If Babies Wrote Instruction Manuals

I recently found a secret document created by my infant daughter. Others might have dismissed it as a torn-up coloring sheet that the baby had then chewed on, but I was able to decipher its hidden message, intended to guide other babies and pass on the wisdom my daughter has gained in her almost 9 months of postnatal existence. Here is my baby’s set of instruction manuals, which I think you will agree cover most aspects of life nicely:

How to Use a Couch

  1. Pull up on couch.
  2. Cry. Bounce up and down on your heels for a bit.
  3. When Big Person picks you up, squirm away.
  4. Dive off couch headfirst.

How to Clean a Room

  1. Big People are oblivious, so you need to get their attention. Do this by pulling out all the books you can reach.
  2. Now do the same with any DVDs.
  3. Arrange the toys in an artistic pattern all over the floor.
  4. Wait for Big Person to yelp upon stepping on a toy, book, or DVD.
  5. Sit back and watch Big Person clean up. Utter encouraging cries every now and then.
  6. Help out by moving toys to where you think they should go.

How to Operate a Book

  1. First determine whether the book is a Ripping Book or a Banging Book. Do this by opening up the book and trying to rip pages off. If pages rip, it is a ripping book. Continue ripping.
  2. If the pages do not rip, take the book and bang it on the floor.
  3. For either type of book: Be sure to test it by inserting it into your mouth.

How to Eat Dinner

  1. When Big Person puts you into your high chair, immediately twist and try to dive out. You will have to be quick, before the Big Person can strap you in.
  2. Smack the high chair tray vigorously. Make vocal reminders to the Big People that you are starving and will literally die if food is not set before you in the next 30 seconds.
  3. At this point, the Big People will give you the bad food. Always. It’s a mystery as to why, but the very first food they give you will be terrible! Cry and fling the food off the tray.
  4. You may need to give the second food offered the same treatment.
  5. The Big People may try to spoonfeed you. It is necessary to take the spoon from them.
  6. Make sure to smear some food all over your chest.
  7. Apply food to the top of the head.
  8. Wipe eyes with messy hands. Then cry because there’s food in your eye.
  9. Finger foods should be carefully divided into three parts: One part goes in your high chair seat, one part goes on the floor, and the smallest part goes in your mouth.
  10. On concluding your meal, cry and try to escape the bonds of your straps, reminding the Big Person that you were born free and cannot be constrained by mere human convention.
  11. When Big People clean you up, cry.
  12. Ask for milk because the Big People didn’t feed you enough at dinner.

How to Use Blocks

  1. Bang them on a floor.
  2. Bang them together.
  3. Stick them in your mouth.

How to Use a Xylophone

  1. Bang the stick.
  2. Bang the xylophone.
  3. Stick them in your mouth.

How to Use a Truck

  1. Bang the truck against the floor.
  2. Stick it in your mouth.

How to Use Rings and Spindles

  1. Separate the rings and spindles.
  2. Bang them on the floor.
  3. Bang them together.
  4. Stick them in your mouth.

How to Use Small Objects That Your Older Siblings Left Next to You Even Though Mommy and Daddy Have Told Them Not to a Million Times

  1. Stick them in your mouth.

How to Use Wires

  1. Pull on them.
  2. Stick them in your mouth.

What to Do With Dirt, Rocks, Grass, and Three-Day-Old Salami Someone Left Behind the Couch

  1. Stick them in your mouth.

How to Pet Furry Beasts

  1. Crawl up to furry beast.
  2. If furry beast has a tail, pull it.
  3. Put tail in mouth.
  4. Grab a good handful of furry beast’s fur.
  5. Pull hard.
  6. If furry beast has whiskers, reach for whiskers.
  7. Ignore cries of Big Person who clearly doesn’t understand how to properly interact with furry beasts.

How to Pee and Poop

  1. Make sure you do it when those awful constraining diapers are off.
  2. If this is not possible, register your displeasure by aiming your elimination at those cute little outfits the Big People make you wear.
  3. When the Big People are cleaning you off is the perfect time to practice your slippery eel maneuver and crawl rapidly away.

How to Nap

  1. Don’t.

Campfire Stories

We had a campfire in the yard today. The wood was damp, the baby nearly threw herself onto the fire, and nobody toasted a good marshmallow, but it was fun. (Except for wrangling the baby. That was…not fun.) As is our custom, we told stories—at least, a few of us did: My husband, myself, and my oldest daughter. Here are our stories.

Dave’s Story

There were once six good cats–

Good cats? Ha! Now I know this is fiction.”

who liked to catch mice. Now one time they caught a really smart mouse who said, “Please don’t eat me!”

The cats were surprised. “Mice cannot speak the common tongue of the animals. How can you speak it?”

The mouse said, “I am a magical mouse.” He wasn’t really magical, but he was a smart mouse, which is why he could speak the common tongue of the animals. He said, “If you let me go, I will grant you three wishes.”

The cats said “All right then. We wish for ten mice to eat.”

The mouse then got his friends to come over and told them there was something delicious for them to eat.

