Sunday, January 17, 2010

The List

My daughter A___ woke up this morning and presented me with a detailed schedule for her day, in 5- to 20-minute intervals. It begins ...

7:45 Wake up
8:00 Eat breakfast
8:20 Get up dolls
8:25 Get dressed
8:35 Get into tent for work
9:00 Go out for fresh air
9:10 Eat lunch

... And later ...

2:30 Work in tent
2:35 Sing to mommy
2:40 Do a puzzle
2:45 Sit and read
3:00 Watch N___ play
3:10 Watch mommy make dinner
3:30 Take time alone
3:35 See the puppy play
3:40 Sing to daddy
3:45 Work in my journal
4:00 Use the bathroom
4:10 Read Berenstain Bears
4:20 Work
4:30 Play a game
4:35 Play Tinkerbell
4:40 Eat dinner
5:00 Eat more dinner
5:30 Eat candy!


Oh, boy. I thought. This spells trouble.

Because it was soon apparent (if not surprising) that she intended to stick to this schedule. Right down to the 10 minutes she spent outside in the 40-something-degree "fresh air" in her T-shirt, followed by the peanut butter and jelly sandwich she proceeded to make for her 9 AM "lunch."

Any and all questions about her behavior were met with a shrug. "It's on the list." In other words, this entirely arbitrary collection of activities with times attached had taken on a life of its own. It had Authority. It was The List.

Now, I understand that my kid likes schedules. They help her feel in control, in a world that regularly assaults her senses and nervous system without warning. But she can also be a tad ... putting it nicely ... rigid.

So my husband and I exchanged our hang-on-it's-going-to-be-a-bumpy-ride look once again, as we gently informed A___ that our plans for the day diverged from The List. Then we hunkered down to ride out the tantrum that inevitably followed, all the while shaking our heads over her inflexibility. Where does she get it?

Less than an hour later, and without a hint of irony, I was crying in frustration because I had a cold and lacked the strength to get through the list of PT exercises I had planned for today.

Looking back, it's funny. And it's not.

Why do I do this to myself? Why does my list -- usually filled with things that I want but do not need to do (we're not talking about fetching water from the well, here) -- take on such authority? How many of my days have I mapped out in 10-minute intervals? Where's the line between productive and ... well ... crazy?

Ultimately, the problem isn't in making a list. Lists and schedules help us feel in control in a world that often throws curve balls without warning.

The problem comes when my "arbitrary collection of activities with times attached" becomes My List. When I hand over my authority to a piece of paper, and toss in a bit of morality for good measure. As I cross things off the List, I am good. Insofar as I don't cross things off that day's List, I fail.

Today, like most days, the universe gently informed me that her plans diverged from My List. Then she patiently rode out the tantrum that inevitably followed.

1 comment:

  1. We risk irrationality from avoiding shame when we judge ourselves, linking our value to our perceived successes and failures. Your value isn't dependent on how much gets crossed off a list. It's innate.

    I use lists and schedules all the time. For me, I don't think it's about feeling in control of a chaotic world. I like to have as little as possible that _needs_ to be in my head, so I can entertain whatever I might like to be in my head at any given point.

    I wonder how much of your child's tantrum is about not getting her way rather than not getting things on the list done. For instance, I imagine she would still have been upset if she got to do everything on the list, but not in the exact order she'd proscribed, whereas I expect that you'd be perfectly happy to get everything on your lists done, regardless of order.