Category Archives: parenting

Toddler Life, Chapter 148: Because It’s Hard


You don’t get much help as a parent. You can buy all the books — all the Idiot’s Guide to Parentings and How to Think Like a Toddlers you like — but when the rubber meets the road and you’re faced with the prospect of actually bringing up this fledgling human to be an actual human, you’re pretty much on your own. All that preparation goes out the window and you’re locked in with your lizard brain, fight-or-flight instincts to get through it.

Not only are you all alone at the stick, but there’s a fogbank closing all around you, the instrumentation is freaking out and giving you bad readings and it’s close to impossible to tell whether that dark shape in the distance is the runway you’re hoping to land on or a mountainside waiting to pulp your plane. Oh, and there’s a tiny person behind you who keeps screaming in your ear and placing their hands over your eyes — only they don’t fully understand how that works so it’s not so much hands over your eyes as jagged, flesh-rending fingernails thrust into your eyeballs.

It’s often hard to see what you’re doing, in other words — and doubly hard to see what sort of effects you’re having on your kid. And while most moments fly by and don’t make much of an impression, every now and then you find yourself in the midst of a Moment. A Moment that Matters. You feel the gravity of the situation fully, and somehow, through senses indecipherable, you see through time to the futures that could unfold as a consequence of your choices in this Moment.

A Moment, in other words, where you see that your choices could make or break your kid.

Such a Moment transpired last night.

The Sprout is in kindergarten, which means homework. Writing his name. Writing numbers. Practicing “sight words.” (Did they even have “sight words” when I was a kid? I have no memory of such a thing, but I don’t know if that’s because “sight words” is just a new buzzword or because education was just a leaky life raft in those days — it worked and we didn’t much care about how it looked or performed along the way as long as it got us there, which it seemed to. Also possible: my memory is less steel trap, more sleepy security guard.) Preparing for class presentations.

The teachers told us there would be homework on the order of about 10-15 minutes a night. Which is fine. But this week, it’s gusting towards an hour (10-15 minutes of handwriting practice, 20-30 of sight word practice — which feels more like two to three hours, let me tell you — and another 10-15 minutes of reading books about firefighters for a class dress-up day this week). And last night, it reached a head, and caused that Moment.

We went to a fundraiser night at a local restaurant, which had us getting home later than usual — just about 45 minutes before bedtime. And the kids have been cooped up all day, so we let them out to play in the yard for a few minutes while my wife and I take stock of the situation and figure out the plan of attack for bedtime (and if you think having a “plan of attack” for bedtime sounds a little silly, well, obviously you’re not a parent). So by the time they come in, we’ve got thirty minutes until bedtime. And in our house, much like Bruce Willis doesn’t miss his drilling depth even in an asteroid of alien construction, WE DO NOT MISS BEDTIME.

It dawns. We don’t have enough time to do Sprout’s homework. What do we cut? His handwriting is atrocious; he needs every rep he can get. And for every day we don’t work on his sight words, he forgets ninety percent of what he had learned. And the bloody firefighter presentation is tomorrow, so we can’t skip that.

We start working. He’s writing while I sit next to him, and I’m watching the clock. He’s dawdling (go figure, he’s a kid), and I’m getting frustrated. The waters are rising, threatening to close over both our heads. He goes to erase a mistake and I stop him. I stop him. “Just leave it. Let’s get finished.” He’s confused and upset — do I want him to work or do I want him to be done working? — and near tears. It’s too much. Now I’m underwater, and I’m fuming. He’s five years old, for crying out loud. We shouldn’t be dealing with having so much homework he has to stay up late at five years old. This is insane. Just let it slip.

And then, the Moment. Because, see, in addition to being a dad, I’m a teacher, too. And as a teacher, I know what’s plaguing our youth and by extension, our future; it’s a lack of gumption. That thing that sends you out into the rain for a five AM workout when you’d rather stay in your warm bed. That thing that gets teachers staying late in the evening and going in early in the morning when their neighbors are working their 9-to-5’s. That thing that gets Rocky off the mat after Creed knocks him on his keester. (Kiester? Keister? Keester? Spellcheck recognizes none of these.) The thing, in other words, that recognizes that the job is tough, the job is unpleasant, the job is painful; but at the same time, the job needs doing, and if you don’t do it, then it won’t get done.

