The House in My Head

It’s a ramshackle structure, with a smaller, older section that has been much built-upon.

Imagine a room. It’s big and messy; the walls have been colored on, there are clothes and toys and books strewn everywhere, and there’s a slight funk. It’s a comfortable room, with squashy sofas, soft pillows, bean bags, and a great big fireplace in the center. The walls are red and yellow and covered with doodles, scribbles, scientific diagrams, comic book scenes, and fine artwork. A little table holds a coffeepot, a chocolate pot, and a couple of decanters of wine. A cross and some Bible verses are scattered throughout the room. There are, however, a couple of cold, dark corners hung with anti-motivational posters—“You’re doing it wrong.” “Scream. Run away.”

This is my “motherhood” room. I spend an awful lot of time in it. Sometimes I take my husband’s hand and step out into our sexy boudoir, or our study, but it’s hard for me not to take peeks back into the motherhood room. I resist, however, because other parts of my house must be maintained. The literature and scholarship in my study needs to be updated; a great deal of it is from college, and a lesser amount from my working years. A couple of very simple chess puzzles sit on a desk. The arts room was always pretty primitive, but I visit it every now and then to be sure that I haven’t quite forgotten how to sound two notes on a piano or revel in the beauty of a Michelangelo statue. My “outdoor pursuits” room is quite dusty, alas, and even has some peeling wallpaper; I simply cannot give it the attention it needs, beyond neighborhood walks and very occasional hikes.

Even in other parts of my mental house, I see the imprints of children everywhere. My “outdoors” room has, beside my own semi-neglected hiking boots, a couple of small pairs of sturdy shoes and some rough walking sticks. There are fingerpaints and scribbles in my arts room and a little toy piano next to my own untuned upright. Most of my new scholarship concerns theories of attachment, learning, language development and moral guidance.

But this overflow goes both ways. Art, literature, activity are all to be found in my motherhood room, in the books and on the walls. Some of it is created by my children, and some is professional stuff I would never have been introduced to without being a parent. I’m rediscovering poetry, and pondering anew the universal impulses that make people across ages, time, and space revel in rhyme, rhythm, repetition, evocative imagery, and careful word selection.

My house is no magazine-worthy mansion. Perhaps someday I’ll paint and redecorate some of the more neglected sections. For now, though, it suits me fine.


What is on the Floor?

What is on the floor, my dear? What is on the floor?


Paint and glue and water too, maybe something more.

Look at this thing I made you! I made it by myself.

I dragged a box to get up high and reach the painting shelf.

I filled a cup with water from the downstairs bathroom sink,

I made a lovely picture, with blue and green and pink.

Do you like my picture, Mommy? I made it just for you.

Oh yes, my dear, I love it, the green and pink and blue;

But now the floor is messy, dear, can’t you look and see?

You spilled the paint upon the wood, and made more work for me.


What is on the floor, my dear? What is on the floor?


Peanut butter, crackers, grapes, and an apple core.

Look at this snack I made! I found the peanut butter jar,

Washed an apple in the sink, saw where the crackers are;

I added grapes and poured some milk. Now we’re full and fed,

And Brother here is happy now and wants to go to bed.

I put the food upon a plate, for Brother and for me.

See the snack I fixed us, Mommy? Mommy, do you see?

Oh yes my dear, it’s very nice, you made a lovely treat.

But now the floor is filthy, where before it was quite neat.


What is on the floor, my dear, what is on the floor?


Wood and carpet, and some dust, there is nothing more.

I knew you didn’t want to clean another mess I made,

So I’ve sat here. Just waiting. I’ve almost been afraid

To breathe because I didn’t want to spill or spit or pour.

Oh my dear, I’m sorry; it’s just a silly floor.

Don’t be scared to draw and paint, or make a tasty snack,

Don’t be scared to fill a cup or decorate a sack.

I love it when you have a plan and make it come to be,

It’s okay when you do something that makes a mess for me.


What is on the floor, my dear, what is on the floor?

Never mind. I’ll clean it u–crap! WHAT IS ON THE DOOR?








Not an Insurance Policy

“I don’t really want to have a baby, but I don’t want to be alone when I’m old.” I’ve been seeing that sentiment in advice columns and articles that pop up on my Facebook feed. The advice columnists urge the respondents not to have a baby for that reason; it’s not fair to a child to be raised in the hope of providing insurance against loneliness, and anyway, plenty of children don’t visit their ageing parents. Work on developing meaningful ties with friends and family, instead, and make sure your financial future is secure!

