The Scariest Phrases

“Don’t look behind you!” “The call is coming from inside the house!” “Get out of there right now!” These and other phrases are designed to create tension in scary stories and movies; but when people become parents, they acquire a new vocabulary of horror:

“Don’t Look Over Here”

When they are very young, you can ask them “Why shouldn’t I look over there?” and they will reply, “Because you’ll get mad if you do.” It’s best not to have this dialogue–just look, and get ready to control any violent impulses you may have after seeing the damage. Remember, homicide is bad parenting.

“I Have a Surprise for You!”

The terror in this one comes from the fact that, rather like the Chance cards in Monopoly, the surprise could be something nice–your kid just cleaned her room, or drew you a picture. Or she could have captured a venomous spider and is holding it in her bare hands for you to see, or has painted the walls of her room, or “made lunch” by taking all of your pantry ingredients and turning them into an expensive bowl of inedible globs. There’s nothing quite like the little thrill of apprehension you get when you plaster on a smile and prepare to see what the surprise is.

“I Didn’t Do It”/”I Didn’t Do Anything”

This phrase is only frightening when it is said out of the blue, not in response to your inquiry as to who’s left the light on or spilled the cereal all over the floor. If your child comes in and announces that he hasn’t done it (or anything), it is safe to assume that he is guilty of something.

“Look What I Did All By Myself”

Like “I Have a Surprise for You,” this could be something nice the child has done. Often, however, it involves either “cleaning” that is in reality property damage, “cooking” that has created an enormous mess and wasted ingredients, or some really neat feat of skill such as climbing up the outside of the stairs and jumping several feet down that may send the child to the emergency room.

“Mom, [Sibling]….”

There’s almost never a good ending to this phrase. Usually, you have either a hurt sibling, or someone has been behaving badly–generally the sibling being tattled on AND the tattler. And getting the true, complete story of what happened works just as well as it did in “Rashomon.”

“Hey Mom! Look at That Man/Woman! Why Does He/She…”

This phrase is always uttered at the top of the child’s lungs, and all present are about to hear about others’ obesity, lack of mobility, vitiligo or other skin condition, or other physical peculiarity or behavioral difference delivered in the most tactless way imaginable.

“My Tummy Doesn’t Feel Good”

Is appendicitis involved? Will you be spending the next several hours cleaning up vomit and diarrhea? Who knows?

Eat your heart out, Freddie and Jason and company; you can’t scare me. I’ve got kids.

An Appreciation of Roald Dahl

Good fantasy, like good humor and much other good literature,* comes from people who see the world as it is. This may not be as obvious with fantasy as with humor, which relies upon subversion of the expected or upon some common reference or experience to make people laugh; it may not be as obvious with fantasy as with, say, “grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide.”

A little reflection, however, will show that it is only common sense. If you have books about aliens, wizards, or incredible occurrences you’ve got to work at least as hard at suspension of disbelief than you do if you’re describing the life of a few ordinary people. Otherwise you wind up with the sort of books I wrote when I was six, in which a man’s helpful cat uses his ears to make rainbow magic for no particular reason. And books that deliberately play with that which is not are commenting upon that which is, which requires some understanding of reality. To see what I mean, check out anything by Terry Pratchett; most of his books are set in an alternate fantasy world but contain numerous (humorous) allusions to the art, literature, history, philosophy, religion, science, and cultures of our world.

I began reflecting upon Roald Dahl’s essential realism while putting away George’s Marvelous Medicine before the cat peed on it. (One of our cats thinks that anything left on the floor is a litterbox in disguise.) Dahl wrote plenty of stories for adults that aren’t fantastic and that show a rather dry, cynical wit; probably his most famous story is about a woman who gets away with murdering her cheating cop of a husband. But even in his children’s books, which are populated by crazy men operating supernatural candy factories, witches who transform children into rodents, and little boys who fly away on huge fruit accompanied by oversized insects and a spider or create potions that make a little old lady taller than a house, you can see that realism at work.

Consider Matilda, the tale of a genius girl who is unappreciated by her parents and who uses her extraordinary mental powers to defeat her school’s sadistic headmistress. The book starts off with an extremely realistic observation: “It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.” Dahl goes on to talk about how parents try to convince everyone else that their “little blisters” are in fact extraordinarily brilliant and marvelous, and anyone who’s conversed with parents (especially online) knows that they are quite likely to overestimate their kids’ intelligence or other qualities. Brats are “spirited,” bossy pants are “natural leaders,” argumentative little snots “question authority because they’re too smart.”

