We drove across town, surrounded by winter whites and only the bare staccato of sleety snow on our windshield to break the silence.
Maybe that’s what I love best about a snow day: the way the world becomes muffled and hesitant. We have permission to wait and see on a snow day. Or to stop striving altogether. And in those silent states, we’re offered a chance to latch onto a thought in a way we simply cannot when buffeted by the noise of busyness and clamor.
My son took that chance and ran with it.
After a dozen minutes watching the frozen world go by, he piped up from the back seat with a question, apropos of nothing.
“Mom, when are we going to move into a different house?”
It was a weird question: nothing housing-related had preceded it; we’re not in the market for a new house; haven’t been for almost a decade now; and don’t plan to be.
These thoughts swirled in my head, rudely accompanied by this unreasonably giant leap:
Does our child dislike our home? Is he unhappy with his life? Are we dull and uninteresting?
It occurred to me that not so very long ago, and probably plenty of times still yet in my future, I could have taken my son’s admittedly petulant question very personally and allowed those italicized thoughts to dominate my response. That is to say, I would have reacted to my triggers, rather than his needs as a child.
When we’re not feeling particularly anchored in what our kids need, it’s easy to let our worries and irritations run away with us. The need to be absolutely correct and point-blank honest in my answers prevails more than I like, overpowering what my questioning child really needs: in this case, an acknowledgment of doldrums. Or longing.
So instead of letting my overzealous assumptions leap into orbit, I sat still with my own thoughts and asked my son for more of his.
“Does a different house sound like fun?”
“Yes!” he admitted. “It’s just that I wonder what sort of bedroom I would have, or what color the walls would be. I’ve never moved into a new house, and so many of my friends have!”
It wasn’t entirely true that he’d never moved; we bought our current home when he was only 10 months old. Too young to remember the exciting drama and endless work of moving house.
But that wasn’t the important part of his emotion. It was a thirst for newness, interest and variety. You know, the spice of life? The small pings that make our brains light up with pleasure? Still, we can’t buy a new house (or car or wardrobe or toy) every time we crave newness. It isn’t smart living, and it isn’t good for our souls. There’s a lot to be said for developing a healthy relationship with delayed gratification and basic contentment.
All of which are conversations that aren’t compatible with most 8-year-olds. Still, we address them as best we can. And in the moment, the best I could do was hold back my assumptions long enough to acknowledge his feelings as valid and acceptable.
“Yeah, you’ve lived in our house since you were a baby,” I said. “You know all of its quirks already. All the best hiding places. What do you think a different house would be like?”
“I don’t know,” he said. And for the first time, his voice pivoted from petulance to introspection. “It would probably have a basement. And a third floor. A bigger bedroom, for sure. A swimming pool! A room full of big fat chairs and a movie screen. It would be on an island! Not like a beachy island, but like a rocky, mysterious island, with a dock and a boat and some caves ...”
He wove a tale that included new puppies for each member of our family and limb-lined trails to be explored. A cove. Tall evergreens. Sea-smoothed stones and the occasional combination blizzard/hurricane to be contended with. The story he told himself banished all thoughts of a real-life desire for newness, instead building the interest in his own imagination until it occupied his need for something shiny. The brain ping. The spice of life.
I had a sudden memory of myself at about his age, standing before the wide mirror atop my bedroom dresser. I stood off to one side, small for my age, thin and glowing with the memory of summer suntans. I stared at my room’s reflection — bed on the equal but opposite side from how I usually saw it. Window shining with the uniquely wrong-sided slant of the setting sun. Toys stacked on a shelf, but backward, interesting. Maybe behind that closet door in the reflection, there was a secret passageway, I thought. A trap door. A whole new world.
It was essentially the same thing my son had done on our snowy car ride. I had built an imaginary world to be intrigued by. Stretched the bounds of real life for a minute. Dreamed of excitement and newness.
Not because I was ungrateful or greedy, I think. But because dramatic shifts are attention-grabbing. Not because I would grow up to be a wanderer with insatiable appetites for excitement, but because I was a normal human, imagining other lives. Other selves.
While my boy continued to wonder what sort of dock could be built on a rocky island, and how we would get food, I was thankful my immediate (and wildly unreasonable) worries had been checked by the more calm, mature and confident parts of myself. It turns out I still like to build castles — or unreasonable battles — in the sky. Much like my son had built a wooded island home in his head.
Instead of jumping in with unhelpfully harsh truths and joy-killing stoicism, it worked out just fine to let him dream for a minute. To let him scratch that all-too-human itch for novelty.
SARAH COYNE is a parenting columnist for the Globe. Her email address is email@example.com.