Easily one of the strangest and most frustrating phenomena in life is that moment, after you’ve gotten extremely upset, when you realize that the situation is actually all your fault. You’ve built up a huge head of steam…when suddenly there’s no good way to deal with it.
One of my favorite stories growing up occurred when I was in high school. I went out with my friends one night, with my mother issuing her maddeningly vague “Be home at a reasonable time” curfew. I got home WELL within this time range, but instead of going upstairs to bed, I decided to play some video games downstairs until about 2am. Unbeknownst to me, my mother woke up, checked my room, found it empty, misinterpreted that emptiness, and started boiling with anger.
When I finally went upstairs to bed, she bellowed “2am is TOO LATE!” from her room. I said “I agree. I’ve been home since 12:30.” She paused, said “Oh…” and then attempted to deliver the lecture she’d been preparing anyway. “Well, I was GOING to say to you that…” Whenever she tried to land a point, I’d just say “I know…but I didn’t do that.” over and over again, until she had to admit defeat. It was beautiful.
Again, this was a full-grown woman and mother, unable to figure out the right way to deal with misplaced anger. And if you think THAT’S funny…wait until you see a four-year-old try to handle it.
This past weekend, my family took a long road trip down to Virginia. We were there for work, and in fact were busy for the entirety of the trip, yet we HAD to plan a trip to the zoo, since it would afford Leo a chance to see a real live Komodo Dragon for the first time since he fell in love with them:
When we returned from the zoo, my wife and I had a TON of work to do, but we still managed to find a play date for Leo, so HIS great day could continue.
But later that night, he got hungry, and as I’ve documented before, when that happens all bets are off.
While Jill and I prepared to get the kids to dinner, Leo started demanding first that he be able to watch a movie, and then a snack. When we wouldn’t give him these things, he refused to get into the car until I threatened him with the dreaded “count to three.” He marched to the car crying, where we had the following exchange:
LEO (Crying, Yelling): I don’t get to do ANYTHING I want!!
ME (Flabbergasted): EXCUSE me?
LEO (Working himself up further): You don’t let me watch a movie…you don’t let me have a snack…you don’t let me DO ANYTHING!
ME (Thoroughly offended): Leo…we have a LOT of work to do today, yet we still took you to the ZOO…where not only did you SEE a Komodo Dragon, but we bought you a STUFFED Komodo Dragon as well. We then let you play with a friend all day instead of helping us, we’re taking you to a restaurant you LOVE for dinner, AND we’re going to let you watch a movie WHEN WE GET BACK. And you have the NERVE to say that we “don’t let you do anything?”
(Short Pause where Leo realizes he’s screwed up)
LEO (Still angrily): I did NOT say that!
ME: Oh yeah? What did you say, then?
LEO (Practically shouting): I DON’T REMEMBER!
As you can see, Leo has a LOT to learn about how to handle anger once he realizes he’s in the wrong. And based on my experiences with my mother, it looks like he has the next three to five decades to figure it out.
Kids have this amazing(ly obnoxious) ability to push an issue way past the point of no return. Adults, by contrast, ostensibly are able to understand social cues, and thus understand when they’ve crossed the line, and how to step back when they do.
If both of these things are true (at least most of the time), then it stands to reason that there’s a point in everyone’s life when they suddenly figure out when they’ve gone too far.
With Leo, I think that moment was last week.
As a carrot to dangle at him for good behavior during a recent road trip, I let Leo know that I had a movie loaded up on my iPad that he could watch at some point “later.” He proceeded to ask me about it approximately every 45 seconds from that point forward. Now the traffic and road noise made it so that I often couldn’t hear his complete sentences, but all I had to hear was the words “watch” or “movie” to know what was happening. I finally told him he HAD to stop asking me.
My frustration mounted, and this was the exchange that eventually occurred:
ME (Warily): Yes?
LEO: Can I watch the movie now?
ME (Exasperated): Leo, did you REALLY just ask me that AGAIN, after I just TOLD you to STOP asking?
LEO: NO, Daddy! I asked you SOMETHING ELSE!
