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How To Know When To Go Off-Script and Say 'Yes'

Photograph by Twenty20

Last year, in the middle of a 12-hour road trip to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, my kids asked my husband and me if they could wade out into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan.

With their clothes on.

It was a bizarre request, made even more bizarre by our circumstances. We were stopped at a rest area. The only way we could access the lake was via a sandy path right behind said rest area. (A potty break beach? Alright, then.) We had no swimsuits with us. We still had three hours left to drive. We hadn’t yet eaten dinner, and we were already due to arrive at our destination after dark.

It made little sense to say “yes” to our children’s request. But we did. We said “yes,” and we made one of the most magical memories our family has ever experienced.

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Saying “yes” to magic doesn’t always make sense, however. In fact, I don’t believe parents are supposed to facilitate an endless stream of magical moments for their children. Some current cultural narratives—ones fueled by Pinterest, Etsy and a couple dozen Facebook memes—might tell us otherwise. But I don’t think that it is possible, or even preferable, to force our lives into some permanent state of magical bliss. There’s too much chaos and slog, too many busy days and boring hours, to make magic every single second.

And, frankly, most of us are just too tired for that. I know I am.

Creating magic—like the magic my family experienced at that strangely beautiful rest-stop beach—means knowing when to say “yes.” It means knowing how to decipher that particular swelling of time, when each ticking second holds the promise of a lasting memory. It even requires a bit of future-prediction.

It means asking ourselves:

1. Will this moment lead to magic or will it lead to the sort of meltdown that makes you want to claw your own eyeballs out?

Magic can be dangerous, after all. I can think back to plenty of moments where I’ve tried my hardest to create magic for my children, and all I’ve ended up with is an even bigger mess to clean up (like that time when I enlisted the help of a toddler to make a chocolate cake with chocolate frosting) or a full blown tantrum (like that time I tried to fit in a visit to the bakery and the children’s museum and the park and a restaurant—and no nap!—all in one day).

2. Will I regret not saying “yes” to this moment?

There’s no way to know for sure if you will regret saying no or yes. But sometimes you can get a clear picture of what the stakes might be, depending on whether or not you give in to the moment. Are the kids over-tired? (That’s never conducive to magical moments.) Are they hungry? (Also a magic-inhibitor.) Or are you in one of those rare, blissed-out, everyone’s-happy parenting moments? (Go for the magic!) And do you have the resources you might need to clean up the potential mess or make up for your potential lost hours? (On that fateful day at Lake Michigan, we had changes of clothes in the car and no obligations until the next day. Letting our kids splash in the lake was messy, but it was worth every sopping wet pair of shorts and every grain of sand we had to vacuum from the car.)

3. And finally, is this the sort of moment that will make me say someday, “I wish I could have them little again, just for an hour”?

My answer to this question ultimately led me to say “yes” that day on Lake Michigan. Because the kids’ joy that day was pure and uninhibited. They squealed and played in a way that only kids can—in a way that most kids give up by the time they’re teenagers. And if we all could have stayed that happy forever, I would have set down roots right on that beach and never left.

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We returned home a few days later with still-wet clothes bunched up in plastic bags. Sand fell from every square inch of our dirty laundry, and we had to scrub out our hampers and vacuum our closets because of it.

But we cleaned it up with no regret and with no resentment. We’d made magic with our children.

And it was all because we had the wisdom to say “yes.”

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Photograph by: Karen Oganowski

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