Wow! What a stinker! He betrayed his friends! I don’t like this mouse.”

But there were only six mice, and the cats were very displeased. They cornered the mouse and said, “You didn’t bring us ten mice as you promised!”

The mouse said, “It’s true I’m not really magical, but I can help you. Next door there is a family with a baby and they set out milk. I will let you in so that you can drink the milk.”

The cats agreed to let him go, and the mouse ran next door. But he said to himself, “I am not going to help those cats. I’ll just run away and hide in this house!”

Ugh. He even betrays the cat. He deserves what he gets!”

Maybe Mommy should finish this story. I’ve got to clean up the baby.”

Oh, no! It’s much too good!”

Well, the trouble is, I have no idea what’s going to happen next.”

Now there happened to be in this house a radioactive spider who came and bit the mouse, and it hurt very much. The mouse thought to himself, “I wish this spider would burst into flames!” And he did! “Wow, that was a neat coincidence,” thought the mouse.

Just then, the cats came near the house. The mouse said to himself, “I wish a dog would come and chase the cats!” Just then, a big dog came and started chasing the cats.

The mouse realized then that the spider had given him magical powers.

Wow! Peter Parker, eat your heart out. That kind of thing never happened to Spiderman.”

There are too many interruptions to this story.”

That’s just because we like it.”

Oh, really?”

The dog chased the cats into the house where the mouse was, and they pounced on the mouse. “We’re going to eat you!” they said.

“Please don’t eat me! I don’t want to die. Look, I really do have magical powers. I just wished for the dogs to chase you so that you could get into the house to drink the baby’s milk.”

“That wasn’t very nice,” said the cats, who were growing meaner and meaner. “We’re not going to fall for that nonsense again.”

“No, really! I just recently gained real magical powers! Watch, I’ll make you a big bowl of milk.” So they let him go but sat in a big circle around him so that he couldn’t escape.

And the mouse wished for a big bowl of milk, but he made it really big, with a platform in the middle for him to sit on. The cats were all in the milk, but they managed to swim to the sides. “That’s a dirty trick,” they said.

The mouse decided to use his magic powers to make himself really big and wished to be big. But nothing happened! “Huh! That’s weird,” he thought. “Every time I wished for something, it came true—the spider going up in flames, the dog chasing the cats, and the bowl of the milk. Uh-oh! Three wishes! I don’t have any more magical powers.”

Then the cats caught him again and told him they were going to eat him. He protested that he was magic, but they said that it wasn’t worth it. One ripped off his tail, another one ripped off his head, and they ate him.

Good. Serves the stinker right.”

All right, Mommy, I think it’s your turn to tell a story.”

Oh, no! I couldn’t possibly follow that story!”

Oh, come on.”

All right…um…”

My Story

Once upon a time there was a little girl who lived with her father and mother in the Australian outback, which is in a dry part of Australia, way away from cities, and there were lots of poisonous and dangerous animals. Her parents were, um, rangers. She was about your age, Daughter.

One day some bad poachers came and were shooting animals. (A poacher is an illegal hunter.) The parents tried to stop them, but the poachers killed them. The little girl was nearby, and they realized that someone else was watching, but she was able to sit so still that they didn’t notice where she was. The little girl realized she had to get to the city, where her uncle was. She was very clever, and her parents had taught her a lot, so she grabbed some food and a canteen–

What’s a canteen?”

It’s like a water bottle, but fatter.”

She grabbed the canteen, and some food, and started walking. She used the sun to navigate—you know how the sun rises in the east, goes up, then sets in the west? So she used that to figure out where she was going, but in the middle of the day she had to rest because it was just too hot to walk. She’d walk at night and use the stars to navigate.

But even though she was really clever, the poachers had jeeps and guns and were closing in. Just then, a dingo came by.

What’s a dingo?”

It’s a kind of wild dog.”

She was really scared, because she thought that the dingo was going to eat her, because dingoes sometimes have eaten children. But this dingo was sent by the spirit of her parents to protect her. It said, “Look, I’ll lead off the poachers.”

It ran off and ran in front of the poachers, who figured that they might as well kill it. They almost got it several times, but they kept missing and wasted lots of ammunition. They got mad and drove after the dingo, and it was able to slip away and confuse the girl’s tracks. So they went on.

If this were my story, I’d have the dingo’s head cut off.”

Hey! This is my story.”

As they got near the city, the dingo said, “I won’t be able to help you now. You should cut off my head.”

“I can’t do that!” cried the little girl. But the dingo begged and begged, so finally she did.

With what?”

She had a knife.”


She cut its throat first.”

Yeah, so it couldn’t scream while dying in agony.”

It was very quick and painless. Anyway…”

Out of the body of the dingo sprang a boy. “I was sent to help you by the spirits of your parents, but I was also under an enchantment,” he said. “You have freed me.” He took her by the hand, and they went into the city and made a police report, and the girl lived with her uncle and they caught the poachers. Then the girl grew up and the boy grew up, and they got married. The end.

