For children, imagination can be a fascinating paradox. It’s simultaneously the way they make sense of the world around them - trying on new personae and scenarios to see how they work - but it’s also how they deviate from the world, and start to figure out who they are as individuals.
Because of this, if you as a parent ever try to add a coat of “real world” over the imaginary landscape they’re painting, the results can be extremely baffling.
Last night, I was in the process of transitioning Leo from bathtime to reading bedtime stories, when we had the following exchange:
ME: Okay, Buddy. The water’s leaving the tub. Let’s get you out now.
LEO: Hurry, Daddy, so I don’t go down the drain!!
ME: Oh no! We’d better hurry. If you go down the drain, the police will come and arrest me!
ME: If you disappear, the police will want to know where you are. Then, if I say “He went down the drain, officers!” They’ll say “That’s crazy!” and take me to jail.
LEO: But Daddy…it’s the TRUTH!
At this point, it’s a good thing the water had all left the tub, because my head really started to swim…
As adults, a vast amount of our energy is spent acquiring, or worrying about, money. Our children, far more observant than we give them credit for, can obviously pick up on how important money is to us…even if their understanding of what it actually is, or how it actually works, leaves a lot to be desired.
In Leo, we have a four-year-old who’s filled with many of the classic misconceptions that kids have about money, including:
If it makes its way into his hands, it is his…even if he “finds” it on my nightstand, or in my pocket.
If you run out of money, no matter what the circumstance, you simply go “get more.”
Money simultaneously possesses no value, and ALL value.
A perfect illustration of this last one occurred the other day. He and I had to make a trip to the drug store to get some things, and I made sure to tell him at least three times that we were ONLY getting the things we needed, and NOTHING ELSE.
As he got out of the car, he found a penny on the floor of my car, and proudly showed me “his” new “quarter.” I told him he could put it in his piggy bank when we got home, and away we went.
Almost as soon as I got into the store, I found everything I needed, and lost my son. I found him at the front of the store, looking at a display of toy cars. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: Leo, we’re getting ready to go.
LEO: Daddy…I want one of these cars.
ME: We already talked about this, Buddy. No toys today.
LEO: I KNOW, Daddy. But I have one money right now, so I’m going to BUY it.
I then steered him away from the display, and that line of thought. However, a part of me wanted to let him see that through by bringing that car up to the register, and attempting to purchase it with one cent, his innocent naivete, and his utter conviction that this was enough. Either he would learn a valuable lesson on economics, or I would gain a valuable technique for scamming the system. Either way, I’d win.
As each of us grows into and through adulthood, life provides many opportunities that help us prepare for being parents. With each such experience - babysitter, camp counselor, older sibling or cousin, dog owner, to name a few - we feel one step closer to one day having a child of our very own.
And when the magical day comes when you are a parent, that’s when you learn that all of that formative experience…didn’t amount to shit.
In fact, I contend that the only times when those pseudo-parenting situations actually translate into actual-parenting experience, are those moments when the kid does or says something that you are utterly, 100% UN-prepared for.
Leo has been taking swim lessons this winter, and has (naturally) fallen in love with his instructor, a senior in high school. I can tell that she prides herself on her ability to work with children, and Leo is thriving under her tutelage. However, the other day, I overheard the two of them have the following exchange:
TEACHER: Today, instead of kicking one foot and then the other, I want you to keep your feet together, like a mermaid!
LEO: Mermaids have BREASTS!!
Confidential to the Teacher: Forget how successfully you interact with children for 45 minutes at a time. You know that feeling of embarrassment mixed with confusion that made you want to simultaneously correct behavior and laugh your ass off? THAT’S parenting…
Here’s a funny truth about a young child’s imagination: as boundless and unconstrained as it might be…they don’t yet KNOW that they’re able to dream up things they don’t yet know. In other words, Leo has been pretending to be dragons (with extremelyamusingconsequences) since before he was forming long-term memories, but he had to become aware of the CONCEPT of dragons before any of it was possible.
This combination of unhinged creativity and real-world knowledge can sometimes lead to EXTREMELY awkward interactions.