That’s probably good advice. I don’t know what’s going to happen to me and to my children 20 years. Maybe we’ll be estranged! Maybe I’ll be dead and not needing care! (I can’t even articulate the other possibilities, those in which something bad might happen to my children.) What I know right now is that my daughter’s just announced that she wants to give me a haircut, my older son’s jumping on the couch waving a car and yelling “Help, help! Batman’s dead!” and my baby’s staggering around with a soggy diaper looking for small objects to stuff into his mouth. Don’t want that, don’t sign up for parenthood.

My children don’t exist to give me meaning or fulfillment. Somewhere in my vague memories of 8:00–AM–philosophy class with a wild-eyed Bostonian professor, there’s a nagging whisper that Kant doesn’t approve of using people as means, when they ought to be treated as ends in themselves. The “good life” does not mean a life filled with goods, not even the great good of family. Many people without children have lives that are productive, happy, and rich, and many people with children have rotten lives. People who have kids in order to have someone more or less obligated to love them are setting themselves–and their children–up for disappointment, especially when they try to control those children as they grow up.

But it is a very old desire to have children to take care of you when you’re ageing and to carry on remembrance of you after you’re gone. It is a very old desire to want to have childish arms reach out to you and cling to you. It doesn’t need much explaining to make people understand the attraction that growing a family holds; in addition to the real, present gifts of hugs and childish antics, there’s also a misty dream of the future in which we’re all sitting around a fireplace opening gifts with happy grandchildren on our knee, or attending our adult child’s wedding or graduation. Perhaps we even think vaguely of great-grandchildren holding our photographs and hearing some scrap about us, or about a future president or famous novelist somewhere down the line. There are a million and one of these fancies, and I have already said that it is dangerous to build upon them, but it is also necessary to acknowledge that they exist and are powerful.

What, then? It is probably best to take a cue from Ecclesiastes:

Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher, vanity of vanities! All is vanity….A generation goes, and a generation comes, but the earth remains forever. There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be among those who come after….I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God’s gift to man. So I saw that there is nothing better than that a man should rejoice in his work, for that is his lot. Who can bring him to see what will be after him?

So today I will rejoice in changing diapers, and going to the store, and fixing dinner, and counting and singing the alphabet, because right now this is my work and my reward. As to the rest and to the future…well, I just hope my kids pick me a nice nursing home.

In Celebration of My Children’s Ignorance

“Wow, the person playing the piano must be really good,” I said one day in the car as we listened to a Saint-Saens concerto.

“Yeah! he must be Mozart,” said my 4-year-old.


“Mommy, can I have a yummy bear?” asked my 2-year-old, pointing to the gummy bear vitamins.


“Kih-cah!” said my 11-month-old, pointing to a picture of a cat.

“That’s right! What’s this one?”

“Close. That’s actually a goat.”


The humor in such anecdotes comes from childish misunderstandings–that Mozart is the one playing the piano, that “gummy” is “yummy,” that every animal is a kitty cat. But more specifically, it comes from a childish misunderstanding of knowledge that has been gained–that Mozart is associated with some really good piano playing, that a word with “ummy” means “delicious,” like those delicious vitamins, and that a certain kind of image represents an animal. Not only have my children learned facts, but they are extrapolating from these facts in new situations.

For this reason, the malapropisms and mixups of childhood are not contemptible in the same way that ignorance in an adult of normal intelligence can be contemptible. They arise from the lively application of an inquiring, developing mind, combined with lack of experience. How different this is from the dullness of adults, who have ceased to find cereal boxes and light fixtures interesting; who limit the acquisition of new knowledge to a few very specific, narrow interests; whose ways of thinking are worn and constrained! A moderately functional American adult who does not know what the Bill of Rights is may have been the victim of egregious educational neglect, but may also simply be too uninterested in the foundations of our Republic to learn the rudiments of its most important political documents. Ignorance in such cases may provoke concern, derision, or exasperation, but not indulgence.

