Stuffing Uncle Fred

By Peggy A. Chirico
Web Exclusive

little boy with stuffed dragonMy eight-year-old son came home from school in tears yesterday. Angry tears. Foot-stomping, teeth-grinding tears at the inequity of life. It seems that he and his ten-year-old sister had gotten into a scuffle as they were waiting in the bus line at the end of the day. Who knows how it actually started, but it ended up with the two of them pushing each other and exchanging some angry words-the usual way that siblings show each other their true feelings. They were probably both at fault, but the hall monitor yelled only at my son. As a result, he wasn’t angry with his sister; he was red-faced angry at the hall monitor for not yelling at his sister, too.

“I hate her,” he sobbed. “She should have yelled at Erica, too!” Understanding life’s inequities is particularly difficult for an eight-year-old.

I tried to talk to him, to put it in perspective for him; but he was inconsolable. My next tactic was to have him lie down in his room so he could calm down. But like high tide in a hurricane, the emotions of an eight-year-old defy boundaries and overflow unpredictably into other areas. His crying began to turn from an angry cry to a wounded cry to a satisfying self-pitying cry. Then, without logic of any kind, he hurled these damning words: “And I bet you hate me, too!” While I was trying to prepare my intellectual response to that statement, he dealt the final blow.

“And you lied to me! You said you would stuff Uncle Fred and you didn’t!” he cried. There was his proof-I must hate him.

Uncle Fred is the name (origin unknown) my son gave to a stuffed green dragon that he received as a gift from close family friends when he was three. He and Uncle Fred were the same size then, and the stuffed animal provided much comfort over the years. So much comfort, in fact, that Uncle Fred began to lose his stuffing through several torn seams in his body. For several months now, Uncle Fred sat very still in the corner for fear that he would be damaged beyond repair.

I had promised many times that I would stuff Uncle Fred. But things always got in the way. At first, I didn’t have any stiffing. Then when I found some stuffing, I couldn’t find a needle. And more recently, I had stuffing and needle but no time.

Yesterday, my son desperately needed Uncle Fred. And he had not yet been stuffed.

I justified to myself that I would have stuffed Uncle Fred, but I had other very important things to do, most of which impacted the quality of life for my son as I perceived it. But the sacrifices that I had made for my son were not necessarily the ones that he perceives to be important. Yes, he needs food, clothing, education, and shelter. But he needs emotional comfort as well. And he needs to experience real caring in terms of his own needs; for him that means listening to him, talking to him, and providing comfort when the real world gets tough.

I think I am like many well-intentioned parents in this fast-paced, multi-tasking world. We are so busy trying to provide for the physical well-being of our children that we can easily run out of time for the emotional well-being of our children. Too many tasks, too little time, too much organization, too many stilted lessons. And some of the lessons that children learn are not the ones we intend for them to learn: that hall monitors can yell at some and not at others; that adults can yell in anger but children cannot; that adults can forget sewing needles but children cannot forget their homework; that adults can make promises that they cannot keep.

Yes, these are tough lessons that children will eventually learn, but they cannot yet make allowances for good intentions. In the meantime, however, we can learn from our children what is most important and provide the emotional support they need to be able to learn life’s toughest lessons.

We need only to tap into our own memories to be reminded that the memories that we cherish most are not about material goods but about this emotional support. Long after we have forgotten the gifts we received from others, we will remember the time our parents and grandparents spent with us. We will forget about the ice skates, but we will remember skating with our parents. We will forget about taking dancing lessons, but we will remember dancing with someone special.

My son will not remember the sled he got one year for Christmas, but he will remember the night we went out in the snowstorm at night to slide in the newly fallen snow. He will not remember the electronic game he got for his birthday, but he will remember the rhyming game we played at night before he fell asleep.

Parenting and teaching children are the most challenging tasks many of us will ever face, and our fast-paced, demanding world makes them even more challenging. But we, as adults, must remember what we knew as children and what our children know now: Time spent together becomes the most cherished of gifts. We may never be able to share as much time as we would like to; but even a few minutes of unhurried, sharing, comforting time is often enough to create memories that will last a lifetime.

Last night I stuffed Uncle Fred.

Peggy A. Chirico is a free-lance writer, instructional designer, and mother of three, who lives, works, and writes in Manchester , CT. She can be reached at