LIFE’s lessons
The cake and the kitchen

Cindy glanced nervously at the clock on the kitchen wall. "They should be home any time now," she thought as she put the finishing touches on the chocolate cake. It was the first time in her 12 years she had tried to make a cake, and it wasn't exactly an aesthetic triumph. The cake was . . . well, lumpy. And the frosting was bitter, as if she had run out of sugar. Which, of course, she had. And then there was the way the kitchen looked. 

But Cindy wasn't thinking about the mess. She had created something, a veritable phoenix of flour and sugar rising out of the kitchen clutter. She was anxious for her parents to return home so she could present her anniversary gift. She turned off the lights and waited excitedly in the darkness. Her parents tried to slip in quietly, but Cindy flipped on the lights and gestured grandly toward the kitchen table, where a slightly off-balance two-layer chocolate cake awaited.

But her mother's eyes never made it all the way to the table. "Just look at this mess!" she moaned. "How many times have I talked to you about cleaning up after yourself?"

"But Mom, I was only..."

"I should make you clean this up right now, but I'm too tired to stay up with you to make sure you get it done right," her mother said. "So you'll do it first thing in the morning."

"Honey," Cindy's father interjected gently, "take a look at the table." "I know -- it's a mess," his wife said coldly. She stormed up the stairs and into her room, slamming the door shut behind her.

For a few moments Cindy and her father stood silently. At last she looked up at him, her eyes moist and red. "She never saw the cake," she said.

Unfortunately, Cindy's mother isn't the only parent who suffers from Situational Timbercular Glaucoma -- the occasional inability to see the forest for the trees. From time to time we all allow ourselves to be blinded to issues of long-term significance by stuff that seems awfully important right now -- but isn't. Muddy shoes, lost lunch money and messy kitchens are troublesome. But what's a little mud -- even on new carpet -- compared to a child's self- esteem? And while kitchen sanitation is important, is it worth the sacrifice of tender feelings and relationships? I'm not saying that our children don't need to learn responsibility, or to occasionally suffer the painful consequences of their own bad choices. Those lessons are vital, and need to be carefully taught. But as parents, we must never forget that we're not just teaching lessons -- we're teaching children. That means there are times when we really need to see the mess in the kitchen.

And times when we only need to see the cake. —Joseph Walker