A few weeks ago, something happened as I was picking up Opal from preschool.
We were leaving and I was juggling her lunch bag, her backpack, a dozen torn bits of paper that she referred to as “art,” her water bottle and coat. As I signed her out, I dropped most of it.
“MOM!” Opal said in that snide, embarrassed-teenager way. “Come on!”
It came out nasty as hell. And I’ll be honest, we had been having a string of weeks where her behavior was, shall we say, less than desirable. I’m not a pushover, but I was wearisome and sick of doling out time-outs and empty, ineffective statements like we don’t talk to mommy like that, or offering a question (as they recommend in Love and Logic) like what is a better way you can talk to mommy?
Blec. It all fell so pitifully flat.
So, in that moment at the preschool, I just let it go.
I figured we’d have plenty of other opportunities to follow-up later, when I had less to balance.
But, her teacher, Susie heard Opal, and said, without missing a beat, “Now, Opal. Remember your mom’s bucket.”
Opal nodded at Susie, we said good-bye, and, though she didn’t apologize, Opal’s expression totally softened. She took my hand.
We got to the car and I asked Opal what Susie was talking about. What was a bucket?
“Well,” Opal said, “you fill it up.”
“Like watering a flower in a pot?” I said.
“Yea,” she said, “But with love. Everyone has a bucket. You can fill it or take away from it.”
A tad more investigation uncovered that Opal was reading a book in preschool called Have You Filled a Bucket Today? A Guide to Daily Happiness for Kids, from a series of six other bucket-related publications. They are written by a woman named Carol McCloud, who spent 20 years in education as a teacher, counselor, youth mentor, and early education director (source).
That night, I added two Bucket Books onto my Christmas-gift order from Amazon.com and put three more on hold at the library.
I immediately got How Full Is Your Bucket? from the library. Opal and I read it five times in a row. It was about a young boy who was having a terrible day; everything was going wrong. Because of that, he was being nasty to the people in his midst. His Grandfather told him that everyone has an invisible bucket, and that we have the power to either empty or fill those buckets with our words and actions—the kid thought he was crazy.
He went to school, committed to his foul mood and spreading grumpiness like a contagion, dipping into the buckets of others, as they put it. Until, a teacher was kind to him. And then another. He noticed his emotional bucket fill up a little. Feeling a bit better, he was able to be kind to someone else and realized that when he filled someone else’s bucket, his filled a little more, too.
By the end of the story, the young boy was powerful in his new stance of noticing and acknowledging positive things and offering support to others, and he saw how this new perspective was also contagious, in the best of ways.
The next morning, Opal and I were driving to gymnastics. I had a headache, was horribly emotional and wanted more than anything to not have to care for someone else for 20 minutes. I did my best to breathe and be honest, “Honey, Mommy doesn’t feel great, so I’m not going to be as perky as usual, but I love you so much.”
After five minutes of driving quietly, Opal said, “Mommy, are you mad at me?”
She is used to a much different energy.
“Oh sweetie, no.” I said, heartbroken. “I just don’t feel so good. It will pass. But you know what we can do now? Let’s talk about the times lately that someone has filled up your bucket.”
And thus began one of the most glorious exchanges. One of those I wished I could record, but like an exquisite sunset or a perfect bite of food, I relished it as much as I could muster in the moment, because those kind of perfect moments are never the same on replay.
It was like a spontaneous stream-of-conciousness poem.
“Well… Sabine hugged me and filled my bucket and Elvis (the dog) always fills my bucket when he kisses me on the nose and I loved reading my new book with you again and again, and B’s ear always makes my ow-ies feel better and Gilda (the cat) lets me pet her behind her ears and that fills my bucket and…how about you, mom?”
The shift in my line of thinking towards gratitude was nearly audible, like a gear that had clicked into a new groove. There were so many examples of things that had happened recently that had filled my bucket; it was effortless to name a few.
“It filled my bucket when your dad made that yummy chili last night that we can have for lunch today.”
Then she went again. “It fills my bucket to go to the gym.”
Now we were lobbying them back and forth, growing progressively louder and sillier.
“It filled my bucket to snuggle with you in the morning!”
“It fills my bucket to snuggle with you in the morning, too!”
And it went on like this until we got to the gym.
I tell you, I was transformed. Like every cell in my body had been rebooted, like a very sooty viewing-window had been wiped clean.
Since that fateful morning at the preschool, we’ve become quite practiced in the language of bucket-filling. Often, I will just offer a simple reminder to Opal that her friend, or great-grandma, or that person who said hi, has a bucket, too. And that is usually all it takes to bring her to life, to say hello instead of grunting and looking at her feet, to give great-grandma a big hug good-bye.
I love that this gives her a way to choose her actions not because her mom says she should, but because she understands that, even as a kid, she has the power to impact others in a positive or negative way.
Or, she may say, “Mommy, my bucket needs filled.” And in one swoop, she has acknowledged that she has need and she has reached out for help to have that need met.
But the best part, the piece de resistance, is that now when she talks nasty to me, I know exactly how to proceed.
Often all it takes is telling her that her rudeness dips into my bucket and she will change her tune without an iota of emotional energy spent on my part.
Hallelujah. God bless parental discoveries and god bless the bucket.
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Editor: Bryonie Wise
Photo: Sara Crolick