One phenomenon of life that I find myself falling victim to all the time is how familiarity warps your idea of a person away from the average. In other words, the closer you are to someone, the harder it is to see them as just like everyone else, even though in many ways, we all are.
For instance, if any dog in the entire world walks up to me and jumps up on my leg, I think “oh…what a cute dog!” However, if MY dog were to do this EXACT same thing, my thoughts would change to “What the F*** is WRONG with you?? You know BETTER than this!!”
And yet…he is still just FOUR years old, and thus as prone to old-fashioned “kid” mistakes as the next one. It just throws me for an extra large loop when it happens.
Last night, I returned home late from work to a family who had eaten dinner at a friend’s house. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: Leo…did you eat your dinner tonight?
LEO: Well…I hate SOME of my hot dog.
ME: Okay. Anything else?
LEO: Yes! I ate some MONSTER cheese!
ME: Uh…what does…
LEO: No, wait…Monster-ELLA cheese!
I didn’t bother to correct him. I figure, one day he’ll either learn the real pronunciation, or discover that this type of cheese often comes from buffaloes. Either way…the confusion should be cleared right up.
When your children are very young, there is a true sense of wonder when you first witness them tap into their imagination and play pretend.
Little do you know how quickly that train is going to start spiraling out of control at a thousand miles an hour.
These days, Leo and I spend our evenings walking the dog together, with his baby sister happily along for the ride in a backpack (and yes, to answer your question, I DO look like a TOTAL badass). During these walks, “we” “play” various games as we wander the neighborhood. I use quotes because these adventures typically consist of Leo informing me what I should pretend is happening next, and when I try to add a detail here or there, he shouts me down with what is REALLY happening. Here’s an exchange from last night:
LEO: Daddy…pretend that you’re the king, and I’m your pet bird.
ME: Okay. Is your name Polly?
LEO: NO! Daddy…actually…pretend I’m a griffin ice hawk. AND…pretend that you can see through my eyes when I fly.
ME: Wow. Okay. Griffin Ice Hawk! I need you to fly above my castle and see if anyone is trying to invade!
LEO: NO, Daddy. I’m still a BABY! I can’t fly yet.
ME: Oh. Okay. Well then…aren’t you so CUTE!
LEO: I grew up. I’m as big as a HOUSE now.
ME: Oh wow. You’re HUGE! I guess you’re going to have to sleep outside.
LEO: NO! Daddy…you live in a CASTLE!
ME: Oh RIGHT! I’m going to have to turn the ballroom into your nest!
LEO: NO, Daddy! I have to sleep outside, because I can’t fit inside the DOORS of the castle!
ME: …I give up!
Funnily enough, Leo’s powers came true at that moment, and I really COULD see through his eyes. When he looked to his left, I could see, clear as day, a grown man holding his head and sobbing…
I think each of us walks into parenthood knowing that one day, our children will ask us questions there are no easy answers to. Whether they’re simply too complicated (“What happens when we die?”) or too delicate (“How do babies get out of mommies’ tummies?”) for kids to handle…we all know they’re coming, and so are at least prepared to be unprepared for them.
However, don’t EVER underestimate a preschooler’s ability to catch you off guard.
The other day, Leo and I were driving somewhere in the car, in mostly companionable silence. When we spoke, it wasn’t about much, and certainly NOT about sports…so imagine my surprise when we initiated this brief exchange:
LEO: Daddy…why is it called ‘Football’…
ME (To myself): I bet I know where THIS is going…
LEO: …when the ball…isn’t even SHAPED like a football?
ME: I…am completely baffled.
For years now, I thought it was going to be the birds and the bees that finally broke my brain…but Leo managed it with a simple non-sequitur.
As someone who values comedy and humor very highly, it has been extremely gratifying to witness my preschooler son’s budding love of jokes. Almost the SECOND his language skills were great enough to grasp wordplay and double-meanings, he has been an eager student (who learns by constant rote repetition).