Well, I’ve told a story and Daddy’s told a story, so who’s next?”
“I guess…me,” said the 8-year-old. “But it won’t be very good.”

That doesn’t matter! It didn’t stop me, did it?”

I thought your story was as good as Daddy’s.”

I did, too, but it ended too abruptly.”

The Eight-Year-Old’s Story

Once upon a time there was a family of four—a mother, father, a boy of eleven named Cory, and a little girl named Elizabeth who was three. They were very poor. They lived in a little house on a lot of land. They had a dog and a small pig. They were so poor that Elizabeth and Cory had to share a bedroom and bed and blankets and pillows, and they didn’t have a normal dresser. Instead, they had a bunch of drawers under their bed, and in some of them they kept their clothes and in some of them their toys and candy.

That sounds like my bed growing up at Grandma from California’s,” I said.

They had a little garage, and they had a baby wading pool and a tricycle for Elizabeth and a bicycle for Cory.

I bet they were given those things,” I said.

Well, they were given the tricycle and the bicycle, because they were so poor, but they bought the wading pool.”

Cory was annoyed that the wading pool took up so much room. They also had an attic and a little kitchen and a bathroom next to the kitchen, and a living room. Cory was annoyed by Elizabeth and found her toys annoying, but Elizabeth really liked Cory.

Good setting and characterization. What are you going to have happen? Maybe Elizabeth could be in danger and Cory realizes that he really loves her?”

No! I want things to stay nice.”

One time Elizabeth really embarrassed Cory when his friends were over. She said to them that he only liked them because being with them gave him a break from being with her. They believed her because she always seemed to be telling the truth. After that, the kids at school ignored Cory, and he realized that he really liked them. But they wouldn’t talk to him, and they were always talking about a really good party they went to—like, “Do you remember the giant gingerbread house, and all of the cupcakes?”

I got that part from Harriet the Spy.

I figured you did. That’s good, my darling—good writers and storytellers take from other stories and make them their own.”

Cory was mad at Elizabeth, but his mom made him take her to the park one day. One of the kids from school was there and called Cory “Grass-head.” Elizabeth yelled, “He doesn’t have any grass on his head!” The boy threw a rock at her. Luckily, it wasn’t a big rock. Cory threw a rock at him, which wasn’t very good, but at least he was doing something for Elizabeth. Then Elizabeth threw a rock at the boy, and he realized that uh oh, I didn’t set a good example for Elizabeth. Then the boy tried to take away Elizabeth’s doll, which wasn’t really a doll but a piece of leather that Elizabeth said was her doll. Elizabeth threw another rock, and even though she was little, she threw it really hard!

After that the kids at school didn’t just ignore Cory, but called him “Sisterhead.” But then Cory moved away, and they realized that they really liked him because he was always bringing in cupcakes and things like that. Cory went to another school. He met one of the boys from his old school and was going to run away, but the boy said sorry and they were friendly.

Things were back to normal, well, mostly back to normal, except that Cory was a little nicer to Elizabeth. But that didn’t prevent him from getting annoyed with her sometimes.

Nursery Rhymes for 2021

This Little Piggy

This little piggy went to Walmart,

This little piggy stayed home (and watched cartoons).

This little piggy had curry,

And this little piggy had PBJ ’cause he didn’t like curry and Mom is not a short-order cook.

And this little piggy went barf, barf, barf, alllll over the bed.

One Little, Two Little

One little, two little, three little woke kids,

Four little, five little, six little woke kids.

Seven little, eight little, nine little woke kids,

Ten antiracist kids.

Mary Had a Little Bug

Mary had a little bug,

Little bug, little bug;

Mary had a little bug,

It was a little thing.

Then when Mary went upstairs, went upstairs,

Went upstairs;

Mary found it was a wasp,

and my, that wasp did sting.

Little Jack Horner

Little Jack Horner

Sat in a corner

Awaiting his COVID swab.

It took three goes

To get the stick up his nose,

Then the nurse smiled and told him “Good job.”

Are You Sleeping

Are you sleeping,

Are you sleeping,

Baby girl?

Baby girl?

It’s three o’ clock in the morning,

Three o’clock in the morning,

Go to sleep!

Go to sleep!

There Was an Old Woman

There was an old woman

Who lived in a shoe.

She had so many children

She didn’t know what to do.

(There were two.)

She saved up for college

But inflation was cruel,

So she shrugged her shoulders

And sent them to trade school.

Baby Food Blues

My 7-month-old hasn’t learned the official ASL signs for “more” and “all done” yet, but it’s not exactly difficult to tell when she intends to convey those thoughts; she vigorously whacks her high chair tray for “more” and twists away, flinging her hands in the air and yowling, when she’s “all done.” Another clue is the degree of mess present; a tray, seat, and surrounding patch of floor covered with mush or bits of pasta or egg indicates that dinner’s nearly over, the final touch being the adornment of the child’s head with whatever she’s been eating.

