpose.

Instead, today I lagged twenty feet behind our group, and Anna another ten behind me. I stopped every little while, patiently at first, to ask her to catch up. But soon my patience ran out just like it does the times we're heading to the grocery store and she's instead climbing the rock pile that's been stationed in my driveway for four months, inspecting it like it dropped from the sky that very second. It's like living with that guy in Memento.

When it counts, yes. I want her to take time to gaze in wonder, put it up to her nose and examine every facet. I want to look at her face and remember what it must feel like for so much to be new so often. But I also want her to understand that being on time means something, it's not always arbitrary. It's respectful and considerate. If the school principal is waiting to greet her every morning with a smile, then it's only right she's there in time to return the gesture.

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