Buckets of grace
The newest book in Elliot’s collection is called “How Full is Your Bucket? For Kids.” Its premise is that all of us – adults and children, alike – have an invisible bucket over our heads.
The story begins with the main character Felix dismissing his sister Anna when she asks to build a block tower with him. “You’re too little… Stay back. You’ll knock it over… Go play with your BABY toys.”
Anna responds by knocking over Felix’s block tower. They yell for Grandpa, who tells Felix that he has “dipped from his sister’s bucket.”
“Like everyone else, Anna has an invisible bucket. When it’s empty, she feels bad. But when it’s full, she feels great. Didn’t you ever notice your own bucket?”
Felix isn’t sure if Grandpa is being serious or joking, but the boy awakes the next morning to find a small bucket floating over his head. With every negative scene – spilling his cereal, having the dog eat his muffin and being bullied on the bus and in the school hallway – Felix’s bucket tips and drips. By the time his first class starts, his bucket is nearly empty.
“As he watched his classmates walk into the room, he secretly hoped they would trip and fall,” the book reads. “That’s what it feels like when you have an empty bucket.”
But then, Felix’s teacher compliments him on a well written story and asks him to share it with the class. A drop falls into his bucket. When his classmates laugh in all the right places and “ooh” at the scary parts, Felix feels a whole shower of drops land in his bucket.
His day improves and more drops fall when he finds a sweet note from his mom in his lunch box, is chosen as a team captain in gym class and receives a compliment from a peer about his backpack. With a nearly full bucket, he realizes at recess that Grandpa was right – “everyone else had a bucket too!” He helps a teacher pick up some dropped papers and introduces himself to a new student. My favorite line in the book comes next: “The strange thing was that for every drop he helped put in someone else’s bucket, he felt another drop in his own bucket.”
After school, Felix announces to Grandpa that he was right. “I DO have a bucket, and I understand how it works!” The story ends with Felix asking his sister to help him construct the world’s tallest block building. And so they do, with full buckets over their heads.
After reading the book for the first time, I thought, like I do with many children’s books, that the message is beneficial for children and adults. It took me a few days to even notice the “For Kids” part of the title. That raised the obvious question: Is there a version of this book not “for kids”? So I consulted the world’s expert on all things, Google. And, yes, there is. “How Full is Your Bucket?” by Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton was published in 2004. It was No. 1 on the “New York Times” bestseller list. The children’s version was released in 2009.
Since acquiring the children’s “Bucket” book a couple weeks ago, Elliot and I have been discussing this concept, how it echoes the Golden Rule and Jesus’ command to love your neighbor as yourself. I’ve told him that he is dipping out of my bucket when he ignores my requests to get dressed in the morning or disobeys me when I tell him to stop taking his sister’s toys. He’s informed me that his bucket is low after getting a red light at school or when I snap at him for the aforementioned offenses.
I admit – sometimes, I correct Elliot when maybe I shouldn’t. Pajamas left on the living room floor are clearly not the end of the world, but when I’ve requested on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday that they go in the hamper or in the laundry room, I get flustered on Thursday. Asking for a glass of water is OK, but waiting until I have my purse on my shoulder, the baby on my hip, my lunch bag in one hand and my keys in the other is not ideal. I sigh too much. I grumble too much. I snap too much. I know Elliot is watching all of it. And the bucket concept is helping us both take a better inventory of others’ feelings and how every move we make, every word we utter, every non-verbal cue we communicate affects people’s moods.
I got an especially hard lesson in this practice yesterday at work.
I try to be a positive person. One thing that usually keeps my bucket at a good level is my work. I really am happy with my job and my schedule there. When it comes to my writing and the work that goes into it, I am a perfectionist. I cringe at missed deadlines, and I hate mistakes – my own and others’.
I am very hard on myself if I make a mistake although I am quick to admit it and apologize. It takes me a while to move on, but I try to remember and apply what I’ve learned.
What happened to me yesterday, though, was a case of someone making me feel like I made a mistake when I did not. My supervisor told me I didn’t do anything wrong, and deep down I knew that, but I was crushed, deflated and defeated. My bucket was completely empty. If there’s such a thing as a negative level in a bucket, that’s where mine was.
Behind the closed door of my office, I cried and prayed. I was trying to understand why an email reprimand was affecting me so deeply. Then I realized that what I was feeling was probably similar to what Elliot has felt many times when I’ve yelled – like when he broke the erasers off his pencils or when he used cardboard I had put in the trash can to try and build a racetrack. He is still learning how to respect property and what’s acceptable, so I know I need to give him a break and use these things that I sometimes view as mistakes as teaching moments, rather than turn them into freak-out, why-in-the-world-would-you-do-that scenes.
During what was a dark moment in my office, a light bulb flickered. I realized I was feeling a magnified, adult version of what Elliot has experienced at my expense. That was a hard truth. A hurtful one. In fact, recognizing how many times I’ve dipped out of Elliot’s bucket affected me more than any of the hurtful words I read in that work email.
When I picked up Elliot from school yesterday, I told him I was sad because I had a rough day. I explained that my bucket felt empty. He was so sweet and genuinely concerned about me. I told him that we, as a family, need to do a better job of remembering each others’ buckets.
I’m not suggesting that children don’t need to be reprimanded sometimes; of course they do. But not all the time. And not for things that are not their fault.
I also know that even if I were a perfect mother, there will always be someone who will dip out of my children’s buckets. It’s inevitable, so I need to try and teach my children how to cope with getting hurt by others.
Jesus bore the burdens of the entire world, yet he gives us grace every single day, freely, live a river, even though we don’t deserve it. Seeing the bucket is a little like giving grace. And I know I need to do more of it as a mother.
Originally published on ovparent.com.