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Obsessive execution disorder

EBWW- Norine Dworkin-McDanielBack when my son was in kindergarten, he’d come home every so often with an assignment to put together a poster presentation on a country in whatever part of the world his class was studying at the moment.

And naturally, given that my then 4-year-old thought “baby sounds” not “search engine” when he heard the word Google, and since he had yet to master even the hunt-n-peck approach to typing on a keyboard, his homework assignments became my homework assignments. That year, I learned an awful lot about Japan, Egypt, Chile and Spain.

(Did you know Spain produces 44 percent of the world’s olives??? Fascinating, right?)

Still, it wasn’t like my kid had been asked to do a PowerPoint presentation on Spain’s debt crisis (good thing because I’d have been completely useless there). Poster presentations are fairly easy, drawing on those essential kindergarten skills: cutting, pasting, scrawling with crayon. So even though I was some 40 years removed from kindergarten, I had some inkling of what the end product should look like.

With our very first poster project, we spent the day Googling pictures of Spain’s geography, architecture, food and culture. Or rather, to be more precise, we spent 24 hours in 10-minute increments over many, many days because that is the average attention span of a kindergartener who is not playing Hill Climb on your iPad. Because if the project was to play Hill Climb on the iPad, he’d have the whole damn thing knocked out in five minutes. But since teachers, even kindergarten teachers, do not send kids home with instructions to play Hill Climb on the iPad and then report back, it will take approximately three weeks to do a poster project that would take the average adult about 20 minutes to assemble. And that’s if there’s a paper jam … and you need to run to Staples for more ink cartridges … and the Staples is 10 minutes away … and you get a flat tire en route.

Being that the kid was (hello??) four and had never put together a poster presentation before, and because I have a black belt in perfectionism, the trick in pulling together this poster project would be to gently guide my child in the process of cutting out the images and gently make suggestions about how they might be artfully arranged on the poster board … without shoving him out of the way and slapping the whole thing together myself.

I wanted him to do it by himself. And I wanted it to be good. I wanted it to be the best damn poster presentation on Spain the kindergarten teacher had ever seen. I wanted him to do a GOOD project BY HIMSELF. (You’re probably beginning to see the enormous sinkhole threatening to open up right under this precarious situation.)

“HE needs to do it! Let HIM do it!” I scolded my husband when the poor man attempted to position some of the images on the poster himself. My husband then slunk off to clean the pool filter, something he knew he would not get yelled at for doing, because I have no idea how to clean the pool filter and would never think of cleaning the pool filter anyway.

But then it was me hovering, micromanaging the project, basically doing exactly what I’d just chided my husband for doing. Yes, I wanted my kid to do it by himself. I just wanted him to do it by himself MY WAY. (Did somebody say … sinkhole?)

“Here, Sweet Pea, let me show you …” I started, trying to be helpful … and move the project forward.

But, alas, by this time, my son had reached the end of his four-year-old attention span. I couldn’t blame him. I was so tired of sitting and watching him cut out the images to paste on the poster board — because a 4-year-old will only cut out images if you remain sitting right next to him at all times  — that by the time we reached the actual arranging and pasting stage of the project, I would have willingly spent the rest of the afternoon watching episodes of Thomas The Tank Engine (the most inane children’s show this side of Barney) if we could just, for the love of Pete, wrap this up already. But while I couldn’t budge him forward, I also couldn’t walk away either. While my kid clearly didn’t want to work on the project anymore … he still refused any and all entreaties to give it a rest.

“Okay, Sweet Pea,” I say, forcibly swallowing my annoyance. “How about you try it this way…”

But every attempt to demonstrate how he might organize the material was met with resistance. There really is no stubbornness like four-year-old stubbornness. He was young enough to outlast me … and old enough to know he was driving me bat-shit crazy doing it. He pouted that he didn’t know what to do … then insisted that he didn’t want my suggestions either. In an act of supreme frustration he swept all the photos that had been laid out on the poster into a pile on the floor.

I thought back to the teacher telling me this would be a fun project … and wondered what she’d been growing in her garden and smoking.

There was no fun. What there was was prodding. There was cajoling. There was bargaining. There was angst. And anger. There were tears. There was yelling. “JUST GLUE THE PICTURES ON AND BE DONE WITH IT!!” It is possible that scissors were thrown. (Safety scissors … more like dropped … with a great deal of force … still, definitely not my proudest moment.)

But eventually, every picture was stuck on the foam-board in some manner, and there was crayon scrawl beneath, identifying what each photo was. It was … a mess. It looked exactly like a four-year-old did it: crooked pictures; jagged cutouts; illegible crayon scribbles.

Walking into school the next morning, I caught another mom carrying her kid’s poster into the classroom. It was a poster about Holland. And it was beautiful. I stopped her just so I could admire it. There were photos from a family trip arranged, just … so. A candy wrapper from a bar of Dutch chocolate. Postcards of windmills. Pictures of tulips. It was a work of art.

For a moment, I had an ugly flash of poster envy. Now why didn’t my kid’s poster look like THAT?!? This was gorgeous. So tidy. So perfect. So … oh! I really can be a little slow on the uptake, especially before I’ve finished my first gallon of coffee. And then I realized: It was so perfect, it was highly unlikely that her kid had had any part in its assembly. Maybe he’d had some buy-in on the concept. Maybe he’d chosen the country. But Mom had done the heavy lifting and curating and pasting. And it showed.

I looked at my kid’s poster again. It looked exactly like a 4-year-old had done it. And it made me proud.

– Norine Dworkin-McDaniel

Norine Dworkin-McDaniel is the co-creator of Science of Parenthood and serves as its Chief of Scientific Snarkiness. When she’s not blogging about the mysteries of parenting a 7-year-old, she writes on health, parenting and relationships. Her work has been published in Health, More, Lifescript, Redbook, Prevention, Shape, iVillage and Parents. Meanwhile, you can catch all the science-y goodness each week with a free blog subscription and follow Science of Parenthood on Twitter and Facebook.

Reflections of Erma