Knock-knock jokes are a favorite these days, as they are now simple enough to both get AND retell correctly. I believe that “Boo” was the first visitor that he really laughed at, and while I had to take the time to explain how “Dragging your feet” is an expression meaning going too slow, it was well worth it to discover a Dragon at his door.
The other day, hoping to add another dab of idiocy into his joke repertoire, I decided to revisit the old “I 1 the Sandbox” routine. Despite its epic failure the last time I tried it, I was certain he’d have the focus to drive us through to the end. This was how it ACTUALLY went:
ME: Leo…I’m going to say “I ONE the Sandbox”…and then you say “I TWO the Sandbox”…and we’ll keep going back and forth.
LEO (Smiling): Okay.
ME: I ONE the sandbox.
LEO: I TWO the sandbox.
(You get the idea)
ME: I SEVEN the sandbox!
LEO: I ONE HUNDRED the sandbox!!
ME: …I feel well and truly cheated here.
You see, I had forgotten that children enjoy one thing almost as much as telling jokes…and that is ruining other people’s jokes whenever possible.
Well as it turns out, with escalating higher education costs and a disappearing middle class, I’m probably not going to be able afford college…so in the end, the joke’s on him.
At some point, for all of us, life comes down to a quest to have our desires fulfilled. Whether it’s money, power, sex…you name it…each of us does what we can, up to (and sometimes past) our legal and moral limit, to get it.
The same thing is true for kids, though it ends up LOOKING different. For them, the things they want are much more basic - TV time, candy, etc - and so the actions they take to get them seem somehow more immature.
But rest assured: kids are SMART, and they are working JUST as hard to get what they want as we do.
The other day, we went to the library to get some books as part of an afternoon of chores. As we drove to the next destination, Leo started looking through his new books, and ended up with the queasiness that often accompanies that action. We explained to him what had happened, and asked him to sit up straight, eyes forward to make it go away. This must have gotten his mind wandering, because he soon kicked off this exchange:
LEO: Daddy…do you remember that time, in our old house, when I got very sick?
ME: Uh…I think so, yeah.
LEO: I threw up a LOT.
ME: I definitely remember THAT.
LEO: You said that sometimes, when people have upset tummies, eating something cold can make them feel better, and I picked a Popsicle that day.
LEO: Well now, since I read those books in the car, I have an upset tummy again…so I choose a Popsicle again. Okay?
ME: Well played…
Two things occurred as a result of this conversation:
1. Leo got his Popsicle.
1. We have instituted a new rule in the family: “No reading before dinner, as it will spoil your appetite.”
No matter how much we all love our freedoms, the fact remains that if you have kids in your family, your household only runs by one of two government styles: dictatorship…or anarchy.
We impose rules on our kids without their input that they might hate, but need for their own good. For that reason, when they’re in a situation they enjoy, but they know has to end, their energy is split in half: 50% having fun, 50% waiting for the hammer to come down.
Just last night, Leo and I went for a walk that turned into an impromptu visit at out neighbor’s house. Leo loves people as much as he loves exploring new places, so he was having a ball. However, time marches on, and when it was time to go home to bed, he and I had the following brief exchange:
ME: Hey Leo…
My wife and are sending him to a new school these days, and while we were wondering if he’d one day soon start reading…we were unprepared for him to start reading MINDS.
One of the most fascinating (and infuriating) mathematical formulas of childhood goes something like this:
The volume of a child’s cries is directly proportional to the proximity of the biggest pushover parent.
We have all witnessed those incidents where the child falls down, then looks up to see who is watching (or rushing over) before deciding how to react…and it would be funny if it didn’t cause me such angst.
When Leo does things like this (and believe me, he does it OFTEN) I don’t see a slightly overdramatic four-year-old, but rather the potential future ten-year-old desperately washing his face in the bathroom, hoping the tear stains will go away so the other boys won’t make fun of him. It’s a scenario I remember WELL.