Ever since I told him that there was one species of his favorite imaginary animal that was actually “real,” Leo has been a huge fan of Komodo Dragons. He often pretends to be one, and there are still some days when we wake up to “The Egg Game” (Leading to one of my favorite conversations of all time). The game is simple. Leo dives under the covers, and any adult present announces that they don’t know what animal is in this egg that has appeared. Leo emerges from the covers resplendent in his (invisible) persona, and he shows us his various features (claws, teeth, forked tongue for Komodo Dragon, golden feathers, sharp beak and flames for a Phoenix, etc) until we know what he is.
The other morning, my wife and I had suffered through another disastrous night of sleep training with the baby, and as a reward for that ordeal, Leo woke up earlier than he has in years. He jumped onto the bed and woke me up (my wife was asleep with the baby in the next room), and decided we NEEDED to play The Egg Game at that very moment. In my exhausted haze, I agreed. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: Wow. With those sharp claws, sharp teeth, forked tongue, and running that fast…you must be a Komodo Dragon!
LEO: NO Daddy! You didn’t see my SKIN yet!
ME: Sorry…you also have that amazing dark green skin!
LEO: No! It’s BLACK!
ME: Sorry…BLACK skin. You must be a Komodo Dragon!
LEO: Yes! I’m a MOMMY Komodo Dragon!
ME: You are? You just emerged from your…
LEO: And YOU’RE the BABY Komodo Dragon, Daddy!
ME: I…I am?
LEO: Yes, and you’re HUNGRY!
ME: I AM hungry. Mommy…FEED ME!
LEO: I caught an animal. I have him in my teeth!
ME: Great. Can I have some?
ME: Why not?
LEO: You’re a BABY! (Pulls down his pajama top) Drink my milk, Daddy.
ME: Uh…no thank you.
LEO: DO it, Daddy.
At this point, I sat him down and taught him all about the differences in the animal species, specifically the fact that mammals are the only creatures on earth that produce milk for their young, thus preventing the most awkward two minutes in either of our lives from occurring.
I am at a very interesting age these days, in that I am old enough to have friends with much older kids, yet also young enough to to have friends who are just getting ready to start their own families.
My friends with older kids are both infuriating and hopeful to me, as they provide glimpses into a brighter future of meaningful sleep and actual free time…
My friends who don’t have kids yet often ask me what to expect, while their heads are filled with horror stories of sleepless nights and relentless chaos. This is where I get to set their minds at ease. Not about their fears, as they are entirely founded, and in fact reality is 100% certain to be worse than they can possibly imagine. But the good news is that their capacity for love will expand so much, they won’t MIND all of that other stuff.
At least…they won’t mind it until the day their kid rubs it directly in their faces…
This morning was a typical one for me: It started by dealing with a crying infant at midnight, and then again at 1am. Leo woke me at 6:45, at which point I got him dressed, made him breakfast, packed his lunch, walked the dog, fed the dog, drove him to school, and then finally got myself to work.
As it was time to get Leo into the car (it’s own chore because it’s so damn time consuming), Leo decided that he wanted to hug and kiss his baby sister before we left. This was the exchange that followed:
LEO (Bowing): I’m pretending that Sally is the queen.
I recently did some work with an organization that helps people tap into their emotions to inspire them toward greater physical fitness.
In other words, instead of merely “working out,” these people invite you to “dedicate” your workout to a loved one, with the idea that we all perform better when there’s something meaningful behind the effort.
It sounds strange, but it’s VERY effective.
Last summer, I was in training for a half marathon when my grandmother died. The next day was a Sunday, the day of my long run for the week. I was sad, and underslept, and it was the hottest day of the year. I put on my running gear in the morning, almost literally wracking my brains for a good excuse not to go. However, when my son saw me in my outfit, he gushed that one day he wanted to have similar clothes so he could “be as fast as daddy.” And out I went.
These days, I am prepping for a Tough Mudder. I am told the race is very challenging, but I can assure you the same thing can be said for my training. I am doing all sorts of things I’ve never done before - rock climbing, yoga, boxing to name a few - and they all pose extreme challenges in their own way.
Earlier this week, I became exhausted during a boxing class. There was still more to go, and so I needed to find a way to spur myself forward. Later that night, I explained what I did over dinner, and this was the exchange that followed:
ME: I was so tired, but I didn’t want to give up, so I just imagined that Leo was standing off to the side, watching me.
LEO: Why did you do that, Daddy?
ME: I guess…I want you to be proud of me.
LEO: I AM proud of you, Daddy.