In contrast, a small child is learning the very framework of learning in its first years, and by its very nature this learning is neither systematic nor exhaustive. Instead, it is creative. Hence we have the child who can describe 15 types of digger machines but cannot count to 5, or who can sing thirty different songs but makes occasional, hilarious substitutions of some of the words. We have the baby who never learned to crawl but has been scooting around since he was 5 months of age, or the toddler who remembers with equal vividness the thing that happened yesterday and 10 months ago, and cannot distinguish between the two points in time.

When we laugh at childish slipups, therefore, we are at least partly celebrating childish achievements–or at least we should be. But neither should we wish for children always to stay children. Although we hope to maintain our sense of curiosity and creativity, as adults we gain immense advantages with experience–most especially perspective, which helps us to know our own limitations; empathy, which allows us to love and to be kind; and diligence, which permits us to learn (and to do) that which is boring but useful.

My 4-year-old now knows that Mozart died a long time before the invention of recording equipment. My 2-year-old asks for “gummy bears.” My 1-year-old–well, to be honest, he still calls anything that looks like an animal a kitty cat; we’re working on it. I love the cute mistakes my children make, but correct them as best I might. They are necessary steps in a very long journey of learning that I hope will carry my children to unknown lands throughout their lives.



Sick of Syrupy Bedtime Books? Try “Little Critter”

“Mama, I’m not sleepy,” says the child/puppy/bear/other insufferably cute protagonist of a thousand children’s books.

“I’ll read you another story/walk you around the orchard/get you warm milk and talk about my childhood” replies the unfailingly patient mother (or sometimes father). Eventually, the sleepy child/puppy/bear/other falls peacefully asleep, sometimes in mid-sentence.

Reading the thousand-and-first of these books, I found myself wanting to write my own children’s book–not Go the F**k to Sleep, as amusing (and relatable) as that book is, but something you could actually read to a child that would give him a more realistic idea about bedtime:

“Mommy, I’m not sleepy.”

“Well, it’s bedtime. You can help me pick up if you want to stay up for another few minutes.”

“Noooo! I want to read a story!”

“Darling, you have a choice: Go to bed or help me pick up.”

“Okay, I’ll pick up.”

“Are you picking up? It’s not time to play with the toys…argh, don’t dump that out! Put those back in.”

“How many toys do I have to pick up?”

“All of them.”

“I can’t! I’m too tired!”

“Fine, let’s put you to bed.”

“NO I DON’T WANNA GO TO BED NO NO NO” shrieks the child as the parent carries him upstairs.

“Here’s your water. Goodnight, I love you,” says the parent, kissing the wailing child and making a break for freedom.

And then the child (usually) goes to sleep. Not very sentimental, I’m afraid. But picking up a birthday present for a young relative, I was delighted to rediscover Mercer Mayer’s “Little Critter” series, including Just Go To Bed. Although Little Critter’s parents play along with his imagination games (and stalling tactics), they slowly, inexorably move him toward bedtime, finally declaring “Just go to bed!” Little Critter at last “decides” that he could stand to sleep, and climbs into bed.

As with others in this series, the adults in the book are loving, but not possessed of the boundless wells of patience and compliance shown in too many other fictional portrayals of the parent-child relationship. Moreover, although Little Critter often rebels against their authority (as in I Was So Mad), he ends the book in harmony with his family. He narrates his actions and feelings candidly and simply, and both he and his family are shown in a much more realistic way than are many other children’s book characters, anthropomorphic or not. The way he reacts is very much the way you could imagine your own small child reacting.

Little Critter is not a brat or a hellion. He is a likable, imaginative, affectionate, independent child–who throws temper tantrums, doesn’t understand when some of his projects lead to disaster, has very little objectivity, and tests boundaries. By the time each book ends, with some cute little punchline, he is in harmony with himself and his family. This is achieved without the heart-to-heart talks pervading Daniel Tiger and practically every 80s family sitcom you can think of, and it feels much more natural.

Finally, Mayer’s books are masterpieces of integration between text and picture. The brightly-colored cartoons are vibrant and engaging, and often provide sight gags that give context to the words. In All By Myself, Little Critter is declaring proudly that he can help his father trim the rosebush; the picture shows Little Critter about to slice the plant off near the root while his father shouts in alarm. On the next page, Little Critter is helping his mother ice a cake–ie, he’s licking a spoon covered with frosting while globs of frosting slop out of the bowl and dribble off the half-iced cake. This allows parents not only to point out funny details to their children, but also provides an adult perspective for them to share, even as the children identify with Little Critter.

