The words “What,” “Do,” “You” and “Say” are all very common, and by the time we become adults, we’ve probably uttered each of them millions of times. However, once you become parents, those four words combine into a phrase that you will find yourself saying so much that you might as well print a sign.
Because we spend so very much time instilling good manners into our children, it might explain why it’s so especially aggravating when they call us out for even the slightest breach in etiquette.
The other morning, Leo and I were in the car together. I committed the incredible faux pas of letting my mind wander onto the road instead of his every utterance, and this was the exchange that followed:
ME (Snapping to attention): What, Buddy?
LEO (Annoyed): I SAID “Achoo.”
ME: Oh. Sorry. ‘Bless you.’
LEO (More Annoyed): DADDY!!
ME (Slightly exasperated): What??
LEO (Annoyed): I said it TWICE.
This little paragon of good form went on from there to enjoy a day in which he called a woman “old,” a man “bald,” and wondered aloud why a room in friend’s house smelled “disgusting.” There aren’t enough “What do you say?”s in the world to get you out of that…
As geeks everywhere (and apparently 99.9% of everyone on Tumblr) know, fandom is a serious thing, and people DO NOT take kindly to anyone who gets details wrong. A while ago, I NEARLY lost my mind when my son, in his simple naivete, combined Spider-man with Magneto, and I vowed that the next time such an unforgivable faux pas occurred, there would be hell to pay.
That second slip up occurred this week…and like a true geek, Leo called me out on it INSTANTLY.
I sometimes play up Leo’s outfit for the day, in the hopes that he’ll put it on more quickly. On this day, he was lucky enough to have this awesome Marvel superheroes shirt:
As we were getting it on him, we had the following mortifying exchange:
ME: What an awesome shirt, buddy!
ME: I saw the Batman shirt in your dresser, but I said to myself, ‘No. Today is an Avengers kind of day.’
LEO (Forcefully): DADDY…this is NOT the Avengers.
LEO: Spider-man is NOT in the Avengers, Daddy. And Wolverine isn’t EITHER!
ME: Can…can we not tell anyone about this, please?
Thankfully for me, he was gracious enough to keep my secret, and my geek cred is safe. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost time for his hot rock massage…
A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Leo, as a four-year-old, doesn’t yet live in a world where he perceives the possibility that people wouldn’t like him. On that day, I was thunderstruck how depressing it can be to have to re-experience the heartbreak that mean people can cause, through the lens of your children.
Today, I am awed by a different component of that trait: pure, balls-to-the-wall arrogance.
At a recent birthday party, I became friendly with the father of one of Leo’s female classmates, and as we parted ways, we exchanged contact information, along with a mutual promise to get our families together soon.
Yesterday, I picked Leo up from school, and was IMMEDIATELY confronted by this young woman thusly:
LEO’S FRIEND: Are we going to plan some playdates?
ME: Uh…yeah! I talked with your dad, and we definitely ARE going to do that.
LEO’S FRIEND: Well WHEN?
LEO’S FRIEND: Talk to my dad THIS FRIDAY!
She let me go after that, certainly thinking that she had effectively bullied me into giving her what she wanted. The joke was on her though, since her sincere desire to hang out my son was so charming to me, I would have agreed to just about anything.
When Leo and I were alone once more, I needed to comment on what had just happened, and we had the following brief exchange:
ME: Wow, Leo…she really likes you, huh?
LEO (Without missing a beat): Oh yeah…she LOVES me!
If Leo ends up being even a fraction like his father as he grows up, then he is in for a solid half-decade of poring over every female’s gesture and syllable like they were tea leaves portending the slightest scrap of affection.
Since that’s in his future…I think I’ll just let him enjoy this one today.
One aspect of parenthood that I have found especially challenging is that we must enforce rules in terms of stark black and white, in order to teach our children how the world SHOULD work, yet still make them aware that there are subtle exceptions to every rule, in order to teach them how it actually DOES work.
So we teach our kids to be nice to everyone, even while explaining that not everyone will be nice to them…and we teach them NEVER to lie, but then point out occasions where lying is by far the kindest thing you can do.
But while Leo is BEGINNING to understand the nuanced tap dance that represents being a member of society, he is still a child governed by the risks and rewards of behavior. In other words, despite moments of deep insight that awe and frighten me, he mostly treats right and wrong with the fierce certainty of a right-wing political zealot.
Last night, we were playing a version of “The Zoo Game,” in which he was a Komodo Dragon (named Murphy in honor of the one at the National Zoo in DC.), I was the zookeeper, and I just did whatever he told me to do, in reaction to whatever he told me was happening. (Some highlights from last night were that I had to find a magic potion to counteract the “mean” spell cast on him by a wizard, I had to help him fly around the zoo to kiss all the children who loved him, and that I had to feign amazement when he slid down the “invisible” slide that made up part of his cage.)