I start my kids on solids very close to four months of age. They’ve all indicated readiness at that time, and I like feeling no pressure whatsoever to have them eating a certain amount at meals. I offer something, they smear it on themselves, no worries; food is a new and enjoyable multisensory experience, and they’re learning to sit with the family and “eat,” even though most of their calories are still from breastmilk. There’s also evidence that introducing allergens between four and six months may decrease the chance of a baby developing allergies, which is all to the good.

As with so many other aspects of parenting, those who do not start solids until six months aren’t Doing It Wrong. It is considered best to introduce foods at least by the half-year mark, but honestly I’ve known many babies who were exclusively breastfed as late as 8 months who grew and developed just fine. (I haven’t known any formula-fed kids whose parents waited that long, although since formula is iron-fortified it is probably “safer” to wait than it is for babies consuming only breastmilk.) I have fed my own babies jarred purees, pouch purees, homemade purees, fork-mashed stuff, and soft bits of unmashed food; never done the prechewed food thing, though. Some of my kids have taken more eagerly to solids than others; some prefer being spoonfed; some prefer the autonomy of trying to pick up their own food.

With my usual caveat that I’m no kind of professional, and that you should consult your pediatrician for proper nutrition and medical advice, here are some observations on what works for us:

It Really Is Easier to Clean a Baby Than a Bib

I don’t work on table manners until the kid is maybe 10 months old. Before then, I want the kid to enjoy her developing skills in eating, and to associate dinner time with fun. If we go somewhere else to eat, of course, I control the baby’s food more and try to minimize mess, but at home it’s much easier to let the baby get messy and then clean her up at the end of the meal. To this end, stripping the baby to her diaper and sticking her under a faucet after lunch or dinner is much more efficient than trying to contain the mess to a bib, even a big one; as aforementioned, babies like to put food on their heads, so barring a baby burka you’re probably going to be washing the baby anyway.

Cut Out the Middleman

A child old enough to be eating solids is also constantly putting things in his mouth. This is a normal developmental stage that will last for months, and it means that all of the toys in the child’s box will be regularly mouthed, licked, and drooled on repeatedly. It is also well known that floorios taste better than Cheerios. Put these two facts together, and you will see how much sense it makes to just stick a few Cheerios or other easy-to-vacuum food directly on the floor, instead of trying to confine it to a dish or a tray. Of course, this won’t work if you’ve got a dog on regular floor cleanup, but otherwise it’s a great way to feed and occupy the baby.

Babies Have Taste Buds, Too

Not all of my baby-feeding “wisdom” involves doing things in the easiest way possible. Last night I cooked my 7-month-old an omelette aux fines herbes. (Iron-rich, soft, and easy to cut in chunks for her to feed herself.) Tonight I shall make some mashed potato pancakes with breastmilk, garlic, and rosemary. There really is no reason to condemn your child to bland mush, and it is possible that the early introduction of various flavors may reduce (but not eliminate) the chances that your child will be a picky eater later. (Note that babies cannot handle salt very well, and some babies may have more delicate digestive systems than others–always pay attention to your baby’s reactions; also, it’s really best not to add sugars, and never give honey to a baby under 1 year old.) I like spice, I want my kids to like spice, and I introduce teeny amounts of spice into my kids’ food well before their first birthday. In the summer, we grow a wide range of herbs with which to flavor their food, and garlic and onion make everything taste better.

About That Arsenic….

The baby food industry was dealt a PR blow when it was found that major brands of baby food, including organic brands, contained higher levels of heavy metals such as lead, arsenic, and mercury than considered safe for infants, who are very vulnerable to neurotoxicity. BUUURN ALL THE JARS. But it’s worth considering how that arsenic, etc. wound up in the food. Although some can be introduced during the manufacturing process, the main culprit is the soil used to grow the food–which means that unless you are growing your own vegetables in carefully-tested soil, making your own baby food isn’t necessarily going to reduce the amount of heavy metals your baby ingests by too much. So, what’s to do? Vary your child’s diet, don’t feed the kid too much rice or mercury-laden fish, and avoid juices, which are out of favor anyway because they’re nutritionally much worse than whole fruits.

Enjoy the Ride

Parenting is so much more enjoyable when the parents are able to relax and respond to their baby as she actually is, not as she “should” be. Is your baby not following the suggested menus you found on Pinterest? Don’t worry about it. Is your baby not an adventurous eater? Maybe your baby likes purees better than baby-led weaning. Maybe–and this is really common–your baby will eat fine one day, hardly touch food the next, and take in wildly fluctuating amounts of breastmilk or formula. It’s fine!

Now, if at any time you suspect the baby is having health issues–diarrhea, constipation, poor weight gain, dehydration, any suspected digestive discomfort–call your pediatrician and discuss the problem. I just did, only to find that I’d been mistaken in my perceptions and the baby was gaining appropriately. I don’t regret it, and my pediatrician didn’t tell me I was being an idiot; if you have concerns, it’s always okay to get them checked out. But absent evidence of actual problems, the many and varied ways babies learn to eat “people food” is creative and wonderful and amazing. Try to remember that when you’re breaking out the sponge, wipes, and mop for the 50th time that day.