The text-illustration interaction works especially well in I Was So Mad. Little Critter doesn’t understand why his grandfather won’t let him water the plants; the picture shows him enthusiastically blasting the tomatoes at point-blank range. Little Critter is angry that his redecorating efforts are unappreciated; the picture shows him wearing a beret and brandishing a child’s paint kit, “beautifying” the walls of the house. Finally, toward the end, Little Critter decides to run away, and his mother looks on calmly and with a hint of amusement as he packs a bag of cookies to eat “on the way.” His plans are interrupted by the arrival of his friends, who ask him to play with them in the park; you can see his parents waiting in the background, wondering what his reaction will be. (Since Little Critter’s mom allows him to go to the park, he puts off running away until tomorrow, if he’s still so mad, and ends the book happily playing catch.)

The stories thus told are Little Critter’s own, but show a background of generally nurturing adults who are there to keep him safe and in bounds, although Little Critter himself is often unaware of their perspective in the naive, selfish manner of happy children everywhere. Little Critter is full of his own ideas and projects, which the adults often help to realize, but occasionally he needs to be reined in–and told bluntly to go to bed.

Oh, well, maybe I can still write a children’s book–The Exciting Nighttime Adventures of Mommy and Daddy. Mommy does dishes! Daddy returns to work! Sometimes they might read a book or watch TV and have an adult beverage!

Eh. Probably better stick with Mercer Mayer and Little Critter.



The Twelve Days of Christmas With Children

On the first day of Christmas, my children gave to me

A wrapped gift covered in cat pee.


On the second day of Christmas, my children gave to me

Two temper tantrums

And a wrapped gift covered in cat pee.


On the third day of Christmas, my children gave to me

Three broken ornaments

Two temper tantrums

And a wrapped gift covered in cat pee.


On the fourth day of Christmas, my children gave to me

Four soiled pants

Three broken ornaments

Two temper tantrums

And a wrapped gift covered in cat pee.


On the fifth day of Christmas my children gave to me

Five carpet stains…


…And a wrapped gift covered in cat pee.


On the twelfth day of Christmas, my children gave to me

Twelve uneaten dinners

Eleven loads of dishes

Ten time-out sessions

Nine sticky kisses

Eight failed nap tries

Seven hugs on my legs

Six weeping eyes

Five carpet stains;

Four soiled pants

Three broken ornaments

Two temper tantrums

And a wrapped gift covered in cat pee.


So Far, One is the Hardest

I was chatting with a relative about an expectant acquaintance. “A baby shower, eh? How nice!”

“Yes, she’s very excited about this baby.”

“Yeah, she doesn’t realize all that’s in store for her, right?”

“Well, it’s her first, so at least she’s got just one to deal with.”

“Actually, for me, I think one was the hardest number to deal with, so far.”

At this point, my relative looked at me. “Are you kidding? You’ve got three small children! I’ve seen how much work they are!”

They are. And yet, I stand by my assertion–so far, anyway. If you’re expecting Number 2 or Number 3 and wondering how in the world you’ll handle it, I would argue that you’re in for a pleasant surprise. Multiple bottoms to wipe and squalls to calm are compensated by the following:

1. You don’t have as many stupid worries…

With my oldest newborn, I was plagued with worries: “She’s not responding to that noise. Is she deaf? She’s a month old. Shouldn’t she be more interested in her environment? Am I making eye contact with her enough? She isn’t napping more than 10 or 20 minutes at a time; why? She’s fussy. Is she going to have sleep problems her whole life? I laid her down on her tummy; she sleeps a bit more at night, but is she going to succumb to SIDS? Why can’t I get her on a schedule? She got a cold at 1.5 months; I’m the worst mother ever. I just squirted too much saline into her nose and she’s hysterical. Did I give her pneumonia? [Pediatric nurse: No. She got salt water down her throat and doesn’t like the taste.] She’s not vocalizing much.”

With my second child, I figured he’ll sleep when he sleeps; I put him down diligently, but didn’t worry about it too much when he woke up. Ditto with my third. Both slept better than my firstborn, incidentally. Aww, poor baby got sniffles? Break out the humidifier and wait for him to get better.