The urge was there. The thoughts were there. He’s only five. Why is he doing all this at home anyway — aren’t they supposed to teach him in school? What’s the big deal if he doesn’t do it? Not like he’s going to flunk kindergarten!

But it’s that kind of thinking that has classrooms across the nation filled with kids who don’t know the value — not just of homework — but of WORK. Who don’t have the patience to work at anything that doesn’t come to them almost immediately.  Who aren’t interested in trying something if it doesn’t already interest them.

This is a Moment, I realize — maybe not the moment (because after all, he’s still only five), but certainly a Moment — when we teach him that homework is just a Thing You Do, that school exists outside the walls of a government building, that Mommy and Daddy support and believe in and will even enforce the things he’s getting from his education. It’s not a thing that happens to him in a vacuum, separate from us. Not a thing we hear vague whispers of across a dinner table, in disinterested mumblings around mouthfuls of mashed potatoes. (“How was your day today?” “Fine.” “School okay?” “Sure.” End scene.) Not a thing we allow to slip at the first inconvenience.

That way would be easy.

That way is too common for too many parents of too many kids.

That way is not for us.

JFK said it best … we do these things “not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

And, okay, sure, there’s the added benefit that maybe, hopefully, these things will turn the Sprout into a decent human being one day.

So I gather him in for a hug and we back off for a few minutes and talk about doing the work and being ready for school the next day. We dry his tears. And we get back to it. I’m happy to say, we finished the homework. Then we got him down to bed a little bit late. And we talked about firefighters the next morning before we sent him off to school.

And he was smiling when he left the house.

I guess a few minutes of missed sleep didn’t hurt him. And for that matter, it didn’t hurt me, either.

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Watch Out — There’s Girls Driving


We’re in the supermarket. It’s a weekday evening, and I dunno about you, but where I live, that means the grocery store is absolutely idiotic. Overcrowded, understaffed. People stalking you in their cars in hopes of a good parking spot, even though there are perfectly good spots at the end of the lot, which, if they’d just suck it up, park out there, and walk, would get them into the store and on with their idiotic days sooner. This one person — I swear to goodness — gets a cart in the front vestibule, moves through the doorway at an angle, then stops — blocking the entire entry/exit door — to root in her purse for something. It’s as if people have radar for the most inconvenient things they could possibly do, and then they do them, for the sheer hedonistic joy of blissful oblivion. Maybe they subconsciously feed on the pissoffs they’re sowing in the people all around them. (Man, that’s a good story idea. A semi-sentient lifeform who derives life energy, not from consuming or harming, but from irritating other creatures.)

Where was I? Right, the supermarket. On a weekday. *involuntary shudder*

We’re weaving our way through the aisles. Both of our kids are in the buggy, in that little plastic car thing that they bolt on to a normal shopping cart to give the kids the illusion of driving. My son is really too big for the cart, but that doesn’t matter — with the store as crowded as it is, letting the munchkins run free only makes us part of the problem, and we try whenever possible not to be part of the problem. Anyway, my kids are seated side-by-side in the pretend car, not screaming at each other (for once!).

We take the corner and almost mow down a kid who looks to be about three (plenty small enough to be in the cart, you know, NOT being part of the problem), with an open bag of goldfish in his grubby fingers and stains all over his shirt.

I don’t begrudge the stained shirt or the bag of goldfish straight off the shelf. I’m a parent too; I get it. But I heartily begrudge the kid running free and making me feel like a jerk for nearly running down a kid next to the canned corn. That’s on mom.

The kid stomps and stumbles to a halt as I put the brakes on the cart. The kid dashes around us as mom calls out, “careful kiddo, there’s girls driving!”

I had to stop breathing to stop my natural reaction. I dead-eyed and white-knuckled it down a couple of aisles before I started venting at my wife. Let’s just say you were dangerously close to reading about this incident on the police blotter instead of my humble internet abode.

“Careful. There’s girls driving.”

