Saying No Less

Evidence of PlayDoh Sundays
My and my daughter’s last PlayDoh Sunday.

For a little while now, when the wife heads out for a long run on Sunday mornings, my daughter and I sit at the kitchen table and get out the PlayDoh. Being four and a half, her attention span is understandably short. While I work away on a single character, she’s usually making multiple ice creams, or gumdrops, small projects that can be shaped fast and then shaped into something else. This last Sunday was different.

As she normally does, she sets me on some kind of task to make some kind of character and I take it from there. She’ll drop in on what I’m working and add a blob here, a touch there. This week, though, she decided to make her own version of the “candy bar man with a wrapper,” based on what I was doing. As a parent, this was a thrill. And a bit tough. I watched her frustration grow as she couldn’t make it look how she wanted. She began to take it apart, before we were both done (and I could snap a picture). After a little negotiation, she relented and dropped her creation on the table with a dramatic thump. Of course, I thought what she made was brilliant. She wouldn’t hear it.

It wasn’t what she imagined.

There are two skills needed to make something. The imagination to think it up and the tools to execute. As a grownup, I can execute. I know to get a butter knife so I can cut a straight line in the dough. I know how to increase pressure on one end of a dough snake to make it like a cone. I know the dough can’t be stood up on its own, so upright figures with any complexity are near impossible. I understand the limitations. I know when to say, “no, that won’t work,” however much I’d like to do it. As grownups, this is an important skill, especially if we can face the limitations and figure out other ways to solve the problem. The danger is saying “no” too fast. Eventually, all those “no’s” kill the imagination; we say to ourselves, why bother dreaming stuff up that can’t be done? Sadly, it works, thoroughly. We stop dreaming stuff up.

My daughter isn’t there yet. Thankfully. On Sunday mornings, her imagination challenges me to be unabashedly creative, something I rarely do anymore and, honestly, find difficult. I’m paid to be creative all day, but with a trifecta of constraints: clients, code, and time. Simple pragmatism dictates I say “no” at least a few times a day. As the years roll on, I have to guard against “no” being the first words out of my mouth, whatever I’m asked. It’s a crappy attitude that causes complacently and, worse, boredom.

I really don’t know how I’ll help her navigate gaining the skills to execute without losing her imagination. Welcome to parenting, I guess. I do hope in the process she teaches me to use my imagination a bit more and say “no” a bit less.

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