ME (heart melting): Thanks, buddy.
JILL: WHY are you proud of Daddy, Leo?
LEO: Because he lets me eat popcorn and watch movies!
ME (heart hardening): Thanks, buddy.
The lesson here is clear: if you want to set a good example for your children to follow for years to come, push yourself to greater heights in their name. Or, failing that, just let them do shit they want to do.
As a parent of young children, there are some milestones we eagerly anticipate (the top four in my mind are 1. Sleeping through the night. 2. Potty training. 3. Sleeping through the night. 4. Sleeping through the night) but there are others just as major that we never think about. Understanding consequences is a big one. And so is the ability to contribute manpower to the family cause.
We spend so much time as personal chefs and scullery maids to our kids, it’s hard to describe how great it feels when they even START to give something back.
Leo is working on remembering to throw his dirty clothes in a basket when he takes them off (baby steps, people). The other day, he decided to get into his pajamas early in the day, downstairs. This was the brief exchange that followed:
LEO: Daddy, where should I put my dirty clothes?
ME: Well, how about the basket in your room upstairs?
LEO: Um…no thank you. I’ll just put them on the dinner table.
So he’s obviously still working on his laundry skills…but he’s proving very adept at making sure we all have napkins when we eat. That’s got to count for something, right?
Like a lot of parents, my wife and I went to great pains to keep Leo’s young life as “gender neutral” as possible. We didn’t force anything too stereotypically male down his throat, and we encouraged whatever he showed interest in, no matter what demographic it was originally targeted for.
However, we have been pleased to see certain bursts of gender neutrality come through from time to time. For example, the disk-like projectiles that one of his toys can shoot often become cookies that his monsters sit around and snack on together, and he has two ballerina figures (“prizes” he chose after haircuts) that become heroes on par with his knights.
So it should come as no surprise that, while enacting an elaborate medieval scenario the other day with his mom, Leo became VERY upset that he did not have a queen to go with his king figure. My wife, as resourceful as she is feminist, pounced on this, and combined some Play-Doh with a long-haired knight to rectify the situation. When I got home that day, Leo proudly showed me their creation:
and this was the exchange that followed:
LEO: Look, Daddy. We made a queen for the king!
ME: That’s great, Buddy. You gave her a very cool crown!
LEO: Yeah. AND a skirt!
ME: Oh right. (Pause) Did…did you put a skirt on the king too?
ME: Okay. Why?
LEO: Because he’s the king, so he gets to be prettier.
So to recap, the king is perpetuating a culture of male superiority and dominance…by insisting on wearing the cutest dress.
Somehow, I think that last statement is both sexist and feminist at the same time.
In the daily “Abbott and Costello” routine that is raising a young family, the parents are typically the Abbotts (aka “The Straight Men”) asking questions and dead-panning our reactions, while our kids absolutely CRUSH the Costello role, eliciting laughs through their pratfalls and antics.
I have no science to back this up, but this MIGHT be why kids often refuse to let their parents sleep - it’s the only way to level the playing field, and reverse these roles.
Over the past week, my baby daughter has suffered from RSV, which means that her parents have been suffering from EXTREME sleep deprivation as a result. This became blatantly obvious yesterday during a trip to the zoo, as we were looking at some wildebeests, and Leo “Straight-Manned” with the best of them:
ME: Leo…did you know that another name for a wildebeest is a “gnu?”
LEO: Oh yeah!
ME: And…if a mommy wildebeest has a baby…that’s a “new gnu.”
ME: And…if that baby wildebeest is given as a present to our former Ethopian neighbor, then it would be “Nu-Nu’s New Gnu.”
ME: AND…if our former Ethiopian neighbor were to marry a former Senator from New Hampshire, and also name her baby wildebeest after a letter of the Greek alphabet…then it would be “Nu-Nu Sununu’s New Gnu “Nu.”
ME: AND…if that baby wildebeest ended up showing that it could tell its owner apart from all other people, we could say that “Nu-Nu Sununu’s New Gnu “Nu” knew Nu-Nu!”
LEO: I’m going to look at giraffes now.
Later on that day, Leo stomped in mud puddles until his entire lower half was soaking wet, and then insisted on wearing his Ninja Turtle pajamas to a restaurant for dinner. But for this precious few minutes, he held ALL of the dignity in our family.