Katie McLaughlin couldn’t figure out why her seashell-obsessed preschooler had collected a bucket full of broken shells.

Jinx!/Flickr CC

As the mom and author wrote on her blog, Pick Any Two, during a summer trip to the beach, she and her 4-year-old son began collecting seashells.

Uninterested in swimming or building sand castles, the young boy was fixated on finding shells, and McLaughlin joined the search during her early morning walks. She wrote:

On my early morning strolls I couldn’t stop myself from searching for a few to take back to the beach house for him. I splashed through the lapping waves and grabbed shells out of the surf — tossing the broken ones back as I sought out a coveted “keeper.”

I found some impressive ones. Or so I thought.

The mom proudly brought back her two perfect shells to show her son. But instead of getting the excited, wide-eyed response she expected, she got “a measly shrug”:

“Aren’t these shells beautiful?” I pressed him.

“Sure, they’re pretty nice,” he replied, but without much enthusiasm.

“What do you mean ‘pretty nice?’ They’re gorgeous!!!”

Later, as McLaughlin watched her son on the beach, she noticed that he carefully looked at each shell to determine if it was worthy of going in his bucket. She wrote:

I saw him take perfectly shaped shells and throw them back to the high seas.

I watched him take broken shells with jagged edges and irregular holes and place them carefully into his bucket.

Puzzled, McLaughlin asked her son what it was about the broken, imperfect shells that made them worth keeping:

“What do you like about this one?” I asked, picking up a mangled quarter of a seashell that was by no means a “keeper.”

“I like the little stripe on the side that looks purple when you turn it toward the sunlight,” he replied matter-of-factly. Duh, Mom.

“And this one?”

“It looks like it has tiger stripes.”

“And what about this broken one?”

“Well, that one’s broken into the shape of a crescent moon.”

I looked at it again. Indeed, it was shaped exactly like a crescent moon. Somehow I’d totally missed that.

That’s when McLaughlin had an epiphany. What she had seen was a broken, useless, “throw away” shell. But her son had seen something beautiful. She wrote:

I saw a useless shell to toss back to the sea; he saw the moon.

Some days, it’s a metaphor for my whole life. While I’m off pursuing some illusion of perfection, my son is busy treasuring what’s right in front of us. While I’m throwing away the broken bits, he’s busy seeing them for what they really are: gorgeous.

It wasn’t just a lesson about shells, but about life. In our pursuit of the perfect — or even just in the desire to create a perfect image or facade (especially in the era of social media) — it’s easy to miss that there is value in our flaws and broken moments.

Making a stronger family isn’t about the good times, but rather how you handle the difficult ones. As McLaughlin wrote:

Looking at my son collecting all those broken shells was the reminder I needed that the whole point of parenting — and really, of life — is not to avoid the painful bits. It’s not about seeing the hurt, the tears, and the struggle and hurling them back into the ocean as fast as you can so everyone can get back to (forced) smiling.

The lesson from her son’s bucket of broken shells was contagious. And it taught McLaughlin to think more carefully about what a “keeper” really is.

Posted by Pick Any Two by Katie McLaughlin on Monday, November 23, 2015

McLaughlin concludes by noting that she still keeps a few of those broken shells on her desk:

“My personal reminder to notice the beauty in the brokenness — as a parent, as a partner, and as a person.”

Dearly reached out to McLaughlin for comment, but she was unavailable.

Leave a comment

In response to:

Mom Looking for Shells on Beach Doesn’t Get Why Son Likes Broken Ones. Then He Points out the Shape

Your email address will not be published.

We are excited to announce Dearly has joined forces with Mama’s Uncut. Helping Mom’s across the United States answer questions on life’s big challenges.