At one point, Murphy got very scared, and informed me that it was due to two “bad guys” who were spying on him from the top of his cage. This was the horrifying exchange that followed:
ME (“Yelling” while facing upward): HEY! You guys need to get out of here RIGHT NOW, or I’M going to call the POLICE!
ME: Okay, Murphy. That scared them. They ran away. You’re safe now.
LEO (holding up his hands): No, Daddy! I captured one of them.
ME: Okay. Should I call the police?
LEO (spreading his arms): No. I ripped him apart!
ME: Oh my Gosh!
LEO: Daddy…it’s okay. He was BAD.
ME: I know, but…
LEO (Beseechingly): DADDY. He was VERY bad, and he was ALWAYS going to be bad. Even if he went to jail, he was still going to be bad.
ME (Unsure how to proceed): Um…okay then.
LEO (Happily): But he was DELICIOUS! Do you want some?
From here, Leo altered the story so that (I think) it wasn’t a man, so much a chicken in a man costume. I wasn’t paying too much attention, because I had already started mentally planning his birthday party in four months. I do NOT want to get on that guy’s bad side…
As we all know, children of a certain age are obsessed with “winning” just about any contest they come into contact with. On rare occasions, they are able to achieve victory by actually besting an opponent. However, it is far more likely that they need to rely on cheating or adult indifference to capture the win.
In Leo’s case, he recently added a new method to this list: watering down the parameters of the contest until you can crown yourself champion.
Recently, Leo and I have been on a Road Dahl kick. We recently finished reading The Witches, and as a surprise, I found the movie version that I’m going to let him watch tonight. I turned this into a guessing game this morning, which Leo “conquered” with the following exchange:
LEO: What movie are we watching tonight, Daddy?
ME: It’s a surprise!
LEO: Does it have dragons in it?
ME: No dragons.
LEO: How about dinosaurs?
ME: Nope. No dinosaurs either.
LEO: Does it have people in it?
ME: Uh…yes. It definitely has people.
LEO: YES! I GUESSED it!
ME: Uh…sort of.
My four-year-old Nostradamus continued his amazing streak of prognostication by correctly predicting that we’d be having “food” for breakfast, wearing “clothes” on our bodies, and that today’s entry would be overly reliant on “quotation marks.”
When my daughter was born and I held her in my arms for the first time, I distinctly remember making a vow to myself (and by extension, her) that I would do everything in my power to be as gender-blind as possible in how I dealt with my kids, and how I allowed the world to deal with them as well.
That vow lasted approximately fifteen minutes.
Maybe it was the utter exhaustion that permeates your being on the day of a baby’s birth, or maybe it was just my rank inexperience at having any, and then two children, but casual statements made by the nursing staff during those first few days hit me VERY differently. To wit:
When Leo was a few days old:
NURSE: Wow…he’s really taking to the nipple!
ME (Giggling): That’s my boy!
When Sally was one day old:
NURSE: Wow. She’s got a very strong suck reflex!
ME (Instantly): Don’t ever fucking say that about my daughter again.
At this point, with almost a year of having a daughter under my belt, I can safely say…that I still have a ways to go.
This morning, Sally was still sleeping soundly (!!!) when the rest of us were getting ready for our day, when my wife and I had the following brief exchange:
JILL: Wow…if Sally sleeps much longer, she’ll be really screwing herself.
ME (Instantly): Watch your mouth.
Based on my reactions here, it seems I have some work to do before I’ll be comfortable allowing her to head out into the world unprotected. Luckily, I still have three or four decades before I have to let this happen…
Between texting, Tweeting, FB posting, Snap Chatting, and even Tumblring, our society has found a startling number of ways to communicate with one another. Not to sound too “Get Off My Lawn!” about this, but this reality is a disaster waiting to happen. Our language is already so multi-layered and complex, that attempting to wield it without any audible or facial clues can lead to massive misunderstanding.
And as any parent of a young child can tell you, these miscommunications are also JUST as likely when you have both.
As a close to five-year-old boy, Leo has been growing more independent every day. One day, he’ll go outside and water the garden entirely of his own initiative, and on another, he’ll quietly sit in his playroom inventing a new game while we clean up in the other room.
Yesterday, when I came home from work, my son walked into the kitchen drinking from a water bottle. This led to the following exchange:
ME: Leo…are you drinking from a water bottle?
JILL: Daddy…Leo isn’t just drinking from it. He actually filled it up all by himself!
ME: Wow. How did you get it?
LEO (Like he’s talking to an idiot): I brought it in from the living room.
ME: Thanks, Buddy.