For this reason, when he sets off on another “fake” crying jag (you’re a parent for ten minutes before you can tell the difference), I sometimes can’t resist a bit of experimentation to see just how in control of it he really is.
A few days ago, Leo accompanied me on a dog walk, when we ran into some neighbors about to celebrate a birthday party, which resulted in an invitation over for chocolate cake. This incredible good fortune was marred by Leo getting knocked over by an over-enthusiastic dog, which led to a scraped elbow. He was calm by the time we started for home, but as we got closer to home and mother (see above formula), his whimpers turned to wails. This was the exchange that followed:
ME: Buddy…it’s looking better already.
LEO: (Crying louder)
ME: We’re gonna clean it up, and it’ll be as good as new.
LEO: (Crying even louder)
ME: By tomorrow, you won’t even be able to feel it.
LEO: (Somehow crying EVEN LOUDER)
ME (Giving in to temptation): Wow, if it hurts THIS badly, maybe we should stay home and take care of it, and skip the chocolate cake.
LEO (Without a TRACE of tears): It doesn’t hurt THAT badly, Daddy!
ME: Well that’s good…
SOMEHOW, Leo rediscovered those tears by the time we returned home, and got the needed sympathy from his mom.
At a certain age, crying will become a sign of weakness, and as much as I despise the thought, Leo will one day have to force these emotions away to survive the social battleground of school. Yet once he gets older, he will need to rediscover those same emotions he shed, in order to truly connect and start a life with someone (who, it just occurs to me, is probably alive and walking around RIGHT NOW!)
Hopefully, it will happen sooner or later, but if worst comes to worst, I can rest assured that he’ll be choked up at the sight of his teary-eyed child in distress…
Well somehow, despite the fact that NOTHING changed between then and now, he seems to have altered his entire truth-based strategy.
This past weekend, we had a baby-naming ceremony / first birthday party for my daughter Sally. This meant that lots of family descended on our house, including Leo’s cousin of the same age.
Now when Leo and his cousin get together, trouble tends to ensue (as you can well imagine). On this day, Leo and I went over to his cousin’s hotel for some swimming pool time, and when everyone was getting dressed afterward, the two of them started flinging goldfish crackers on the floor, ostensibly “for Sally,” but more realistically because making messes is hilarious.
When their Mimi saw what they had done, the following exchange ensued:
MIMI: Look at this mess! (To Leo’s Cousin) You need to clean this up RIGHT NOW!
(Cousin starts cleaning it up)
ME: Leo…you need to help too.
LEO: But Daddy…Mimi wasn’t talking to me!
ME: Yes…but you helped MAKE the MESS!
LEO (Exasperated): Yeah…but she didn’t KNOW that!!
Now that I re-live this moment, it occurs to me that Leo wasn’t so much beginning to understand the power of a well-timed lie, as he was learning to despise the well-placed snitch. I better keep a close eye on my kneecaps for the next few days…
Honesty is a funny thing. We tell our children how vitally important it is to tell the truth all the time, and what a unilaterally horrible thing it is to lie.
But if truth REALLY be told, we only do this because kids live in a world of absolutes, so a policy of 100% truth, while flawed, is far preferable to trying to teach the subtle nuances of how life REALLY works.
Because we all know that sometimes a lie (or even a simple omission of the truth) can be far kinder than being honest.
And it can CERTAINLY keep you out of trouble.
Leo had another poor dinner eating performance last night. We have long ago adopted a policy of not commenting on this, so I had completely overlooked it. Later though, when his sister was in bed and his mother and nana out running errands, we had the following exchange:
LEO: Daddy…do you want to know why I didn’t eat dinner tonight?
LEO: Because…Nana gave me chocolate candies before dinner!
ME: She did, did she?
LEO: Yes! AND…Mommy gave me a lollipop with gum inside!
LEO: Yep. It ruined my appetite.
Leo happily went to bed soon after, his conscience clear.
But I tossed and turned all night, trying to figure out how I was going to ground EVERYONE in my house…