2. …But you’re better at recognizing real dangers

It’s not something I’m proud of, but I’ve let my babies get hurt because I’ve failed to identify real hazards. Of course my baby was going to reach out and touch the hot lid when I was trying to comfort her and stir dinner. Of course my toddler was going to investigate that hot tea while he and his sister were helping stir batter. Honestly, I shouldn’t have let those things happen no matter what, but it is easier for me nowadays to imagine “Let’s see, if he pushed that basket aside, he could get to that flimsy table and pull it over on himself.” I know more about how babies think, can see the world a bit more from their perspective, and so have been better able to keep the environment safe for exploration.

3. They play with each other

Okay, a toddler shouldn’t be “playing” with a newborn, but as soon as the baby gets a bit older you can entertain his siblings with him, and him with his siblings. You can’t just stick them in a room and leave them there all day, but you also aren’t the kids’ ONLY source of interpersonal playtime. Having three kids is going to change the dynamic as soon as my baby becomes a toddler, but for now he’s still basically a cute, crawling, babbling dolly for his siblings. My older son and daughter are too small actually to be responsible for him, of course, but they can engage his attention (and he can engage theirs) while I do something like type this blog post.

4. Your “infrastructure” is in place

You know, by this time, what sorts of schedules, baby items, and use of space works best for you. You’ve already managed to cook dinner with a needy baby and a toddler wrapped around your leg. Another child adds more needs, of course, but unless that child has different medical or developmental issues than your first two, those needs are not fundamentally different than those of your first children. You’re not learning how to get the floor swept, when are the best times to do a bit of work or steal a few moments with your spouse. You know that cutting vegetables while letting the baby play with Tupperware in the kitchen is fine, but cleaning the shower requires that you place him somewhere safe and enclosed.

5. You know what you have to prioritize and what you can let go

Food, dishes, laundry, sweeping, and decluttering the family room have to be kept on top of (more or less), or I’ll drown. Children must be read to every day, diapers must be changed, teeth must be brushed. A lot of other activities can be pushed to one side if needed. There’s always time for snuggles and tickles.

6. Your first child is older

My oldest is four, so I can’t exactly work her like a character in a Dickens novel. Nevertheless, she is intelligent, capable, and mature enough to lend me a bit of a hand in many tasks. She picks up well, helps fold laundry, clears the table (reluctantly), stirs neatly, breaks eggs correctly, wipes surfaces, and buckles her own carseat straps. (Her room is a disaster, though.) She can help her brother with his socks and shoes, keep the baby happy, and tell me when someone is about to do something hazardous. My two-year-old is (mostly) potty trained, can do some wiping and pickup, and is learning how to break eggs and do the chest clip. When he isn’t sitting on the baby, he’s very sweet to him. Every age has its challenges, but seeing children grow and develop new skills and emotional maturity is very rewarding.

7. You know how to teach as you go about your day

You practice saying words back to your baby as you feed him. You sing the 12th repetition of “La Arrana Pequenita” with your toddler that day. You’re “enriching” your children naturally, because that’s what they demand; unless you stick them in front of a TV all day (tempting as that prospect is), a typically-developing child will demand that you provide them with opportunities to improve their motor, cognitive, linguistic, and social skills, and you’ll get better at doing so with practice.

8. You’ve got three children

Three first steps. Three first words. Three sets of smiles. That’s worth an awful lot of fuss and chaos.

Now excuse me while I go change the poopy baby, break up a fight between his siblings, tidy up the spilled diapers, and fix lunch.






No, Virginia, There Isn’t a Santa Claus. Should We Make Him Some Cookies?

Last year, my then-three-year-old was very upset at the idea of a stranger sneaking into her house to deliver gifts. She was happy to hear that St. Nicholas was a good, excellent man who gave gifts (and punched a heretic) and we honor his memory by giving gifts ourselves each Christmas, but the fat man in the red suit isn’t real. (We cautioned her not to say anything about this to others, as we didn’t want to spoil it for other children or for her grandparents who love giving gifts “from Santa.)

This year…it’s a little complicated.

Around Thanksgiving, we privately asked her what she thought about Santa. Who knows, after all, what a four-year-old retains from the previous holiday season? “I think he’s not real,” she declared. Fair enough. We reiterated that she should keep this bit of information to herself, especially around her two-year-old brother who loves Santa.

But then I mentioned to my husband in my daughter’s hearing that you could get a letter from Santa, postmarked “The North Pole.” “Too bad that [two-year-old] is too young for that,” I said.

