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By Mir Kamin

There’s some expression about how the older you get, the more you realize you don’t know. I often tell my kids that it must be nice to know everything; I recall that belligerent certainty from my own teen years—I just knew I was right!—and while I remember it and know it’s a normal developmental stage, it still makes me crazy. They are sometimes so convinced of their rightness I realize where the phrase “shake some sense into them” comes from, because the temptation is nearly overwhelming. Wisdom is embedded in knowing how much you don’t know, I’m sure of it.

Or maybe I just think that because I’m keenly aware of how much I don’t know, anymore.

I say it all the time: The longer I parent, the more convinced I become that I don’t know a damn thing. My knowledge banks on the topic of raising well-adjusted humans aren’t just empty, they’re overdrawn. Advice I shared when the kids were younger—and I won’t say that I was smug, because I hope I wasn’t, but I was earnest about it, I’m sure, because it was just true—now seems laughable. Oh, yes, younger me—for sure if you do X when your child does Y it will result in Z. That’s just logic! That was back when I still believed children were predictable. Hahaha!

My parents were here for a visit a few weeks ago, and my father is a word puzzle nut. Crosswords, cryptoquips, whatever they put in the paper, he’s at the kitchen table, pencil in hand, working some sort of puzzle. My daughter went and grabbed an old crossword puzzle book and sat with him, one day, working her puzzle alongside him, until it was pointed out that she was using a kids’ book and could probably handle the puzzle in the paper. “No, that’s too hard,” she said, at first.

Here’s the thing about my beautiful, brilliant nearly-adult girl: There is no gray in her perception. Everything is black or white. It’s impossible or it’s ridiculously easy. It’s a life-or-death issue or it’s pointless. Everything I once understood to be true about motivation and purpose has been turned on its head with this child, because I haven’t a single clue as to how to help her to understand that so much of life is actually gray.

So, the crossword puzzle: She thought it would be too hard, therefore it wasn’t worth attempting. But my dad is sneaky, you know, and he started asking her for help. And later, when he abandoned the puzzle for a while, I found her hunched over it, pencil in hand, filling in answers her grandpa hadn’t been able to suss out. She showed it to him later on and he was blown away by how much she’d done, and I beheld a rare sight: my child looked proud of herself.

Since then, the puzzle page disappears before we’ve even finished unwrapping the paper, seems like. She does the LA Times Sunday puzzle first, as a warm-up to the NY Times Sunday puzzle. She asks me to work on it with her, sometimes, and any parent of a teenager knows that when you’re asked to come do something recreational with your child, you don’t ask questions, you simply move in slowly so as not to startle them. I’m a decent crossword puzzler, I think, after years of practice… but she is better at them than I am, already. She doesn’t need my help. Still, I oblige because I am fascinated by the entire process.

My child who can’t be bothered with homework that doesn’t interest her or who gives up on assignments as soon as she runs into something she doesn’t know will spend hours on these crosswords. She is undaunted by the clues that mystify her; she knows if she keeps going, eventually she’ll have more letters and may figure it out. This same kid who cannot remember to set her alarm at night or seem to get out the door on time or gather up the items she needs before she does so will periodically bolt upright with inspiration, having just figured out the answer to a clue that’s been niggling at the back of her brain for a day or three.

There was a time when I believed I could simply shape my children into the forms I believed most productive. The right environment, the right discipline, and of course they would tow the line or else. Today, my daughter is a classic underachiever—while she possesses the intellect for great accomplishments, her actions rarely match her potential (for a variety of reasons, and let’s not debate whether this is a choice or disability, because now I know that we can’t know the answer, anyway). Chores remain incomplete, schoolwork is neglected and/or forgotten, responsibilities often go unmet. A few years ago, I would’ve surveyed this landscape with anger and frustration and met requests for puzzle time with proclamations like, “Well if you can’t be bothered to do your chores, I certainly can’t be bothered to sit with you while you play” and the like.

