The Mint Maker’s Rules and the Five-Year-Old’s Rules

 

My daughter was five years old when she challenged the corporate directive on how to share candy. The two of us were traveling home. I drove. She napped in the back seat.

As we passed through a heavily-forested part of the drive, I spotted a young black bear crossing the road. We had seen black and grizzly bear before. But the novelty of finding them had not diminished for her or me, and so I slowed to a stop and woke my daughter. We watched the little bear lumber across the road.

Even at five years old, my daughter knew what to do; “Should we spray it with pepper spray?” she asked.

“He’s just crossing the road,” I told her. “Let’s watch him for a minute.”

I suspect she just wanted to get out and get a closer look. The bear sauntered into the woods, and we drove on through the wide valley.

Now my daughter was wide awake, alert to every shadow and movement along the road and in the forest. But we found no more bear, and soon her attention turned from the road and forest to a container of mints. I looked in the rearview mirror from time to time, watching her turn and handle the container. She was deciphering the writing on the label. My own attention turned fully to the road and to arriving safely home.

My daughter was quiet for a long time; I thought she had fallen asleep again. But when I glanced in the rearview mirror, she was still inspecting the little container. A few minutes later she said, “Daddy, I think they put this sticker on backwards.”

“What sticker?” I asked.

She held up the container. It dispensed from two openings: one large and one small.

“The small door says to share, but the big door says not to share,” she said.

I waited to hear her reasoning.

She continued: “If I want one mint, I open the small door. If I want to share, I open the big door.

She thought the packaging was in error. I knew better. I realized her interpretation of the world was not bounded by random instructions on a mint container. By her own direct experience with sharing, she had established another way—her own way.

I agreed with her—the packaging was all wrong. But this was more than agreement. This was encouragement. I hoped she would eventually grasp the depth of her observation as she grew—that she would recognize the nascent germ of self-determination.

She held the container, turning it in her little hands, returning over and over to the words on the packaging. I didn’t interrupt her thoughts. I knew something big was happening inside her, and I didn’t want to disrupt whatever foundation she was laying at her own feet.

Her choices would have consequences; she would run out of mints sooner by dispensing through the larger opening. But I think she had accounted for this risk in her analysis, and I had the feeling she wasn’t worried about running out of mints. Her resolve to share on her own terms outweighed any fear of scarcity. I wondered if her young mind fully grasped this balance of risk and return.

As we drove along that road, my daughter asked me if we could fix the container. I told her we could. I told her we could use some tape or a marker to fix it.

Soon she was asleep again, holding the container in her hands and lap. I drove on through the valley, and my thoughts remained on the dilemma my daughter had just resolved. Her dilemma was mine. Ours. Everyone’s. It is the ineluctable question of every person in every generation: which normative system will I follow? Which set of standards will guide me? And what will I gain or lose by following this one instead of that one?

At her core, in her heart of hearts, I think my daughter took the long view. She felt that the risk of running out of mints was insignificant compared to the perils of following a mean and selfish path. She risked scarcity for a larger return on compassion.

For a moment I looked into the back seat again. My daughter slept as I drove us homeward. How could I encourage her? I thought. How would I nurture this unexpected attitude? Maybe I could tell her a story when she woke up.

– – –

Buddhist tradition tell of two monks crossing the open country. They arrived at a river, where they rested before crossing. One monk knelt to drink. As he knelt, he noticed a scorpion thrashing and struggling against the current. He reached into the water and lifted the scorpion in his open palm. As he let the scorpion go free on the bank, it stung him and he cried out in pain.

The other monk asked him, “Why did you help that scorpion out of the river? Now your hand is swollen and you are in pain.”

“Because it was going to drown,” the first monk replied.

“But it stung you,” said the other monk. “Do you not know this is what scorpions do? This is their nature; to sting you is their nature.”

“I wanted to help another living creature,” the first monk said. “That is my nature. To help is my nature.”

– – –

I would tell her about this monk. But somehow she already knew this story. It was her story.

We left the forested valley and drove through open land—grain fields flanked by a giant, meandering river. My daughter slept, holding the container of mints in her little hands, ready to share—on her terms.

 

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