ME: Okay…then what did you ask me?
LEO: …I said ‘I love you,’ Daddy.
ME: Very well played, Sir.
My anger abated, but I did NOT let him watch the movie…for his own good. If he learns now that strategically saying “I love you” will get him what he wants…
One of the strangest quirks of our modern society is that not only do we personify genders onto inanimate objects, but we are rigidly specific as to WHICH genders are the CORRECT ones.
Here’s what I mean: as you well know, all boats MUST be feminine, and referred to as “She.” The problem with universal rules like this is that for every hundred times it works, the exceptions that pop up become utterly absurd.
For example, take the garbage barge:
This is a ship that hauls over 3,000 tons of toxic trash on the water. Now I ask you, is this boat more “Sugar and Spice and Everything Nice,” or “Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails?”
(Another fun example before I move on: there is a radio commercial that’s in heavy rotation on Pandora for the Mystic Seaport. Here is an almost exact transcript: “She survived icebergs, hurricanes and cannibals. She’s the Charles W. Morgan.”)
The good news here is that, if my four-year-old son is any indication, these antiquated naming conventions will soon be a thing of the past.
The other day, Leo and I were enduring a long car ride together. Leo was looking out the window, angry that I wouldn’t let him listen to the same album of animal songs for the fifth consecutive time, when he saw a cement mixer drive past us, and we had the following exchange:
LEO: Daddy…why is that cement mixer spinning around?
ME: Well…I don’t know…but I’m guessing that he’s heading to a construction site that needs cement right away. So he’s mixing it up on the way, so it’s ready to pour when he gets there.
LEO (Snappy): WHY did you say “HE?”
ME: Uh…I don’t…know.
LEO: There are boy AND GIRL drivers, Daddy.
ME: I know, Leo. I wasn’t saying…
LEO (Interrupting): *I* think it was a GIRL driving that cement mixer.
ME (Thoroughly chastised): Could be, buddy.
Now, let me make a few points here:
- While my gender assignation was random, it was in reference to the truck, and NOT the driver.
- While I am perfectly willing to debate the gender qualities of each and every vehicle in existence, I can’t think of one I’d consider MORE male than a cement mixer. I mean:
- Except maybe for this one:
As parents, we spend so much time trying to teach our kids the right words for things, and the correct way to communicate, that it can be hard to notice when they end up expressing things better than we ever could.
The other day, Leo and I were on a car trip listening to music, when a slow song came on. This was the exchange that followed:
LEO: This is a sad song.
ME: It’s not sad, Leo, it’s just slow.
LEO: Okay, it’s not SAD…it’s SHY.
ME: That’s perfect, Leo.
Friends, I am a writer by vocation AND profession, and I tell you honestly I could never have come up with that thought if I’d had a thousand years.
When you have very young kids, one of your biggest fears is the day that they start climbing out of the crib, as that means you have lost one great controlling tool for nighttime. Luckily for us, while Leo was certainly ABLE to do it…it never occurred to him that he COULD.
I bet this phenomenon, stretched over countless examples, was much more prevalent in the days before mass media consumption. Today, with movies, TV and internet as a constant present in our (and our kids’) lives, they are constantly exposed to ideas and concepts, WAY before they’d come up with them on their own, or have any idea how to process them. This can be dangerous…but in some cases, it can also be downright hilarious.
The other day, Leo got VERY ANGRY at me for some injustice or another (probably having to do with an inadequate portion of dessert or TV-watching), and he decided to let me know just HOW angry he really was. This was the exchange that followed:
LEO: That’s IT Daddy. I’m going to run away.
ME (Trying and failing not to smile): Oh yeah?
LEO: It’s NOT FUNNY, Daddy!
ME (Still failing): I know, Buddy. I’m sorry.
LEO: I’m NOT LAUGHING, DADDY!
ME (Failing harder): I see that. (Composing myself) So…where are you going to run away TO?
LEO: I’ll go to Virginia.
ME: I see. That’s pretty far. How are you going to get there.
LEO: I’ll drive.
ME: Good luck with that.
