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When Kids Know Best

He thought parenting was something a couple did together, but when your wife is a busy pastor, sometimes you have to handle it solo.

Jim Hinch and his children

A gloomy, foggy morning in San Francisco. Standard issue for the City by the Bay. I swerved into a rare parking spot and the kids woke up in the backseat, grumpy. I tried to filter the irritation out of my voice as I helped them out of the car.

I hoisted up my backpack, full of our lunches, and herded seven-year-old Frances and four-year-old Benjamin toward the light-rail stop. This was supposed to be fun, I reminded myself. A day out with the kids.

Right. Another Saturday with me as solo parent. My wife, Kate, is pastor of an Episcopal church, so of course she works Sundays. But she works lots of Saturdays too, because that’s when parishioners have time to meet and she is a devoted pastor.

Often I’m in charge of our two kids for entire weekends. Were I a saint I would accept this responsibility with grace and creativity. But I’m not a saint. And I was as short on ways to keep the kids busy and amused as I was on patience.

Today my bright idea–a Dad-plus-kids trip to San Francisco from our home in San Jose, about an hour away–seemed not too bright at all. Already the kids were moaning and groaning about the walk to the train.

What would they say when they saw the long, meandering pathways of the botanical garden, our destination? As always on days like this, I felt like my time was being snatched away.

Between work, kids and chores, I never seemed to have any time to myself at all, to read or think or just dream. How different from the days when I’d lived in San Francisco as a young, single graduate student! It seemed like I’d had all the time in the world then.

“Daddy, I see our train!” Benji cried. He and Frances perked up as the light rail rumbled to a stop. We climbed aboard and the kids jumped into window seats, faces pressed against the glass.

I was busy racking my brains for what to do after we finished at the garden. I’d been too beat the night before to plan out the day.

We got off the train and walked a few blocks to the park. No complaining. The kids paused outside a bakery and stared longingly at rows of chocolate buns and other treats displayed temptingly in the window.

“Maybe later,” I said. I bought our tickets at the botanical garden and we walked through a gate to a huge lawn with a fountain at the far end.

Beyond, pathways led to a redwood forest, a Chinese moon-viewing garden (with a deck over a pond in which the moon reflects on clear nights), a garden of native California plants and the enticingly named Southeast Asian Cloud Forest. Looking at a map, we saw something called the Children’s Garden.

“Let’s go there!” the kids cried. We took a roundabout route, stopping to admire moss-draped Monterey pines, blooming poppies, a hillside bristling with cacti and the dense foliage of the cloud forest.

The Children’s Garden turned out to be an area surrounded by eucalyptus trees where schoolkids do the planting and tending.

There were sprawling artichoke plants (whose stems, if you rubbed them, smelled like steamed artichoke), giant zucchini, pots of fragrant basil and brightly colored hand-lettered signs.

Fran and Benji immediately pretended to be at a restaurant, serving imaginary garden produce to diners at a rickety table with tree-stump seats where the schoolkids eat lunch. Kate would love this, I thought.

Frances and Benji decided we should eat lunch at the fountain. We made our way back, ate, and before I’d even asked what they wanted to do next, they said in unison, “Let’s go to the beach!”

Beach? Who’d said anything about a beach? But they seemed to be on a roll. We took the train all the way to the end of the line at Ocean Beach. The fog had retreated, so we had sunshine and blue water.

The kids raced up and down the dunes, combed the beach for shells and watched some punk rockers fly a kite. I stood with my toes in the cool sand, feeling relaxed and happy almost in spite of myself.

At last the fog crept back in and I realized we’d better head toward the car to make it home in time for dinner. On the train the kids leaned against me, worn out from running around. I was just as tired as the night before when I couldn’t even plan this excursion, but it was a good tired, a satisfied tired.

Satisfied? Not quite. There was the bakery straight ahead and the kids started running. Ordinarily I would have said no. Sweets before dinner? Unthinkable! Except for today.

We bought three chocolate buns and a loaf of sourdough to take home. At a bay window looking onto the street, we watched trolleys roll by, families out for a walk, dogs in tow, elderly couples pushing handcarts full of groceries.

“These are good!” exclaimed Frances, holding up her bun.

They were good. The entire moment was good–the buns, the lovely bakery smells, the laid-back, busy city outside.

I remembered a passage from one of my favorite books, C. S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters. It’s when the senior devil who narrates the story instructs his pupil, a hapless junior devil, in yet another way to ensnare gullible humans.

The trick, says the senior devil, is to make people believe that their time is their “own personal birthright.” That way, when something comes along to take up their time, they resent it.

I recalled the resentment I’d felt that morning, and on other mornings when I’d awoken to a day of solo parenting. Why the resentment? What would I rather be doing, anyway? Working more? Reading more? Doing more of what I was already doing a lot of?

I watched the kids eating their buns with the intensity only kids have with sweets. How thoroughly I’d been duped by Screwtape! Not only did I insist on believing my time was my own, I refused to acknowledge that time, like all things, even life itself, is God-given.

Certainly my kids were God-given. So was Kate. Who was I to complain instead of rejoice?

“I wish we didn’t have to go,” sighed Frances.

“Me too,” said Benji.

I looked at them both, their mouths smeared with chocolate, their hair still a little wild from the briny ocean breeze. “Yeah,” I said. “Me too.”


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