The business of childhood

by Wolf Pascoe on November 6, 2011

Myself am Hell. — Satan, Paradise Lost

Satan, Paradise LostI try to think back to before I was Nick’s age, before my father was gone, when the world was new. I remember tumbling out of bed mornings into a succession of nows. What mattered was always in front of me. Discomforts there were, but never worries. And  the sky stretching endlessly over the dappled garden.

Or so it seems now.

I can’t say exactly when the worry began, the fear that organizes the hours in accord with the uber-credo, nothing I do is enough.

I asked Nora when she started to have worries.

“In the third grade.”

“What did you worry about?”


“What about, ‘nothing I do is enough?'”

“That doesn’t bother me,” she said.

It doesn’t bother Nick either, may he not learn it from me.

I think Freud called it the Superego. I call it the Critic. It first appeared in the guise of a whispering ally—If only you had anticipated your father’s passingyou could have prevented it.

Then the keeping of lists. Diaries, injunctions, spells. The constant accounting for time. I remember a counselor visiting my grammar school class, telling us that only 14% of us would go to college. I began counting As. Then I was my As. If there was a B, I was nothing.



I sit with my latest disaster. They are always about failing to be recognized. Failing to live up to. Always the outside looking in, evaluating.

What does it feel like, this hole in the middle, this nullity, this mirror that will not reflect?  Burning it is, like shame.

How in the name of Heaven can he escape
That defiling and disfigured shape
The mirror of malicious eyes
Casts upon his eyes until at last
He thinks that shape must be his shape?

— W. B. Yeats, from “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”

And when, when did it first feel like this? I rack my brains. I close my eyes and grope and grope and there is only this image—a small boy going out to play, leaving his house for the first time to dwell in a fatherless world.



What was the great sin committed by Adam and Eve? Something about fruit? What was the knowledge that ruined everything?

Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.

— Genesis: 3.6

Childhood's gardenIt will happen. Eat, pray, whatever, it happens to us all. We put on coverings. An angel with a flaming sword prevents our ever going back.

I watch, little by little, Nick eating of that fruit. Little moments of consciousness that flare and light his way into adulthood, even as they consume the house of childhood.

How he hides his tears. Worries his drawing isn’t good enough.

The ur-lesson of school: that you’re not good enough.

The school we send him to knows all this, imposes no agendas on his growth. No grades, no homework, no tests, no curriculum shoved down the throat. An un-school for which I’m grateful.

I have fears he won’t measure up to others. I don’t speak them. Greater is my fear he won’t measure up to himself, be himself. For as long as possible, I want him staying in the garden. I don’t want him like me.

A rabbi named Zusya died and went to stand before the judgment seat of God. As he waited for God to appear, he grew nervous thinking about his life and how little he had done. He began to imagine that God was going to ask him, “Why weren’t you Moses or why weren’t you Solomon or why weren’t you David?” But when God appeared, the rabbi was surprised. God simply asked, “Why weren’t you Zusya?”

— Martin Buber, Tales of the Hasidim

Nick imposes his own agendas without help from anyone. Still, he plays in the fields of the Lord, a long way from nothing I do is enough. He still allows himself to waste time

It is the business of childhood to waste time.



10,000 mistakes



Soul Without Shame by Byron Brown. “A Guide to Liberating Yourself from the Judge Within.” This book is a kick in the gut.

Got three minutes? Tom O’Bedlam reads “A Dialogue of Self and Soul.”

(Bloggers: I discovered you can embed the sound track of a video all by itself. Who knew? Details here.)

Image Credit: Jean Pierre Simon, Paradise Lost, Book IV. Satan visits the Garden of Eden.



Do you worry about not being you? Just Add Father is listening. (Add your thoughts by clicking a few lines below below, where it says comments or add one. I always respond here.)


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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Alameda November 6, 2011 at 11:58 am

“I have fears he won’t measure up to others”. Oxymoron ? Key word: measure


Wolf Pascoe November 6, 2011 at 1:30 pm

I should have written, “I have fears he won’t measure up to himself.”
But how could he not?


David November 6, 2011 at 12:01 pm

It is, indeed, a Hell, the constant drip of “I’m not good enough.” And a difficult veil to pull away—it seems to spring back so vehemently when one looks away for even a moment. I look at the play of children, for simple kindnesses, humor, camaraderie, a poem or a beautiful blog post to bring me back to the richness of this life—to counterbalance that awful sucking dead-end darkness that “I’m not good enough” leads to.
A beautiful blog post like this one, for instance.
Thank you.


Wolf Pascoe November 6, 2011 at 1:31 pm

The signals we give–yes or no or maybe–should be clear.
The darkness around us is deep.

William Stafford


Alan Blumenfeld November 6, 2011 at 12:12 pm

I love reading your posts. Makes me think of my childhood, my parents and my parenting. That’s the point I suppose. Just gives me pause…to think. Thanks


Wolf Pascoe November 6, 2011 at 1:38 pm

Thanks, Alan. Your kind words are deeply appreciated.


