the most useful engine

Most people have heard of the children’s show “Thomas the Tank Engine” even if they have never seen it.  It is a simple show of little remote contolled trains “chuffing” along, with narrated simple stories by people like Ringo Starr, George Carlin and Pierce Brosnan…always with a British accent.  The engines are always finding themselves in little predicaments and coming up with solutions to right things.  Something each train strives for is usefulness.  Each engine prides themselves on feeling useful, on being thought of as useful.  It’s often a generous compliment paid, or the closing remark of a story, “And everyone agreed that this train was a *very* useful engine.”

Today, as most days, I ponder each individual’s need to feel useful.  This could also be seen as a need to feel important, to feel valued, to internalize that your personal contribution has value.  This need is labeled as one of the criteria of being human by Dale Carnegie in “How to Win Friends and Influence People.”  So it should be no surprise that this quality is also a priority of children, even though it might be met with the concurrent attention span of the child.


Today the boys were useful, and the enthusiasm with which they met my requests reminded me how important communicating value to them is.

I finally  resigned myself to the realization that the kale plants flourishing in our garden were not going to beat the infestation of little gray bugs I had kept hoping would miraculously disappear, and the sturdy green beasts came out of the garden.  As I started rooting around for the shovel, both boys came out of the sandbox to investigate the excitement.  Hauling load after load to the compost I was left with a garden covered in wilted, dead, or ripped kale leaves all covered in the tiny gray bugs.  The grass leaves that had been overshadowed by the kale forest now looked abundant.  I began narrating what I was doing, pointing out excitedly that the dump truck could be helpful in gathering kale leaves and bringing them to the compost.  Little boy quickly realized this useful task he was well suited for and ran to get the dumper.

We worked with focus.  Each task I began was assessed by my Little Boy, who found ways he could participate and help.  We gathered kale leaves, then drove them to the compost.  I began raking leaves together, so he found his own little rake.  I began digging for grass roots and he stood at the ready to fling bits into the dumper and dig holes with his rake so that I could find more roots.  As we rounded the bend of the veggie bed, we discovered a few carrots that had gone unnoticed under the kale canopy.  They were met with great enthusiasm, as they were fully grown and surely “the biggest carrot we’ve EVER seen!”

This discovery derailed all other activity for the moment as both boys became lost in their fall garden treasure.  “Yeah mom, this is totally ‘carrot surprise’!”


As kids munched, grass continued to be removed until both carrots and grass were all gone.  Little Boy stayed in the newly cleaned dirt alone a while longer observing the new look it had taken on in just a short while.  Soon sandbox activities resumed and I began to ponder.

Being a child isn’t about playing all day.  A child’s work *is* play and through it they are learning constantly.  One of their favorite things is learning from people they love.  Cleaning the bathroom becomes not a chore but an enthusiastic discovery of how shiny things get!  Babbling away and scrubbing the floor, pretty soon both boys are peeking over my shoulder wondering what all the fuss is about and ready to try their hand with the squirt bottle.

Most projects assisted by children don’t go faster than when done without them, but choosing to consciously point out the moments where a child is useful can show them they are an important member of the family and means something to them.  When Little Boy holds the screen door open so the stroller can easily be pushed inside, he hears my gratitude.  I genuinely can’t do it myself without risk to the already fragile door hinges.  He soaks it in.  Sometimes he chooses not to hold the door and I lament aloud how difficult it is without him and what a big difference it makes when he is there.

Next time he’s on it.  Feeling valued and needed feels good.

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2 responses to “the most useful engine

  1. Love this, Bee. Yes, a feeling of usefulness is one of the sweet gifts a parent can give a child. Thank you for nurturing their little tanks. Love you, Dad

  2. When our children were small, there were times when I just wanted to “get things done”. It was always a balancing act of including the kids in the chore (because they wanted to help) and sometimes not including them because it took 3x longer when they helped. 🙂 That’s why I chose to paint my walls at 2am — the possibility of spilled paint cans was more than I could tolerate!

    Loved the blog, Bee. Feeling valued and worthwhile — being part of something bigger than yourself — is such a human issue. Even if it’s something like holding the door open. After all, we need each other. Even for the little things! But if we didn’t have each other, the little things could become big things.

    Love you, Bee — Mom

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