Sprout, two-and-a-half years old, plays with toy cups in the bathtub. The cups have tiny holes in their undersides that drop patterned cascades of water back into the tub below.
Then Sprout places a cup on the rim of the bathtub and fills it with bathwater from another, and water begins to drain and spill onto the bathroom floor. Anxiety surges through me.
“What are you doing?!” I cry, as if my words could fill the space through sheer volume and dam the flow of water. “Stop!” I grab a towel from the cabinet and thrust it into the growing puddle on the floor.
Sprout pulls back and turns away, shoulders slumped and suddenly small, and stares down into the bathtub.
“I’m sorry,” I say, recoiling from my own reaction. “I overreacted. The water leaks out. I know you didn’t mean to spill it.”
But Sprout says only, “I’m sorry.”
In Sprout’s pulling away from me, I hear clearly the message implied by my hair-trigger reaction, unintended but unambiguous: why are you screwing up, kid?
If you’ve been the parent of a young child in the United States during the past 50 years, you’ve probably read Don Freeman’s classic 1968 picture book, Corduroy.It’s the story of a department store teddy bear who tries to find his lost button and, in the end, gets a new home.
That sounds simple enough. But having read the story many times with my kids, I’ve come to understand that Corduroy asks deep educational questions that loom large over my less-reflective moments as a dad. That’s because the story quietly explores the small, unintentional ways we teach each other that we are inadequate—and how love, curious and without judgment, provides the irreplaceable ground for accepting ourselves and meeting our real needs.
In the story, Corduroy lives in a display case in a spacious department store, hoping for a new life. A girl named Lisa sees the teddy bear and wants to bring him home. But her mother says that Corduroy “doesn’t look new”because a button is missing from his overalls.
The mother’s comment about the missing button is off-the-cuff and the kind of thing a tired parent says at the end of a long day of errands. The goal is to get home: to usher the child along and blunt whatever desire is slowing things down. If you’re a parent, you’ve probably attempted some version of this move many times.
The magic of Corduroy, a fable, comes from what follows: we learn how the mother’s words impact the teddy bear who must live with them.
The comment that Corduroy “doesn’t look new” teaches the teddy bear something: there is a problem with him, and that problem makes him unfit for sale—and for love. That assessment drives Corduroy to undertake an after-hours journey through the department store in search of his lost button. On the surface, his journey is lightly humorous, as when Corduroy mistakes an escalator for a mountain. But the humor is grounded in Corduroy’s disorientation as he naively navigates a department store designed to feed the desires of others, hoping that love will enter.
Corduroy does not find the button he’s looking for—and even if he’d found it, he couldn’t have stitched the button back onto his overalls. He cannot fix what he now believes is wrong with himself.
Not alone, anyway.
That night beside the bathtub with Sprout, I could have responded to the minor spill in any number of ways. I could have said, calmly, “Oops, some water spilled on the floor—is there another place we can put those cups?” I could have explored Sprout’s goal in pouring the water and helped imagine a more congenial way to satisfy it.
But I didn’t.
Instead, I panicked: the unreflective reaction of a tired dad at the end of the day, the overwrought timbre of my voice entirely out of proportion with the easily-remedied nuisance of the spill. Instead of being curious about my child’s intentions in filling the cup, I’d immediately interpreted Sprout’s actions with distrust, alive only to how they might inconvenience me and constrain my action. This is the painful presumption of my reactivity: that disturbance to my own equanimity is the fault of someone or something else, and that I am wholly in the right to put a stop to it.
A thoughtful response would have involved asking What is going on here? and doing whatever was most fitting to help the situation along, with a faithful eye toward the flourishing of my relationship with my child.Such a response would have presumed that I am responsible for what I do next: that my heart is spacious enough to hold any discomfort I might feel, acknowledge it, and reach out anew. This would be action grounded in trust and curiosity, undertaken in the faith that I will learn at least as much from Sprout as Sprout will learn from me.
That night beside the bathtub left me unsettled. How many such reactions, meted out suddenly and without thought, does it take to install the parent’s voice in a young child’s conscience as the inner critic—the voice of doubt and self-judgment? Which reaction will be the one that teaches the child that some needs aren’t safe to share with mom or dad?
None of us is perfect. As psychologist Steven C. Hayes writes, “Commitment is not about never lapsing; it is about taking responsibility even when we do lapse for the larger patterns of living we are creating.”
I’d apologized. But how could I atone and reaffirm a larger pattern grounded in trust and love?
For Corduroy, grace arrives the next day, when Lisa returns to the department store and buys Corduroy with her savings.