I’m not going to say he won’t…but by the time he actually COULD execute this plan, if he DOES, it will be for a different reason.
I think it’s safe to say that “Perspective” is directly proportional to “Civility.” in other words, the more we as adults are able to see situations from multiple angles other than our own, the more likely we are to behave rationally in potentially stressful situations.
Unfortunately, it’s also an enormous pain in the ass.
Because perspective is also inversely proportional to decisiveness. The more you can see multiple angles, the harder it is to pick an action and stick to it.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that sometimes, adulthood sucks. Because with four-year-olds, not only can they make decisions without even a moment’s hesitation, but they do so in a world that’s starkly black and white, with no priorities other than their own to contend with.
Every day at our house, though ESPECIALLY on weekends, we are battling what seems like a constant war between Sally’s sleep schedule, and Leo’s inability to be quiet. He must be reminded constantly, and even then it’s not always sufficient.
The other day, while Sally was napping. Leo was playing out some imaginary scenario or another when he walked from one room to the other, and slammed the door behind him. This was the brief exchange that followed:
ME: Leo! Sally is napping! I told you to be quiet, and you just SLAMMED that DOOR!
LEO: But Daddy…I’m a VILLAIN!
From here, I attempted to explain to him the difference between the actor and his role, and how we all must strive to retain a sense of self and our surroundings, even as we get lost in the theater of life. But instead of listening to me, he tied me up to the radiator and stole my wallet.
He might not have any perspective, but man is he ever METHOD.
My wife and I are currently looking to buy a house in our newly adopted city. In fact, we even found one that we could both see living in for the next twenty years. It would be the perfect home, except for two hurdles:
- The house is currently overpriced by about 50k
- The owner of the house…is also the agent who’s selling it.
Of these two issues, #2 is by far the more difficult, for the same reason that doctors shouldn’t diagnose their own ailments, and lawyers shouldn’t represent themselves in court: we as people are TERRIBLE at taking our own advice.
When Leo was a baby, my wife and I were discussing good places to raise him, and she mentioned that she had considered moving to my hometown, as it was probably “a great place for a kid to grow up.” (My hometown, for the sake of context, is a tiny former industrial town of 15,000 people that has been struggling to re-invent itself for at least my whole lifetime.) I answered by suggesting we live in HER hometown, which is approximately ten times the size as mine. This was the exchange that followed:
JILL: We can’t do that.
ME: Why not?
JILL: I just feel like it would be a step backwards for me.
ME: (Open-mouthed, slack-jawed amazement)
Here’s my point: if we as ADULTS can’t heed our own wisdom and truisms…what CHANCE does a four-year-old have to be able to do it?
Leo is currently in a phase where, when he asks a question, he demands an answer IMMEDIATELY. If any query goes more than 1.5 seconds without a response, he will re-ask it, over and over again, until it does.
Yesterday, Leo and I spent some extended time in the car. On the first leg of the journey, I let him listen to “his” music the whole way. When we set off for home, I was trying to find my way back, on a twisty country road, in pitch-blackness. While that was happening, we had the following exchange:
LEO: Daddy, can we put on MY music?
ME: Right now, I need to focus on getting us home, Leo.
LEO: Daddy, can we put on MY music?
ME: Right now, I need to focus on getting us home, Leo.
LEO: DADDY, CAN WE PUT ON MY MUSIC?
ME: RIGHT NOW, I NEED TO FOCUS ON GETTING US HOME, LEO.
LEO: Grrr. Daddy, it’s VERY annoying when you keep repeating.
He continued to tell me how annoying it was every couple of seconds…until I put on his music to shut him up. See, no four-year-old can get the best of…DAMN IT!
Of all the concepts that a young child has to master, “evil” must be one of the most confusing. We parents are forever instilling and reinforcing “good” behavior, telling them that it’s the “right” thing to do…and with these lessons comes the assumption that everyone else in the world is, in fact…well…good. But as we all know, this simply isn’t the case.