Selfishness and Becoming a Parent (or Not)

My husband and I had kids for a selfish reason: We wanted them. Of course, we hope that the world will be better for them; of course, we thought about the joy they’d bring their extended family; mainly, though, my husband and I wanted to have children to love and bring up. So we did.

I thought about this while reading a complaint from a woman who has two kids and hates it–they require SO much time, SO much money, you don’t get to sleep in or enjoy coffee in peace, you don’t get to travel all over the world, etc. My first thought was, “This woman is too selfish to have children.” My second, however, was that maybe selfishness isn’t the main problem here; as I have just stated, I selfishly wanted children and now I have them. I’m luckier than this woman, because it happens that I find deep joy and satisfaction in having children, although there are absolutely times when I feel exhausted and overwhelmed; she wants her trips and isn’t getting them, whereas I want my reading-to-kids and baby snuggles and am getting them.

In general, it seems to me that people who do or do not choose to have children make their decision because of selfishness. That probably wasn’t always the case, when lack of birth control and social mores made reproduction the expected move for most people; it probably wasn’t the case for the virgin Mary, who was asked to bear a child for the good of the world and humbly accepted God’s will. It may not be the case for people who truly believe they are saving the planet by not having children, and it may not be the case for people who truly believe that they must raise up warriors for God (or the master race; “unselfish” does not always equal “good”).

I actually worry about parents who have children for unselfish reasons, because it seems to me to place an undue burden on children. If you are expecting your child to be Warriors for X Cause, or to be chess grandmasters or comforts to your own parents who long for grandchildren, then you are treating children as a means to something–and children have an irritating way of growing up to be who they are, which may or may not conform to your expectations. The best reason to have children, I think, is that you want them.

Now, when I say that “you want them,” I don’t mean that you want “babies,” which disappear and turn into unruly toddlers and moody teenagers; it’s natural for people to prefer various stages of a child’s development (as I do myself), but when having children you must always remember that they grow up. I also do not mean that you want “eternally dependent people who will act as your therapist and be your reason for existing.” That is, again, forcing children into a role, and a most unhealthy one at that, and it’s pretty obvious that creating or adopting children to act as satellites to your narcissism is not a good thing to do. Children are people and must ever be acknowledged as such.

But if you cannot present a well-reasoned defense of your decision to have or not have children, then, well, I think it’s quite all right to act as you wish. (I do not, of course, approve of aborting already-conceived children.) Raising children is, in my opinion, a worthwhile endeavor, but it is not the only one.

Back to the woman who hates being a mother: The problem is that she carries resentment toward her children. She is unable to enjoy them and sees them chiefly in terms of what they are taking away from her. That is a bad position to put children in, because kids need to feel secure and wanted in their own homes and you cannot conceal resentment from them forever. When you have children, from whatever motives, you cannot be selfish in raising them, and if you do not want them you should get help in learning to care for them, not just physically but emotionally.

I (selfishly) hope that my children grow up to become parents themselves. I want grandchildren in the future! But my selfishness must end with my own desires, and not adversely affect my kids. They will have their own reasons for choosing to have children or not, and they’ve just as much right to their decisions as I have to mine.

On Behavior and Heartfelt Apologies

I make my kids apologize, even when I know they’re insincere. A snarled “SORRY!” doesn’t cut it, but a reasonably civil “sorry” does, even if it’s said with a frown.

I allow my kids to grump and growl when they’re doing something I have told them to do. Indeed, I thank them for listening to me when they accomplish something they don’t like to do, as long as they actually do it reasonably well.

Is this bad parenting?

I don’t think so, obviously, or I wouldn’t do it. Others disagree. A very popular post criticizing the practice of making young kids apologize is just one that thinks it poor parenting to make a kid say sorry even when they cannot or do not really feel sorrow. Christian parenting articles and blog posts warn about outward compliance and inner turmoil, raising the specter of adult children who turn away from the faith or become legalistic pharisees.

Children SHOULD have tender, obedient, kind hearts all the time. They don’t. I don’t. Do you? What do you do when you know your attitude is bad? If you’re a Christian, “go to God” is a good answer, but praying does not always take away the grumps and dumps. Sometimes I must accomplish things without feeling at all positive about it, because whether I joyfully reflect on how I’m serving my family by doing laundry or I entertain fantasies about burning all of our clothes the laundry still has to be done. Obviously, the former attitude is better than the latter, and if you’re constantly grousing and upset it’s good to evaluate why and see what can be changed; likewise, if a child has a consistent bad attitude, temper tantrums, lack of gratitude, or unkindness toward others that is a problem and should be addressed. But not every passing unhappiness or angry feeling needs to be tamped down.

Most of us would, I think, agree that our children’s hearts are more important than their mere outward behavior. How can we guide our children to develop those inner traits of love, wisdom, diligence, integrity, and kindness that we want to see in them as adults? Is it encouraging hypocrisy or pharasaism to force them to apologize, or to accept obedience done with a bad attitude? What, ultimately, can we control when it comes to our children?