Later, when they arrive together at the apartment where Lisa’s family lives, the girl unveils a new button for Corduroy’s overalls. But she makes clear that her love is not contingent on the button: Corduroy does not need to be fixed in Lisa’s eyes. His value is not in doubt. Lisa simply knows the teddy bear will “be more comfortable”with a second button.
Although Lisa did not witness Corduroy’s fruitless journey the night before, she intuits the need that provoked it: the need for love and connection with another. With needle and thread, she helps Corduroy address the worry that stoked his deeper anxiety and, more importantly, affirms that he is loved and welcome.
Lisa’s actions say, “I love you for exactly who you are. Let me also help you become who you hope to be.”
I got another chance, too. Thankfully, parenthood is often like that, if we pay attention.
The next day, after lunch, Sprout began pouring water between our two cups. On any other day, I might have put a stop to it. I might have pitched my body forward instinctively and reached for my cup, anticipating another spill, as if uncontained liquid were already spreading across the table and dripping to the seats and floor below. I might have said, “Hey, that’s my water, don’t do that.”
But I didn’t.
Instead, I settled back into my seat, away from the action, and watched, curious to see what would happen next.
None of us can explain our actions fully, especially when they represent a pivot from our previous behavior—such is the grace of renewal. But this doesn’t mean our pivots are unintelligible.
The American philosopher Josiah Royce wrote about the power of loyalty to channel our disparate impulses and desires toward a common plan of life, toward which our concrete actions strive.But we may also act in a way that undermines our callings, and when we do, nothing can erase the failure: it is part of our story, and we must live with it. However, failure can be transfigured: atonement is possible, provided that our failure calls us to make the situation better than it would have been without our failing. In doing so, we rediscover that we are essential and needed in this world, right now.
I believe that my pivot from reactivity to curiosity was made possible by my regret and my apology to Sprout the previous evening. Had I simply dodged the issue and moved on from Sprout’s sadness in the bathtub without comment or note, as if I bore no responsibility for it, I doubt the next day’s lunch would have been any different.
But it was different. I found myself pausing and letting my would-be reaction evaporate, and in that breath lay the opening to recognize the connection between Sprout’s actions at lunch and the night before. That connection, once established, called me to make good on my apology and act as I wished I’d acted before, in a spirit of curiosity and trust. I interpreted the situation differently: Sprout is figuring something out right now. And I remembered: figuring things out can be messy, and spills can be cleaned up.
So, I sat back. I got out of the way. I watched as Sprout took a sip, then poured the contents of one cup into the other and back again and smiled.
“I did it all by myself!”
So it went for half an hour, and we shared in joy as the flow of water from one cup to another became more controlled, more precise.
This—the growing feel for water’s flow and fall and the balance and tip of the cup; the striving toward greater competence, understanding, and freedom—was precisely what Sprout had wanted to practice the night before, if only I had bothered to inquire about the human need that lay behind the small spill.
That new day, when I stepped back from my anxiety for control and predictability, Sprout’s underlying need was empowered to express itself, and it became the ground for deeper connection between us.
Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr writes that “freedom from the past or newness of understanding and movement toward more fitting response does not come through the rejection of the past but through its reinterpretation.”Though I had reacted faithlessly the night before, the pain of that reaction, held in conscience, provided for the pause wherein renewed openness toward Sprout flowered.
That new day, watching my two-and-a-half-year-old pour water from one cup into another, I learned to act in a manner that expressed what I most dearly hoped to affirm: “I love you for exactly who you are, and I will help you become who you hope to be.”
I’d not yet learned how to say this to myself, however. More on that later.
An early version of “Learning To Trust” first appeared in STAND Magazine, online, May 30, 2018, under the title “Learning To Meet a Need.”
Don Freeman, Corduroy, New York, NY: Puffin Books, 1976. Originally published in 1968.
Ibid., pg. 3.
My formulation of responsive action is grounded in the work of theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, especially The Responsible Self: An Essay in Christian Moral Philosophy (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1978; originally published in 1963) and Faith On Earth: An Inquiry Into the Structure of Human Faith (ed. Richard R. Neibuhr, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989).
Steven C. Hayes, A Liberated Mind: How To Pivot Toward What Matters, New York, NY: Avery, 2019, pg. 123.
Don Freeman, op. cit., pg. 27.
See: Josiah Royce, The Philosophy of Loyalty, Nashville, TN: Vanderbilt University Press, 1995; originally published in 1908.
See especially Chapter 6 (“Atonement”) in: Josiah Royce, The Problem of Christianity, Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2001; originally published in 1913.
H. Richard Niebuhr, The Responsible Self, pg. 104.