Where to begin?

First of all, she obviously mistook my son for a girl, which is, well, special. Usually it’s my daughter getting mistaken for a boy. Or maybe she mistook me for a girl — you know, my bald-on-top-hairy-everywhere-else self.

But more importantly, we’re just gonna go ahead and make the horrible joke that girls are bad drivers — even here when the girl is just pretend driving the car. Okay, that’s great.

And finally — she’s a woman. Making the no-thought-required, loaded-on-the-tip-of-the-tongue automatic joke that women can’t drive. To her son. Who is just on the threshold of understanding language itself. Sure, let’s go ahead and start filling his head with tired old stereotypes that will form the basis of his understanding of the world and the people in it. And just cap that with the mind-boggle that his own mother is debasing her own gender. In public. To strangers.

Just one more reason we usually shop on Sunday morning at eight AM.

Because everybody else is either at home or at church, and I can grab some cornflakes in peace.

 


Toddler Life, ch. 419 — Cite Your Source


“Dad, I’m drinking ink.”

It’s 6 AM, and when your five-year-old says he’s drinking ink at 6 AM, you forget for the moment about overactive imaginations and the fact that five-year-olds will say just about anything for the pure joy of trying it out. I whirl and look, and he’s grinning at me with a made-you-look smile, his tiny hands wrapped around his Pokemon tumbler and a smear of pink foam glazing his lip.

The sleepy haze recedes a bit. Of course he’s not drinking ink; he’s drinking my smoothie. But where’d he get that idea? Ink? It’s …

I haven’t said anything to him yet, and this kid requires a response to everything he says, no matter how off-handed or to-himself it seems to be, so he starts repeating himself.

“DAD. I’m drinking ink.”

“Ink?”

“Yeah. Pink ink.”

Pink ink. Pink ink? That sounds Seussian. More fog recedes. It is Seussian. He goes in cycles — about two weeks at a time, wherein he loves a certain book like air itself while totally forgetting whatever book he was over the moon about just a few days prior. Currently, the Book he Loves is One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish. The nonsensical novelletta about a menagerie of monsters.

I hate this book.

I grow to hate all the books he loves; as an adult, you can only read the same series of simple sentences so many times before you begin to memorize it, and once you’re muttering the phrases to yourself as you walk the halls at your job, well, you start to suffer from social problems more than you already do.

This one has a little star. This one has a little car. Say, what a lot of fish there are!

(And then the murders began.)

I hate this book more than most, though, because it’s not a narrative, not a story. Every page just presents a new, weird little critter, spurts off a few rhymes, and then sends you on your merry way to the next critter. No throughline, just “look at this weird little thing. Isn’t it weird? Hey, here’s another one!”

But at the same time, I hear a tiny voice from the depths of distant memory telling me that I once loved this book — our copy of it was quite well-worn — when I was my son’s age, for much the same reason as I hate it now. The sing-songy little rhymes. The cute little creatures. I dug it.

Where was I? Oh, yeah. The morning haze recedes enough for me to realize — he’s quoting the book. Which is awesome. I mean, sure, thinking about the Yink kinda makes me want to put an elbow through a wall (really? It drinks pink ink, and that’s it? There’s nothing else worth mentioning about it? How about those bizarro weird tufts of fur all up its neck? Can you explain for me the evolutionary processes that spawned those, perhaps? WHO CARES WHAT IT EATS?). But the kid is quoting literature. Identifying with a character from a book. I approve of this development in general, if not in the particulars of the moment.

But I’m a dad. And the dad circuits are waking up. I can’t just say, “oh, that’s nice.” I have to tease. I have to troll.

So I say, “oh, that’s right. You’re drinking ink like the Gox.”

He laughs at me. “No, dad. The Gox doesn’t drink pink ink. That’s not the one.”

I nod and smile. “That’s right. I remember. It’s not the Gox. It’s the Zeds. They drink pink ink with one hair upon their heads.”

His smile disappears, replaced with a scowl. “Dad, no. You’re not getting it right. It’s not the Zeds.”

