Responding to the pencil in the wall

As my sons stared at the pencil protruding from the sheetrock wall, their mushy-brained machinations led them to believe they could lessen any ensuing punishment by microwaving marshmallows and using the sticky mess to fill the hole. 

Parenting was weird before COVID-19 showed up and turned the world upside down. If you’re feeling more overwhelmed than usual, you’re not alone. The situation at your house might not be ideal, but neither is life. That’s actually a reason for hope.

For many families, the last year or so has been pure chaos between work, school, and carving out some sort of routine. The hardest part is the perpetual uncertainty. Is school happening or not? Is that cough seasonal allergies or a highly infectious virus? Should we go to church in person or participate online? Add the unpleasant surprise of being exposed to someone with COVID-19, and the whole family is on lockdown. 

During a “normal” school year, many parents only interact with their children for a couple of hours a day. Time outside of school typically goes to extracurricular activities and sleep. That amount of time has grown exponentially during the last year, but many of the other demands on our time haven’t given way. Many of us are doing more in the same amount of time with less help. 

We’re tired, frustrated, and worried about the world around us. It also means we’re on edge.

When one of my sons affectionately climbed on me as I attempted to work at home, I reacted like he poured hot coffee on me. I just didn’t want him on me, and I let him know. I apologized, but I could tell he was hurt. I felt horrible.  

Other parents put their kids online to avoid that type of situation. It’s an undeniable truth that electronic devices keep them occupied and minimize physical destruction. 

Then the guilt creeps in. 

“Am I wrong to just want some space?” “Do my kids think I’m an angry jerk?” “Are my children learning effectively?” “Are they spending too much time online?” “Was I a good parent before all this?” “When am I going to have time to get the house in order?”

Forcing life back to an “ideal” situation isn’t an option, but it doesn’t mean we’re not making any progress.

Think about the sticky mess adorning the otherwise small blemish on the wall in my house. My son shouldn’t have thrown a sharp pencil. He knows better. But there’s more to the situation when I move past my disappointment and frustration. 

Together, my sons recognized the need to repair the damage even if two of them didn’t throw the pencil. That’s a great starting point. They also knew the fix needed to fill the void, have some level of adhesion, and be roughly the same color as the wall. If not the optimal choice for sheetrock repair, the boys made several reasonable decisions and opened up an opportunity for me to teach them. 

They learned, thought, and attempted to take responsibility. Clear signs of maturity existed in an otherwise exasperating situation. 

Life is the pencil in the wall. It’s the unexpected that we must confront. When our tempers flare, we should apologize and reconcile. When our spouse is overwhelmed, we should shoulder more of the load. When our friends just need to talk to someone who isn’t a work colleague or family, we should listen well. 

So many of us are concerned that we’ll be judged for the pencils in our walls that we hide them. It’s particularly easy to do when we’re socially distanced, and it perpetuates the fear that we’re the only ones having a tough time. 

In just one day, my youngest accidentally dumped a whole bag of shredded cheese all over the living room, the dog pooped in my oldest son’s closet, and we forgot a whole row of stinky shoes outside that filled with rainwater. Some days we’re not just on the struggle bus; we’re driving it. 

There is no perfect family standard by which our families are judged. When we think our present family situation isn’t “ideal,” we’re actually reinforcing a lie whether we realize it or not.

What exactly is the correct number of socks lost behind the dryer, objects lodged in the wall, or amount of cheese in contact with the floor? If my answer is always something better than what I have at present, then I likely have a gratitude deficit more than a family issue. 

It can become devastating if left unchecked. My pride affords me a sense of entitlement more destructive to my family than any virus. When life doesn’t go as I wish, my tendency is to wallow in self-pity or lose my temper. I need to choose grace over indignation. Mercy must rise above retribution. Above all, the unmerited love of my family should serve as a humbling counteragent to my arrogance. 

I have no idea when or if we get back to “normal.” It’s also an opportunity to learn and grow. As much as our children need a calming voice assuring and encouraging them, so do our spouses. So do we. 

We should be that voice even as we’re patching the hole left by a pencil in the wall.

Cameron Smith is CEO of the Triptych Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. The Triptych Foundation promotes a virtuous society through investments in socially impactful media and business. He was recently executive director of the Republican Policy Committee in the United States House of Representatives. You can reach him at cameron@triptychfoundation.org.

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