It WAS a fair question (it turned out that he pulled out the stool, unfolded it, climbed on it, turned on the water, filled the bottle, turned off the water, then effectively closed the bottle without spilling it…acts he had never put together quite so successfully before), yet his response made me feel like an asshole.
Seems like he’s soon to be five, and fifteen, all at the same time.
By experiencing life anew through the eyes of a four-year-old, I am reminded that childhood is a seemingly endless parade of forbidden pleasures. For each experience or activity you can enjoy, there are many more that are denied to you until the long-anticipated “Someday” arrives.
For that reason, when kids stumble onto something that is just for them, they wield it with the tyrannical grip of an evil despot.
A little while ago, we found ourselves in the midst of a family reunion at a lake house. Leo, his (also four-year-old) cousin and I were sitting on a dock sipping drinks, when one of them spied a water trampoline far off in the distance. This was the exchange that followed.
LEO: Daddy…can we go on that trampoline?
ME: I’m afraid not. It’s not ours.
LEO’S COUSIN: If it WAS ours…could we use it THEN?
ME: If that trampoline was mine, then OF COURSE you could jump on it.
LEO: Thanks, Daddy.
ME: Sure. But if it was YOUR trampoline…would you let ME use it?
BOTH (Without skipping a beat): No.
ME (Stunned) Why not?
LEO’S COUSIN (As though explaining to a child): They’re just for KIDS.
LEO (Nodding): It’s true, Daddy.
ME: I…I’m gonna go have a BEER now.
Okay…I didn’t say that last line…but I sure WANTED to.
As parents, we spend so much time getting to know everything we possibly can about our kids, that one of the more flabberasting moments in life is when we discover that they are doing the same thing with us.
I think it will come as no surprise when I say that, while I simply ADORE having kids…I find the whole “baby” thing extremely trying. Simply put, my wife and I do not make babies who sleep with any consistency or regularity, which means a lot of loud screaming and quiet seething in the wee hours of the night.
Outside of a few acerbic comments after particularly bad nights (as well as my very public pronouncement that Sally was recently inducted into the Guinness Book of World Records as the World’s Loudest Baby), I thought I had kept these frustrations away from my son.
However, the other morning, Sally was sitting in front of a mirror, playing adorably with her reflection. Leo sat down next to her, and wanted to get in on the cuteness. This was the exchange that followed:
LEO: Daddy…pretend I’m a baby too!
ME (Mock Horrified): Absolutely NOT!
LEO: Okay…pretend I’m a two-year-old baby who doesn’t cry.
ME (Ashamed): Deal.
At this point, I think it’s only fair to reveal that Leo was an absolute nightmare of a baby. He slept approximately six minutes out of every 24 hours, and absolutely NONE of the remedies that other parents condescendingly suggested ever worked (Why NO…we DIDN’T try pacifiers! Thanks SO MUCH!) At one point during that period, I had a dream that we had given him up for adoption, but it “was okay,” because Jill was pregnant so we could “start over.” Yikes.
So if a baby like that could transition into the son I have today…then I have no doubt that Sally will be a remarkable little girl…just so long as I survive long enough to see it.
One of the biggest challenges I’ve experienced with parenthood thus far is creating in my son a sense of moral consequences. In other words, it’s one thing to be good for fear of punishment, but it’s far different to be good because it’s the right thing to do.
When kids are very young, they are simply incapable of this kind of behavior; they are just too self-centered by definition to even recognize that others around them have needs at all. But at four, Leo is starting to realize that everyone has feelings, and is trying to figure out how to add that to his world view.
One way I am encouraging it is through the concept of “promises.”
Jill and I have started promising him certain things (usually when we can’t do something he wants to do immediately), and we ask him to promise us things right back. Each time, we make it VERY clear that a promise is sacred, and you HAVE to do what you say when you tack that word on top of it.
He seemed to get it the other day. We were in a drug store picking up some medicine for his baby sister. He went to the toy aisle “just to look,” but came running back to me with a toy lizard in his hand. Weeks ago, in the same store, we had seen a different lizard, but the package showed a different model, and he indicated that was the one he really wanted. I told him that if we ever found THAT lizard, I’d get it for him. That was what he had this day, and so I kept my word (all $2.50 of it).
As we happily went back to the car, I decided to hammer the point home, so we had the following exchange:
LEO: I love my new lizard!
ME: That’s great, Leo. I got it for you because I PROMISED you could get that one if you ever found it, and it’s VERY important to keep promises.
LEO: I know, Daddy. I’m ALWAYS going to keep MY promises, too…
ME (Swelling with pride): I’m so glad to hear you say that, Buddy.
LEO: …UNLESS those promises are JOKES.
ME (Deflating with shame): I see…
It seems like my passion for honesty, and my love of a good punch line, have collided into each other. Looks like it’s back to the parenting drawing board for me. And that’s a promise.