Susanbeth November 6, 2011 at 12:49 pm

Dr.David Elkind made it clear, over 25 years ago in his seminal work “The Hurried Child”, and continued his premise in “The Power of Play”, that children NEED to “waste time.” Doing nothing is truly “doing something”; it is the work of childhood. I remember when my sons and daughter were little. We lived on a “bus stop” corner, and each year I’d watch as they and their friends boarded their school buses as kindergarteners. I wept each time ; not so much about the fact that they were no longer toddlers, but rather because I feared that they would be entering “the system” and risk losing their individuality and unique approach to learning. We were lucky! Our public schools rewarded creativity and our children responded well to boundaries and “school rules and learning goals.” My husband and I always felt that when our children were not in school, it was fine for them to “do nothing” if that’s what they wanted, because that’s the work of childhood!! I read your post and completely identified with your concerns. Been there! Done that! Here’s what I now know for sure: Public or private schools; goal oriented or open ended curriculum ; graded or non-graded philosophy; the way in which we as parents support our children in their after school hours at home, in their family, will have much to do with whether they ever feel “good enough.” Nick is lucky, because you and Nora seem to know that instinctively, and I have a feeling he may always remain (thankfully) a long way from “nothing I do is enough!”
Beautiful post!


Wolf Pascoe November 6, 2011 at 1:40 pm

Thank you Susanbeth, I haven’t read that book although I own it. It’s going to the top of the pile.


Barbara S. November 6, 2011 at 7:27 pm

Amen and lucky Nick he has you helping to ensure the erosion of his childhood goes at a natural pace. (‘If there was a B, I was nothing.’ Ah, reading this post was like looking in a mirror. I have no idea when the worries first hit me, either. I’ll have to think about it. But I did try to protect my kids from them as long as possible.)


Wolf Pascoe November 6, 2011 at 11:00 pm

Usually I can protect Nick from the worries I know I have. The trouble is I seem to be constantly inventing new ones.


carole November 6, 2011 at 7:34 pm

I wonder how many parents know that it is the business of childhood to waste time? and how many parents lived childhoods in which wasting time was not wasting?

I try to imagine my mother saying to me, instead of why don’t you go do something productive?”… “why don’t you go waste some time?” Even in my wildest imaginings, the words come out sarcastic… how sad!

thanks for the post. Lucky Nick!!


Wolf Pascoe November 6, 2011 at 11:01 pm

I think adults, too, should allow for some time wastage.


Kelly November 7, 2011 at 12:45 am

I don’t really remember a carefree period of time, but I’m sure it was there. My earliest retrievable memory is around age 5, which corresponds to the first time my father left our family. Maybe trauma is the trigger?


Wolf Pascoe November 7, 2011 at 9:57 am

I’ve noticed that when things change, the memory of the moment is inscribed in permanent ink. Everyone over a few years of age at the time remembers what they were doing the moment of Pearl Harbor, Kennedy in Dallas, and 9/11.


ChopperPapa November 7, 2011 at 8:35 am

You shouldn’t be critical of yourself, you’re a parent – that’s your job. To worry.

Worry, anxiety apprehension … they are all the byproduct of this leisure life that we all live. I’ve heard it mentioned that our ancestors were far more ‘happy’ than we are today, more content. That is quite possibly true, they had one life goal – survival. We are beyond that now. Our life goal has moved beyond raising children that won’t die before they are 7 or to survive the coming winter.

Eventually this idea of worry creeps into each of us without any prodding of our own. It just happens. The byproduct of too much time on our hands.

Excellent post, Wolf!


Wolf Pascoe November 7, 2011 at 9:53 am

I like the anthropological perspective, CP.

I never stop worrying about my son’s safety, but I’ve noticed that it’s a pure sort of worry. I’m in agreement with it. Whereas all the worries I describe above, I’d lose in a hot second if I could.


BigLittleWolf November 7, 2011 at 1:12 pm

Beautiful, thoughtful, wistful.

I wonder of the “Not Enough” Self is more of an American phenomenon, a 20th century / millennial phenomenon, the burden of the wounded child, or that of the perfectionist artistic spirit. Perhaps a bit of all of the above?


Wolf Pascoe November 7, 2011 at 6:55 pm

I remember a picture of Mother Theresa holding a new baby and she said, “So! You’re going to be a little French boy!” And I thought, maybe it’s different in France.


Kristen @ Motherese November 7, 2011 at 1:59 pm

I don’t have anything wise to add, but didn’t want to leave without saying: I get this. And you express it beautifully.


Wolf Pascoe November 7, 2011 at 6:57 pm

Thank you, Kristen. I began to talk this way once they let me out of the Fresno Home for the Thoughtful.


Privilege of Parenting November 8, 2011 at 12:25 am

I found myself, unable to sleep, in the garden this pre-dawn morning under a canopy of the clearest stars. If the morning star was rising, I didn’t notice, but the trees were quite still and I found myself thinking about an illustration I gazed at often in my childhood from “A Child’s Garden of Verse,” of children near a sundial in a garden in moonlight. I never understood why exactly it had so enchanted me, but beneath Orion and Ursa Major I felt an inkling of understanding, of time not at all wasted but rather vivified by enchantment and soft, curious non-doing.


Wolf Pascoe November 8, 2011 at 1:44 am

Non-doing, yes. It’s what the Others call wasting time.


Naptimewriting November 8, 2011 at 12:54 am

Wow. Excuse my inarticulate attempts at saying that this is painful to read and beautifully written. It is cringe-inspiring to recognize myself even while I’m taking mental notes about why I’m a considerably worse parent.
You make me want to run upstairs and wake both children and beg them for a do-over, despite believing and striving for every positive luxuriate-in-childhood sentiment expressed herein.
How I hate the schooling choices available to us.


Wolf Pascoe November 8, 2011 at 1:47 am

I don’t think anyone who works at parenting is a bad parent. It’s a bad culture.


David November 9, 2011 at 10:16 am

“I close my eyes and grope and grope and there is only this image—a small boy going out to play, leaving his house for the first time to dwell in a fatherless world.” What a moving image, Wolf. What a great sentence. What a sad and brave moment.


Wolf Pascoe November 9, 2011 at 4:23 pm



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