I smack my forehead. “I forgot. It’s the wump. That one –”

“Dad! Stop! You’re not paying attention.” He’s mad now. He hops down from the bench and goes running upstairs, only to reappear a moment later with the book clutched in his tiny paws. He plops it on the table, starts flipping pages, finds what he’s after. Turns to me, with every ounce of I-told-you-so that a five-year-old can muster dripping from his voice.

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“See, dad? It’s the Yink.”

And I pause. Blink. Things start to rattle around in my brain. This little midget just cited his source on me.

As a teacher who has been trying for seven years to convince students of the importance of doing exactly this thing — to point to your source material and use it to prove the point you’re making, so you’re not just pissing opinions into the wind — I’m gobsmacked. My five-year-old just did this thing automatically, for a thing that had literally zero stakes.

He can craft an argument. Make a literary allusion. Cite his source.

If he could just write his own name, he’d be ready to graduate high school.


Pun Without A Cause


If a dad joke gets cracked on a deserted street at five in the morning, does anybody groan?

I’m out for a run this morning. Five AM. Hazy moon floating behind the clouds. Hint of fog hanging in the air. Not a soul in sight.

I round a curve coming around the back of a shopping center, and there, in the middle of the road, a Dark Thing.

Dark Things always give me pause on the morning run — there are coyotes in the area, neighborhood dogs escaped from their backyards. At a distance, in the morning blackness, the shadowy shape could be anything. Usually it turns out to be roadkill, or a sad discarded sweatshirt. Sometimes it’s a stray cat or, in springtime, a rabbit, which bolts for cover long before I get close.

But as I drew closer, this Dark Thing resolved itself first into the suggestion of a shopping cart — which I resolved to move from the middle of the road — and then, when it began to move on its own, into a deer. What’s important is not how I mistook a deer for a shopping cart. What’s important is what I said.

“Oh, dear.”

I couldn’t help it. It just bubbled up and popped out, like a tooth-rattling belch after 76 ounces of diet soda. I was literally helpless.

The dad joke.

How I hated them in my youth. My dad has a bottomless supply of them and would let fly at the slightest provocation:

What time is it? Time to get a watch.

I need to take a shower. Where would you take it?

I’m getting a haircut. Really? Which one?

But in my adulthood, I have assimilated them, Borg-like. They come out as naturally as breathing.

I cringe inwardly when I say them — but I can’t help saying them. Now that I have kids, the part of my brain that would ordinarily stop me from saying these embarrassing, obvious jokes has shut itself down and boarded up the windows like the last man out of a dying mining town.

Why does the dad joke persist? Nobody likes a dad joke, except, perhaps, for the dad saying it. The joke exists, rather, for the sole purpose of irritation. The dad joke’s payoff is not in a delighted shock of laughter, but rather, in the rolling of the eyes, the put-upon sigh, the pained groan, or, best of all, the reflexive facepalm.

And here I am, all alone on the street at five in the morning, saying “oh dear” at the sight of a deer, as if to elicit such a response from the trees. And in the silence that followed? When I realized what I had just done — cracked a dad joke to nobody, apparently for the pure joy of it, for the sake of the joke itself like a truth that MUST be told, the future-seer shouting in the streets about impending calamity even as he knows nobody believes him — when it dawned on me that I have become this thing? That dad jokes are now a part of me?

The groan came after all.

It came from me.

Let the circle be unbroken.


Five Years a Dad


My son is five years old today.

Nothing quite drops a boulder in the stream of what you thought your life was like the birth of a child, to say nothing of adding a 26-day stint in the NICU into the mix. Having kids has forced me to grow up in ways that I never thought I would have to, has cast shadows of doubt and rays of hope across my world in ways I didn’t think possible.

I used to think I had a pretty good idea of who I was and where I fit in this world. But kids will divest you of that notion like a raccoon divesting a garbage can of its contents.

Ever since I became a dad, I feel like every day I have to reinvent myself a little, adjust the way I think a little, consider my effect upon the world just a little bit more. I have to grow up a little more every day, just to stay a few steps ahead.

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Well, maybe not that far ahead.

Happy birthday, Sprout. To quote Johnathan Coulton, you ruined everything … in the nicest way.


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