We know that modeling virtue is the best way for our children to develop it themselves. Loving parents who do right will make their values attractive to their children; there are no guarantees, of course, but a child that admires and adores his parents is much likelier to retain their values when he is an independent adult than is a child who fears his parents and grows up in an atmosphere of hostility and unloving rigidity. One aspect of life that we want to model well is what to do when we’re feeling bad, or forced to do something we don’t want to do. We don’t want to make a great fuss and whine endlessly about having to work overtime or do some tiresome task, but I think it’s quite all right to let kids see that we get things done even when we aren’t thrilled about doing them. We aren’t faking enthusiasm ourselves, but letting them see that we are human beings who also have obligations and constraints that cause us to act in ways that don’t accord with our feelings.

Finally, to a certain extent, the state of a child’s heart is outside of our control, and it frankly disturbs me to consider having to police my kids’ every thought and feeling. From the page linked to above (“Are You Raising a Pharisee?”):

“When my dad came back he knew I had not submitted in my heart to his leading. He helped me see that even though I did what he said, I was still disobeying. He disciplined me and told me that when he said to do something, I needed to do it with all my heart. This was one of many times my father would not let my outward behavior be good enough. He wanted more and expected more. He wanted complete surrender not just an “empty work.””

It does not seem right to me to “discipline” (I imagine “discipline” means “punish” here) a child for doing what I said. This next part was even more disturbing:

“Does this sound like another Father you know? I could give countless scriptures of how our Lord Jesus requires a complete yielding of our thoughts, our lives, and our hearts.”

I am not God. My husband is not God. I am to submit to my husband; our children are to submit to us both; we are to raise our children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord, to pray with and for them and to teach them about our most precious faith. But we are not the Holy Spirit. We do not change our children’s hearts. We cannot “save” them, and requiring them to yield their thoughts, lives, and hearts to us sounds, frankly, blasphemous, as well as a futile effort. I cannot command joy.

Like the author of the above post, I watch my children’s actions and try to discern their thoughts and emotions. Like the author, I want my children’s hearts to be whole and Godly. But I believe that accomplishing this goal does not mean policing every expression or feeling, and indeed may be antithetical to the child’s longterm spiritual development. And so I will continue to require good behavior, even when it’s clearly insincere.

Educational Accountability

My husband paused on the way to the bathroom, looking at our TV screen. “Doesn’t she need a webcam?” he asked, watching my daughter fill out answers to the Iowa Test of Basic Skills (ITBS), Level 8 in order to fulfill our state’s proof-of-academic-progress requirement for homeschoolers.

“Oh, no–she just reads or listens to the questions, then clicks on the answer.”

“But how do they know she’s not cheating?”

“Well–I’m here.”

My husband snorted and shook his head, then walked away. For the record, my daughter didn’t cheat, and I didn’t “help” her except with technical matters. We haven’t got her scores yet, but I’m not worried about her making the minimum score to avoid being put on probation. (It wouldn’t matter anyway, because she’s going back to school next year.) But my husband’s reaction reflects my own skepticism about these tests’ value as a safeguard–it’d be very, very easy for a parent to cheat.

Now, I like standardized tests. They’re by no means the be-all and end-all of progress assessment, and for some populations they’re inappropriate. Broadly speaking, however, for many students they can be reasonably good indicators of a student’s mastery of grade-level material. Since I haven’t done a lot of “grading” of material this year, it’s good to get some comparison to other students and ensure that my daughter is adequately prepared for third grade. I’m not complaining about being “forced” to test my child, especially since my state allows other methods of demonstrating academic progress–portfolio evaluations, for instance, or an assessment by a qualified teacher.

What sticks in my craw is that these evaluations are clearly intended to protect students from educational neglect, and they’re simply ineffective for that purpose. As mentioned above, it would be very easy for a parent to ensure that the student “passes” any of these tests. A portfolio evaluation could be fudged simply by finding a sympathetic person with the correct qualifications to pass the portfolio. Frankly, any means of evaluation relies on the honesty and commitment of the homeschooling parent, and those homeschooling parents who won’t cheat (the vast majority) are also the parents who aren’t going to neglect the child and call it “unschooling.”

Furthermore, although I very much approve of the idea of being held accountable for educational neglect, this only occurs in homeschooling. Now, I can hear the chorus of protests stating that this is not so; there are multiple levels of accountability, including school test scores, continuing education requirements for teachers, and the disciplining or firing of poor teachers. But let’s suppose Student A fails to demonstrate progress in his public school. Does the public school get put on probation for a year? If the student still fails to progress satisfactorily, is the student removed from the school to be put into a better one? No. But if Student B fails two years running, then Student B can no longer be homeschooled and must be put into an accredited school. Student A, by the way, is more than a hypothetical; a Baltimore high school senior with a .13 grade average ranked near the top half of his class.

