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In mutual generosity, we can all thrive

It’s a Saturday morning, and I am thinking of nothing more than sipping coffee while the trees outside flare into deeper intensities of their autumnal selves.

Later, there may be a bit of tomato processing on the agenda, or some casual bathroom cleaning, not the kind you’d do for company but perhaps an offhand drive-by with a sponge. It’s just Rosie and me at home, moving in our separate though intersecting orbits.

Except, Rosie is actually whizzing around at a meteoric pace, taking up and shedding activities, the by-products scattered like fallen leaves about the house. As I am just sighting the rare animal of an unstructured day, Rosie wonders aloud what she will possibly find to do until her friend, Fawn, arrives later in the afternoon.

“Maybe,” Rosie begins brightly, “you could drive to Fawn’s, pick her up and bring her back here.” Driving 45 minutes round trip when Rose’s friend has a ride into town, though much later, conflicts with my leaf-gazing non-plan. This day that unspools in spectacular openness for me is for Rose tauntingly boundless, a deep chasm of boredom to overcome before arriving at the fun and connection that friendship provides.

Rose and Fawn do exactly what you’d expect two 11-year-olds girls to do: They get on the phone and discuss. Shortly after, Rose puts the phone on speaker and says, “So, Mama, we’re wondering what’s the reason that you don’t want to pick Fawn up early. Like, is it the gas money? Or the extra sitting in the car? Or do you have other plans? And we’re wondering if we can offer you some gas money or in some way make it work better for you.”

Listening to Rosie and Fawn show consideration for me, express interest in making my life more wonderful, I feel, in one remarkable moment, my willingness shift. My focus widens from preserving my own agenda to contributing to my daughter’s sense of joy and connection. I think of the advice of Marshall Rosenberg, developer of nonviolent communication: “Instead of playing the game ‘Making Life Wonderful,’ we often play the game called ‘Who’s Right?’ Do you know that game? It’s a game where everybody loses.” Like a magical formula of physics in which the more you give, the more is available, Rose’s willingness to care for my needs creates more willingness in me to care for hers.

I don’t need gas money (I’m picturing a handful of coins unearthed from couch cushions), but I ask the girls if they’re open to helping me with chores, the ones I’ll have less time for because of the drive. They are thrilled and grateful to be meeting up six hours early. They are empowered by their ability to shift the power dynamics of an adult-child relationship with their own care and compassion. They say yes to my request, wholeheartedly. Their willingness to help me contains no obligation or resentment, and neither does my decision to make the extra drive.

In typical parenting paradigms, in which a child gets rewarded for behavior deemed “good,” the child may be robbed of the beneficial feelings generated by true willingness to contribute to positive family culture. This willingness creates the scaffolding that supports cooperation, creative problem-solving, fearless honesty and the trust that everyone’s needs matter. This is the fuel I want our family to run on, rather than hope of reward or fear of punishment.

Back at our house, Fawn chops the last of the frost-rescued tomatoes. Rosie cleans the bathroom until it gleams. The wind flings sunset-colored chokecherry leaves to the ground, where they shine like the tree’s own reflection. The beauty of this life is almost too much to absorb. If we stopped playing the game of “Who’s right?” and start playing the game of “How can I make your life more wonderful?” our capacity to thrive in mutual generosity is limitless.

Rachel Turiel teaches nonviolent communication to groups and individuals. Contact her at sanjuandrive@frontier.net or check out her blog 6512andgrowing.