Nowadays, I know how much I don’t know. I settle a dog on my lap while she and I put our heads together at the kitchen table and put the paper between us. We take turns. I see her—the true her, smart and funny and competent and engaged—and I know that she can have anything she sets her mind to. I also see that right now, it’s just a crossword puzzle. I wish I knew how to swap out that puzzle for half a dozen other things, just slip more important goals in there and see her focus on them with the same spark and intensity. But I can’t. I no longer kid myself that if I just hit upon the “right” thing, everything will be “fixed.”

I do love crossword puzzles, though. And oh, how I love the lovely young woman who invites me to work on them with her. And so for now, I work on the puzzles, making peace with how much I don’t know.

About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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  • The flow, man, the flow | Woulda Coulda Shoulda

    November 11, 2014 at 11:41 am

    […] But hey, it’s all a part of learning to be wherever I am. Today I’m over at Alpha Mom, working on crossword puzzles and acceptance. […]

  • suburbancorrespondent

    November 11, 2014 at 11:59 am

    Oh, I hear you, babe…

    And how much do I admire you for getting the print editions of both the LA and NY Times Sundays?  We are a dying breed, we print lovers.

    Pssst….NYT Crossword Online might be a nice Christmas gift, too.

    • Mir Kamin

      November 11, 2014 at 12:11 pm

      Don’t get too impressed; they print both puzzles in our local Sunday paper. 😉 

  • KIm too

    November 11, 2014 at 12:03 pm

    Last year, about this time, I emailed you for advice on my 6yo who I thought might have ADD.  Turned out both of us do.  I thanked you then, but I’m thanking you again, because this?  This post right here?  Already sounds so familiar, even though I have years to go before adolescence (thank the powers.  I am storing up patience.)
    This has been such a year of discovery for us.  My little one has her own issues, and just like that – I have two special snowflakes of my own.  But between you and Amalah, I am much better equipped to handle it all, even when I don’t think I am handling it well.  Thank you. 

    • Mir Kamin

      November 11, 2014 at 12:10 pm

      ADD is such a sneaky thing, particularly in girls/women. I don’t know that I can claim any real credit here, but I’m glad you’ve found me helpful, and that you and your kiddos are finding your way. 🙂

  • Kira

    November 11, 2014 at 12:13 pm

    Love this. 
    Love you.

  • Jamie

    November 11, 2014 at 12:25 pm

    My 13 year old boy is like this so much. He has the potential to do so much better in school, but he chooses the lazy, I don’t feel like doing it path. It is so frustrating. Thank you for sharing that it’s not just my kid!

  • robin

    November 11, 2014 at 12:32 pm

    Just read this article before I read your post.  Thought you’d like it!

  • RuthWells

    November 11, 2014 at 12:47 pm

    You are hitting me right in the parenting feels today, my friend. Lovely. And ouch.

  • el-e-e

    November 11, 2014 at 1:39 pm

    Why did this one make me all teary? But it did. Glad for both of you, to have this to share. 🙂 

  • Lucinda

    November 11, 2014 at 4:08 pm

    If there were singular right and wrong answers in this parenting gig, it would come with a manual.  I don’t think the key is knowing all the answers.  I think the key is just understanding what you can control and what you can’t.  Sounds like you are there.

  • Jodie

    November 11, 2014 at 4:19 pm

    Mir, thank you so much for always sharing.  I feel like you share a version of motherhood that is so real and accessible it’s made me a more present and wise mother just because of the lessons you bravely bring out for the rest of us.

  • mykidsmom

    November 11, 2014 at 7:05 pm

    There are websites that will turn a list of words into crossword puzzles for you. You should totally make a list of words about home and school work and turn them into a puzzle.

    • Mir Kamin

      November 12, 2014 at 7:33 am

      Oh, this is dangerous knowledge for me to have…. 😉

  • Rita

    November 11, 2014 at 9:48 pm

    Thank you for this. Your Chickadee and my A share so much in common… same age, same ADD, same intellect, yet under-achieveing, same can’t remember chores, hair-washing and putting her bicycle in the garage, but can puzzle for hours and read 9 books in a weekend. The standard answers don’t work, and I’ve had to learn to be okay with what is, rather than what I dreamed it might be. But my A is also a lovely young woman who is slowly finding her way on her terms and figuring herself out. May I just be patient enough to let her be who she is.