“I want a letter from Santa!” said my daughter. I shrugged. She drew a picture of, I think, a green rabbit and scribbled on it, and then we put it in an envelope and addressed it to the North Pole. Later, I took it out, wrote a response, added a stamped envelope addressed to us, and re-addressed it to the proper USPS office. So, I guess we’ll get a letter from Santa in a little more than a week, courtesy of the United States Post Office.

My daughter also wants to leave out cookies and milk for Santa. We’ll do that, too, because it was always wonderful to leave out a snack on Christmas Eve and then have Santa write a thank-you note on the napkin. Ho, ho, ho! My daughter wants to get to know Santa better, but is unsure about having breakfast with him or sitting on his lap. She looks forward to his appearance at our family Christmas party with some trepidation.

All this brings up the question: What does she actually believe? Is she just playing along in a fun game, or is there some sense in which she does and does not believe in Santa at the same time? I don’t want to dig too closely into her thoughts–she’s four, after all, and enjoying the holiday magic–but I’m also wondering if I’m sending contradictory messages about what is and is not true with my actions.

The question of what to do with Santa is, of course, not new. Our household is Christian, and we talk about Jesus’s birth as the reason for Christmas. The gifts Jesus brings are greater far than anything St. Nick has in his sleigh, but not as easily grasped by the small child’s imagination as more tangible toys, dolls, and books. I loved Santa as a child, and was not at all resentful of being “lied to” when I grew old enough to put away belief in the fat man. This is why I’m okay with doing Santa with my kids, as long as it causes them no distress.

But it matters how we communicate to our children. I am saying one thing and doing another; is this harmful? Will she believe us when we tell her other facts, when it seems we’re supporting the opposite of what we’re saying? Or am I worrying about a nonissue?

My own disillusionment was decisive and brutal; the Christmas after my father died, my mother asked me to help her wrap presents, including presents “from Santa.” That was that, then; I was nine. At least it wasn’t confusing. I knew my parents in past years had been trying to make my Christmases magical and special with Santa Claus, and they surely succeeded. I want the same for my own children. I just hope we’re going about it the right way.


Bookshelves and Literary Development

My parents read to me every day as a child. I do that for my kids, too. They gave me lots of books and took me to the library. I do that for my kids, also. But in one respect, I think I am doing worse than my parents, and that is reading most books on my iPad instead of in hard copy. I do not intend to make an argument about whether it is better to experience pulp-and-ink books or screens, here; what I am talking about is the relative dearth of books on my shelves.

It is not as though our house is bare of books. We have a few shelves of them in the cat’s feeding room, a couple of bookcases containing children’s and adult books, a set of desk-bookshelves upstairs and a full bookcase in the master bedroom. We have probably a couple hundred children’s books and a few hundred adult books. But in my parents’ house, every room was stuffed with bookshelves, which in turn were crowded with books. If you made it past the appalling mess in our living room closet, you were rewarded with biographies and Dashiell Hammett; the bedroom bookcases were mostly mysteries and children’s books; the shelves in the front room had novels, anthologies, plays, and poems.

This matters because although I read books in school and was handed them by my parents, one of my particular pleasures was going around the house and carrying off interesting-looking volumes to my bedroom. I read the unabridged Three Musketeers one Halloween night as a tween because I’d gotten a lot of Three Musketeers candy bars and was tickled at the congruence of reading and eating the same thing; this was the first time I stayed up all night, and began for me a great love for that magnificent hack, Alexandre Dumas. I read Camus’ The Plague because I thought it had a neat cover and interesting title, and loved its tragedy and humanity. Les Miserables was on our shelves before I’d heard of the musical, so for the first fifty pages I thought it was going to be a fictional biography of the Bishop Myriel. (Someone idly reading fifty pages or so in other parts of the book might have concluded that it was a linguistics book on argot, or a study on strict convent orders, or a treatise on Parisian poop.)

Of course, I missed a great deal reading these books without any “literary” guidance. In the case of The Three Musketeers, I mentally read D’Artagnan’s name wrong for years, and was confused as to why he ran out into the street without any clothes after making out with Milady. I didn’t realize that Camus was an existentialist philosopher, or that The Plague could be read as a metaphor for the Holocaust; I didn’t know of Hugo’s politics. But by the same token, these books had none of the taint of schooling, and I was able to read them and enjoy them without feeling them the least bit burdensome.

