Six Children and No Theories

Covering parenting and child development issues

Plotters and Pantsers

Written by Lisa Lawmaster Hess, Community Blogger | Mar 29, 2013 3:43 PM

"The only routine with me is no routine at all." (Jackie Kennedy)

In writing, there are "plotters" and "pantsers." The plotters plot, planning out their stories in advance, writing logical scene after logical scene until they have completed a rough draft.

Or so I'm told.

Pantsers write by the seat of their pants, creating little more than a couple of characters at the beginning, then seeing where the story takes them.

These descriptions are oversimplifications, of course - creating the final product requires tenacity and finesse - but when it comes to rough drafts, most writers consider themselves plotters or pantsers. And the older I get, the more I believe this isn't just true in writing. It's true in life - and parenting - as well.

I am a pantser. As hard as I try to be a plotter, I end up pantsing my way through life. I'm okay with that when it comes to writing, but sometimes when it comes to life, I suspect I'm a frustrated plotter living the life of a pantser.

Take vacation days at my house, for example. I like to have a certain amount of flexibility to my day when it's a day off, but give me too much and I end the day frustrated by my lack of accomplishment, desperately trying to scratch items off my to-do list between 11 and midnight. Since I live with a plotter (my husband) and a happy-to-go-with-the-flow pantser (my daughter), my day is like a see-saw.

I begin the day with a tentative to-do list. I've learned that a definite list sucks all the joy out of the freedom inherent in a vacation day, but still, there's always something to do. I keep the list short, knowing a long list will be an exercise in futility unless every item on it is essential (which they usually aren't).

Then, I alternate between puttering and accomplishing, trying to strike a balance through the course of the day.

Invariably, when I have stopped puttering and started accomplishing, that's when someone needs me for something. Immediately, if not sooner.

Sometimes it's a quick question. Sometimes it's an impromptu project. Sometimes it's just routine - making dinner, for example.

The trouble is, the older I get, the harder it is (and the longer it takes) to recapture the moment that was interrupted, which makes me a less than happy camper when my name is called.

But good things come out of these interruptions, too. Yesterday, for example, when my daughter got "so bored I cleaned my room."

I was just getting ready to get into the shower when the call came from upstairs. "Mom, I need you."

"Now?" 

"Yes."

"What for?"

"I'm cleaning out my closet."

I took a moment. I'd been here all day and now she needed me to do this?

Uh huh.

The room was a disaster. She had completely emptied the closet (which was necessary) and separated trash from treasure. I crawled into the closet and helped her go through the things that belonged to her only peripherally - in her mind, at least. Bedding. Outgrown clothes.

We relived the stories that went with some of the items. The Peter Rabbit toy that had been one of her favorites when she was little. Tee shirts from camps she'd attended. Toys she'd played with.

And then, when it was time to make dinner, the real conversation surfaced. Sports. Friends. Life.

I sat there on her bedroom floor hoping my husband wasn't starving, knowing I wasn't leaving this conversation for something as mundane as dinner preparations, and reminding myself that this was the perfect example of a time when a routine was meant to be broken.

When our children are little, they need a certain amount of routine. Its very predictability helps them to understand cause and effect and to feel secure. 

But as they get older, they're better able to handle departures from routine, and to understand the inherent value of doing things a little differently from time to time. Often these departures help children to understand their own value - when we take a day off from work to care for them when they're sick, when we ditch the chores on a bright spring day to go to the park or make an impromptu trip for ice cream on a summer's night.

Closet plotter that I am, I'll never be able to toss routine out the window and wash my hands of it, but  when that part of my personality takes over, I need to remind myself that sometimes routine is overrated. Sure, the tasks are important, but they aren't going anywhere. Sometimes, this is reassuring, but other times, the mere thought is exhausting.

Last night, her room still in upheaval, my daughter accepted an impromptu invitation to spend the night at a friend's house. My husband and I reminded her of all the essential routine tasks that she needed to complete today, and we all agreed that she needed to be home by mid-morning in order to accomplish them. Then we dispensed with routine and sent her on her way.

As I recall, she thanked me - further evidence that sometimes routines are meant to be broken.

My husband the plotter is likely to have a different take - let's see if she's thanking us when she's struggling to get things finished today.

But I think she's already learned another important lesson - that sometimes, spending time with people we care about is more important than getting things done.

Happy Easter, Happy Passover. Enjoy your time with your family.

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