When Leo and I started making up stories together, I was always struck by how he always wanted “evil” characters in the stories - be they fire-breathing dragons, wolves, or men - yet they were never defeated at the end, but rather changed their minds and became good. At the time, I thought this was lovely; his childlike innocence would not permit any character to be beyond redemption.
Now he is four years old…and if the events of yesterday are any indication, he has cured himself of this sentimentality in a BIG way.
In order to take advantage of the beautiful day (and to burn off some excess preschool energy while his baby sister napped), Leo and I were outside blowing bubbles. Which is to say, *I* was blowing bubbles, while he ran around slapping them out of existence. The game that evolved was that he wanted me to blow the biggest bubbles I could, since he apparently took especial delight in destroying them, and I would root for them to escape his clutches.
At one point, an especially large bubble rode the wind over his head, effectively out of his clutches. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: That one got away! Be free, Bubble!
LEO: I want him to be free too, Daddy. Be free, Bubble!
(The wind dies, and the bubble dips low again)
LEO: I was just joking, Bubble. I’m going to POP YOU!
(He slaps the bubble.)
LEO: HA HA! You’re dead! AND I KILLED YOUR FATHER TOO!!!
ME: Good Lord!
Needless to say, I had no luck blowing bubbles after that incident. They wanted a chance to live, and being born into our backyard ironically left little chance of living happily ever grass after.
From adolescence on, the vast majority of us deal with body issues of one kind or another. This is too big or that is too small, and life would be so much better if I could reduce A or increase B.
This running dialogue becomes such a constant fixture in our lives that it is both refreshing and incredibly jarring to interact with four-year-olds, who are years away from even the first taste of this particular flavor of anxiety.
Last night, my friend Drew came over for dinner. He is a big fan of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (yes, he is an adult), and as it turns out, Leo’s favorite pajamas make him look like Michelangelo. As Drew and I went outside to cook dinner on the grill, Leo ran upstairs to put on his TMNT pajamas, and then emerged in our backyard, hands on his hips. Drew expressed suitable levels of awe, and Leo decided to up the ante by showing him the array of tattoos his mother allowed him to put on that morning. Unzipping his pajamas all the way to his knees, he re-assumed his heroic posture from before, now with a series of dragons, and his genitals, proudly displayed.
We then went in to have dinner, which included a cut up baguette for bread butter. As we all sat down to eat, Leo and I had the following exchange:
LEO: Daddy, can I have some bread and butter with dinner?
ME: Sure, buddy.
LEO: Can I have the piece that looks like [unintelligible]?
ME: Uh…WHICH piece do you want?
LEO: The one that looks like…the thing….the thing that Sally drinks milk from.
(Here’s the piece in question:)
ME: That’s my boy.
Throughout both of these incidents, as amusing as they were, NO ONE so much as cracked a smile, which I am very grateful for. He’ll have the rest of his life to experience anxiety and shame. For now, let’s just enjoy dinner, no matter what shape it comes in.
Through the eyes of a child, home life is a totalitarian state without reprieve. We parents control their menu, wardrobe, entertainment…hell, we even determine lights out like they do in prison.
Luckily for all of us, kids are completely unaware of the one weapon they have in their arsenal; the Achilles heel of all parents that COULD be exploited if only our children fully understood it. I’m talking about the depth of our love.
As parents, we love our kids DESPERATELY. They make us laugh and cry almost effortlessly, and that chest-expanding feeling you get when they do something wonderful is so heady that it could make you pass out.
We love our kids so much that it creates the ULTIMATE Keyser Soze moment where we re-examine our OWN childhoods through the lens that OUR parents must have felt the same way about us.
And here’s the point: if kids could actually grasp the enormity of this truth, they’d be able to wrest control and never give it back.
This morning, as Leo and I were leaving to go to school, his mother lifted the veil for a split second, and almost let the cat out of the bag, with the following exchange:
ME: Leo, it’s time to go. Let’s give Mommy a hug.
LEO: Goodbye, Mommy…
JILL (Mock Upset): Oh no.
JILL (Legitimately Upset): OH NO!
We then all left the house. Me to take Leo to school, Jill to go and buy him his first car.