Those of you reading this post may be confused as to whether I’m calling for more or less regulation of homeschooling. I’m confused, too; I do not think that my state’s requirements will actually prevent “bad actors” from denying their children a basic education, but I am trying to think of what requirements actually will. And requirements tend to become a pro forma mess that adds to the burden of families trying to do what’s best for their children, without unwarranted intrusion. The family unit is basic, and children belong to their families (yes, I said “belong to their families”) in a way that they do not belong to the state; one can affirm the child’s basic rights and still recognize this.

I say again that what we need is not so much regulation, as data–data that everyone can agree upon. (Good luck with that, right?) What is the scope of the problem? How many public schooled vs. homeschooled students reach adulthood without achieving basic literacy? (The answer for public schools is “too many.”) What about numeracy, beyond arithmetic? Science knowledge? I am certainly not encouraged by recent trends that decry getting the right answer in mathematics as “racist,” or forego the studying of complex texts in favor of graphic descriptions of oral sex. I also find it horrifying that some parents have seriously abused their children while being protected against discovery by their homeschooling.

Failure of parenting is a common thread, however the child is educated. The mother of the Baltimore student mentioned above should be deeply ashamed that she didn’t know about her son’s academic problems until his senior year. Yes, the school system failed her kid; yes, a high school student should be starting to take responsibility for his own education. Until a child is grown, though, that child’s parents are the ones ultimately responsible for seeing that their kids get the best education possible. This does not mean that kids who do not attend college represent parenting failures–which could be the subject of another post, itself–but it does mean that parents must do their best to help their kids arrive at adulthood with the basic skills needed to operate in society.

ETA: My daughter did fine.

The Best of Your Worst

Being the grouch I am, I loathe a long list of puns, memes, “dad jokes,” inspirational sayings, and other popular Facebook clutter. Among the worst of this verbal detritus is the saying, “If you don’t want/love/accept/put up with me at my worst, you don’t deserve me at my best.” Bleah.

This bit of–um–affirmation did, however, get me thinking about “best” and “worst” as it relates to parenthood. One of these poles is vastly more important than the other; a supermom and a pretty-good mom can both give their kids happy childhoods and prepare them well enough for adulthood, but a truly terrible mother can inflict horrible damage compared with the mildly bad mother. After all, at the far end of parental failure we have kids being murdered by their parents, or fatally neglected, or permanently disabled in body or spirit.

I think it’s good to strive to improve our “good” parenting–take that extra hike, make that craft, prepare that healthier food, listen sympathetically to that concern. But it may be more important to pay attention to our “bad” parenting days, which we all will have; at some point, illness or sleeplessness or competing responsibilities are going to result in us snapping at the children, relying too much on our electronic babysitters, letting things go, or otherwise not living up to our best. At some point, we all have to ask our kids for forgiveness.

What are we like when this occurs? “I’m too sick to cook–make yourselves some cereal” is different than “I’m too sick to cook–make yourselves cereal with this rancid milk,” which is different than failing to feed your newborn. “KIDS! I AM SO SICK OF YOU YELLING! GO TO YOUR ROOMS AND DON’T COME OUT!” is different than “I WISH YOU’D NEVER BEEN BORN!” “Guys, I can’t read to you this morning–I’m just too busy and tired” is different than incoherent mumblings from a drunk or high parent. And it doesn’t take long to hurt a child, or even kill one, if we snap and act out physically–just ask doctors who’ve seen a baby with signs of abusive head trauma.

On a slightly less grim note, it’s also worth considering how often we are at our worst, or at least at our worse-than-okay. I don’t mean that a cancer patient should be feeling guilty about lying down so much, or a single parent working multiple jobs should feel bad for not spending lots of quality time with the kids, but even low-level neglect or anger harms kids when it’s consistent. Is your first instinct to yell when you are displeased? Do you frequently dismiss your kids rather than engaging them? How often are you staring at a screen?

Growing up, my mom’s “worst” involved her sleeping 16 or more hours per day, making some poor financial decisions, treating me as her confidante and therapist, continually asking me for comfort and reassurance, and allowing my violent alcoholic brother to live in our house for far too long (and spending our none-too-plentiful money on bailing him out, letting him steal money from us. See above regarding “poor financial decisions”). She didn’t model patience, diligence, or self-control very well; when something displeased her, her first impulse was to yell, she gave up very easily, and she would gnash her teeth and curse under her breath when forced to wait.

This was not because she is a terrible person; she loves us all very much, and her “good” parenting was very good. I have many happy memories of her eagerly discussing books or movies with me, taking me out to eat, baking with me, taking me to piano lessons even when she was in a lot of pain, being thrilled when I achieved something and sympathetic when I was down. Growing up, she loved me, believed in me, supported me, and delighted in me. It’s not difficult to understand her failings; she has probably had an untreated anxiety disorder since childhood, her parents were alcoholics, and just after my father died at age 56 leaving her with four kids (two of them minors) she began to experience chronic pain from what turned out to be rheumatoid arthritis (RA). Her doctors put her on Prozac for depression, which made her sleepy, and the RA drugs came with nasty side effects. She has had few good role models in her life, and a lot of bad breaks, and frankly she could have done a lot worse.

