Buy all the books you want about how to raise a child into a fully functioning and responsible adult, and you’ll be wasting your money. I know that’s a pretty broad statement, but I stand by it. Because it doesn’t matter what Ph.D. says what or how much Biblical wisdom people can give you, in the end you learn by experience. This I know.
I know this, too—you learn to pick your battles with your children. Which means making them earn an allowance to buy the toy they desperately want rather than simply handing over the money, but treating them to a Slurpee when they pine for one as you drive by the 7-11. Simple enough. At least, it usually has been.
But then came my daughter’s fingernails.
Coffey women tend to have the reputation of being both ladylike and tomboyish, depending upon which the situation warrants. Which means my daughter will strut around all day long giving tea parties in her Sunday finest, only to hit me in the head with a pillow and want me to wrestle. I honor both. It’s good for girls to have tea parties. Good for them to know how to scrap, too.
The problem was the fingernails. Good for pouring tea and wearing dresses. Bad for rolling around on the floor with daddy. So when our impromptu grudge match the other night resulted in me looking as if I’d been attacked by a Komodo dragon, I called time out and grabbed the clippers.
“Time to cut your nails,” I said.
My daughter didn’t protest. Not yet. She simply stood there and stared, wondering how she could explain what she needed to.
“Come on. Sit. It’ll just take a minute.”
She sat down with the sort of thump that would one day evolve into something that would seriously frighten her husband. When I took her hand, it was a fist.
“What’s the matter?” I asked her.
“I don’t want you to cut my nails.”
“Well, unless you want me to go upstairs and get the boxing gloves, I’m gonna have to.”
“I don’t want you to cut my nails.”
The thought occurred to me that this was some sort of game, the object of which was for the both of us to see if I could get her fist open. I tried. She didn’t like it.
“Okay,” I said. “Why don’t you want me to cut your nails? Girls cut their nails. It’s popular.”
“That’s not why.”
I stared, waiting.
“If you cut my nails,” she said, “I won’t know if I had a good day or not.”
She said she would explain, but I had to put the clippers down first. I did. Then my daughter raised her hands palm up and fingers wide, and told me the story of her day.
The bits of brown and green on her nails were from her work in the garden that morning. A smidge of white paint was on her thumb from the picture she made after breakfast. She pointed out a spot on her pinky that seemed indented, put there by a stubborn drawer she’d helped her brother open. An orange stain from that afternoon’s popsicle. And though the evidence was scant, she swore there was a spot on the ring finger of her right hand where a firefly had landed and made her smile.
“How am I supposed to remember all that,” she asked, “if you cut my memories off?”
Like I said, you have to pick your battles as a parent. You have to learn when to raise and when to fold. I folded. A little pain on my part would be a good enough trade to keep her memories safe.
I wonder a lot whether I’m living the way I should be. Life can get so complicated when you’re an adult. I try to make sure I do more good than bad, but it’s hard to keep track of it all.
Which is why I’ve been paying attention to my own fingernails lately. It’s something I don’t normally do but maybe should do more of. Because I know if there’s evidence there that I’ve worked and created, helped and smiled, then I’ve had a good day.
Then I’m living right.