I contend that, in the absence of learning disabilities, most children will seek out books on their own, if they are not stifled or stunted in their growth of a reader. What’s there is what a child will pick up, and so we parents have a certain responsibility to keep our shelves stocked with good stuff. Now, I am not advocating for the abolishing of “cheap” genre fiction; I love scifi, fantasy, and mystery novels, even that which is not necessarily worthy from a literary point of view, but there has to be more. Children don’t need to be beaten over the head with thematic or structural analysis to come away from a Balzac novel feeling enriched in their bones, without being able to articulate exactly what it is that made the book “good.” And they’re too ignorant to know that they’re not supposed to enjoy the original Dracula or Graham Greene, P.G. Wodehouse, Saki, Dickens, or other “classic” writers. Exposure to good books will result in children who have read lots of good books.

Perhaps my daughter will fall in love with the Dresden Files and Agatha Christie books in her room. I imagine she’ll like The Hardy Boys and Harry Potter novels there. However, I hope she’ll also enjoy the Greek playwrights next to them, the odd volume of Tolstoy and Balzac stories or Boswell’s Life of Johnson. I do not want my kids to be literary snobs, but sponges who absorb what is good and wise and human. The least I can do is to give them the tools to do so.

Courtesy and Obedience

“Don’t talk to me!” my two-year-old yelled. Again. I sent him to time out, then explained why he shouldn’t be disrespectful. Inwardly, I winced; he’d heard that phrase from me, trying to set up appointments on the phone. Now, as his mother, I have the right to give him peremptory commands. He is not to reciprocate. But what am I doing when I bark orders without any kindness in my voice?

Parents are often trying to accomplish a short-term goal, a medium-term goal, and a long-term goal when they work with their children. Consider what happens when your child says “I do it myself” or some variant and starts fumbling with his car seat straps. How much do you allow him to struggle? In the medium term, after enough practice the kid will learn how to do his own straps, which saves time when you’re trying to get out the door with several small ones. In the long term, the child is gaining skills in dexterity, learning to work at something that at first is impossible, and is being taught that he needs to be responsible for keeping himself safe in a car, which is invaluable.

But these medium-term and long-term goals are opposed to the short-term goal, which is getting the kid secured in his seat so that you can get going. If we’re trying to be on time for a dentist’s appointment, I will have to override the protests of my learner and snap him in. Likewise, “Would you be so kind as to stop running into the road” is not appropriate when there’s only time for “Stop!” before the Mac truck comes along and makes medium- and long-term goals a moot point.

We train our children to obey, and to obey promptly. This eventually obviates the need for rude discourse when complete, since the parent need only say “Would you please clear the plates?” for the action to be completed. But the process is a long one, and during this process I should not forget–as I so often do–that my children look to my husband and me for behavioral cues.

Indeed, too often it is easier to brush aside a child, perhaps murmuring “Move,” than to wait and ask, “Would you please move out of the way?” Yet consistently showing the child courtesy and respect pays dividends in the medium- and long-term; children are naturally rude little people, but they’re much easier to be around when they pick up on courteous habits of speech and action.

This whole post may seem incredibly self-evident, especially to people without children. The reason that I think it may be worth writing something as obvious as “Model courtesy to your children” is that it is hard to do hour after hour, day after day, when your child is not being terribly courteous to you. My generally amiable and docile daughter has acted willful and mean lately, and it is difficult to enforce consistent, reasonable boundaries in a calm, authoritative tone when all I really want to do is scream “Knock it off! Just…just go to bed and stay there (at 4:00 in the afternoon)!” I’m not quite sure what’s going on in this particular difficulty. Is she going through a phase? Has she not been given enough attention? Is there some frustration, or is she feeling bad?

Childless me would, by the way, have said, “Who cares? Just lay down the law!” But childless me would have missed that discipline is not merely giving negative feedback when behavior is bad, but trying to encourage good behavior in the child and responding to the child’s needs. Because of that, it matters very much what is going on behind her defiance. A sick child needs care. A child who needs love and attention had better get it from her parents, or she’ll look elsewhere when older.

Dinner needs to get made. The children’s chores need to be done. But I cannot lose sight of my longterm goal of raising adults who are kind and respectful. I won’t treat my children like pwecious widdle snowflakes, because yuck. They will, however, be best equipped to deal with the vagaries of life if we can give them a decent (though flawed) model of behavior.