All that said, some parts of my adult life are harder because she didn’t do better in her “bad” parenting. The same is true for my brothers, to varying degrees.

Now that I am a parent, I must consider how the bad parts of my own parenting affect my children. It is not helpful to flagellate myself for every misstep, or to sink into depression when I realize how far short of perfect I am. God’s mercies are new every day, and all of us need them. Nevertheless, I think it healthy and helpful to evaluate my strengths and weaknesses as a parent, and work especially to strengthen the weak areas.

Most parents want to be good parents. I do. I love my kids, and I want to help them grow up to be the best versions of themselves. I hope we have a good relationship throughout our lives, and I love giving them good experiences. But I’m also tired a great deal of the time; busy a great deal of the time; occasionally, I’m sick or stressed. My kids don’t “deserve” to see me at my worst, but they do see me at far-from-my-best. It’s up to me to ensure that I don’t damage them when I’m falling far short of my ideals.

Forget About Fairness

If anyone has cause to complain about the “fairness” of work burdens in our household, it’s my husband; he is diligent and dedicated to doing what needs to be done, and doing it well. It is easy for me, therefore, to say that parents shouldn’t worry about who’s doing the “fair share” of parenting; I don’t have a lazy man-child for a husband.

But one reason that my husband isn’t a lazy man-child is that he isn’t trying to “do his fair share” or get by with as little work as possible to avoid criticism. He feels responsibility as a husband and father, and he lives up to it. Furthermore, he feels that his home and his children are his, and therefore invests time and energy in them. This should be too obvious to need mentioning, but in so many of the parenting posts and articles I see one partner (usually the woman) kvetches about how it’s so unfair that she does X and Y while her significant other does only Z.

I think a much more useful paradigm for thinking about household and child responsibilities is like that found in 2 Samuel 10:9-11: “When Joab saw that the battle was set against him both in front and in the rear, he chose some of the best men of Israel and arrayed them against the Syrians. The rest of his men he put in the charge of Abishai his brother, and he arrayed them against the Ammonites. And he said, “If the Syrians are too strong for me, then you shall help me, but if the Ammonites are too strong for you, then I will come and help you.”

All right, I admit that’s a very Beth Moore-ish “application,” and it’s offered in a tongue-in-cheek manner, but the many responsibilities of providing and caring for a household can sometimes feel like a war, complete with sleep deprivation. And just as different military units do not, if they are sensible, complain that X Battalion isn’t doing “their fair share” but support each other as needed, so too should a husband and wife focus less on who’s the more put-upon partner and seek the other person’s welfare. For couples, of course, we are supposed to love each other anyway, are we not?

For this reason, I have never understood new mothers who want their husbands to wake up with them during the night. What possible purpose does this accomplish? Why wouldn’t you want your husband, your backup, your ally, well rested? When our babies are young, I go to bed early, my husband takes the baby for a certain amount of time, and I get some protected sleep; after he hands the baby off, I take the rest of the night, and he sleeps in. Voila, both of us are guaranteed a bit of sleep.

In general, a house is much happier if the spouses seek each other’s happiness rather than their own. This, too, is an obvious observation, and perhaps unhelpful to those who feel they are seeking their spouse’s happiness, but not receiving the same treatment. I wonder if in some of those cases, at least, taking emotion out of the equation wouldn’t help; reframe the problem as “This situation needs to be fixed. How can we, together, work on it?” Working together on a common goal is much more conducive to bonding than is regarding the spouse as the antagonist.

Finally, when your spouse is doing something for you, please be an easy critic. Unless the “help” given is actually creating more work, or danger, or other significant harm, “thank you” is better than “you did it wrong.” Love one another; it’s good advice in any circumstance, but especially when you’ve got kids to raise together.

How to Discipline Babies

I disciplined my 3-month-old today. You did, too, if you have a 3-month-old. Every time I held, fed, and changed my baby, I taught her that I can be depended on to take care of her; I taught her that she was important to me. When I responded to her cries, or cooed at her smile, I taught her that what she does has the power to change things.

I didn’t punish her or reprimand her. I will, when she’s older. I’ll also teach her that she isn’t the center of the universe; that she needs to do things for herself; that she has obligations to others. I’ll do a lot of what you typically think of as “discipline.” But that comes later, and it means nothing without a foundation of love and trust, rather than rules and consequnces.

When, as a child, I learned that we don’t form permanent memories before age 3 or so, I thought that those first few years were pointless. Before we carry memories with ourselves, nothing that happens to us matters. You don’t need to be a child development expert or even a parent to know how wrong this is, of course. You just have to read those news articles about children in Romanian orphanages, or see kids who never had a chance to learn what love and nurture mean. If I died today, my daughter wouldn’t remember me at all, but she’d be deeply affected by what I did for her and to her.

Disciplining your children is important. It’s giving them what they need to develop as human beings, and it begins the day they come into your arms. Luckily, for babies it’s as simple to do as loving them and taking care of them.