Matilda is in a family that makes the opposite error and takes no interest at all in their daughter, which, as Dahl notes, also occurs in real life (though it is fortunately rarer than the other sort of parents). Matilda’s family members are cartoonishly mean, petty, and oblivious to Matilda’s genius and gentleness, but Dahl captures well the sense of powerlessness that a child can have in his or her surroundings. “But the fact remained that any five-year-old girl in any family was always obliged to do as she was told, however asinine the orders might be.” Miss Trunchbull is again a much exaggerated version of an abusive school official, but abusive school officials exist and cause a great deal of harm to the children in their care. In a sense, Dahl is using hyberbole to tell truths about children in a way that reflects their own thinking, which tends to be unbalanced and lacking perspective.

That this distortion is deliberate can be seen in the way Dahl portrays the other children in Matilda’s class. Matilda is not a genius among dunces–she is a genius among a class of ordinary children, some of whom are quite bright themselves. A boy named Nigel can already spell simple words and quickly picks up others, for instance; he is a very realistic smart little boy, and Matilda’s friend Lavender is a clever little girl. Matilda herself is no space-alien creature; extraordinary geniuses who teach themselves to read at ridiculously early ages do exist. Conversations on the playground between various of the children are believable and entertaining.

An aspect of Dahl’s work that often troubles adults is the antagonism between adult and child. In Matilda, there are “good” adults–the young teacher Miss Honey and the librarian–but much of the book shows Matilda’s struggles against the evil or stupid adults in her life. George’s Marvelous Medicine has a malevolent grandmother; The Witches has a bunch of adult women pretending to be nice to children but who are secretly child-hating witches; James and the Giant Peach has two awful aunts; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is peopled with various monstrous adults.

I do not believe that Dahl is trying to encourage children to view adults as enemies. There is a long history of killing off parents in stories and making children struggle without the normal support expected from a family; Cinderella and many others are orphaned and left with cruel relatives, turned away from their homes, separated from their families, and even sent to what is expected to be their deaths (“Hansel and Gretel,” various Baba Yaga stories). Such situations accentuate the heroism of the central character and serve as underdogs who triumph against long odds, as well as being characters that childish listeners can relate to.

Note also that there are “good adults” in Dahl’s books; Miss Honey and the librarian; the boy’s grandmother in The Witches; the insects and spider in James and the Giant Peach; Charlie’s grandpa in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. All of these characters are able to empathize with the children and prevent them from feeling totally isolated in a world that can be strange, confusing, and frightening. Again, what strikes me most about Dahl underneath the absurdity of his plots and even the cynicism of much of his characterization is a strong sense of empathy for children; I believe this quality prevents his books from being repulsive, as they otherwise might be, and contributes to his status as a classic children’s fantasy writer.

 

*Except for mysteries. Agatha Christie was a mediocre writer but an excellent plot constructor; nearly any “fair” whodunnit is following some trick she used first. It’s probably correct to say that we’re looking for different qualities in a mystery than we are in other genres; for an early critical essay on murder mysteries, see Raymond Chandler’s “The Simple Art of Murder” (but only if you don’t mind having the plots of some very famous mysteries spoiled. SHAME ON YOU, Mr. Chandler).

Some Modest Book Proposals

Dear Publisher,

There are a variety of children’s books available for every age, inclination, and snark level. Nevertheless, I believe a few possible titles have been overlooked that would become instant bestsellers. I hope you will consider the following proposals:

What’s That Smell? (Subtitle: Sniff-n-See Book)* Parents and children will instantly relate to this book in verse, which would feature adults in a variety of settings attempting to identify an unknown smell as their children look innocently on. Sample text:

What’s that smell?

Something’s burning. Is it rubber?

IS THAT YOUR BATHTIME DUCKY SCRUBBER? 

 

What’s that smell?

Does your diaper need a change, my dear?

No? Next child up, come over here. 

 

What’s that smell?

It’s coming from the floor of the trunk.

Ugh, did something die and cause this funk?

If this book does well, sequels could include What’s That Stain? and What Did I Just Step In?

Curious George Smokes a Joint (Subtitle: Curious About Drugs): Traditionally, of course, children’s books have avoided anything that might promote drug or alcohol use. I would argue that H.A. and Martha Rey’s original series, however, is an exception. In Curious George the eponymous monkey smokes a pipe; in Curious George Takes a Job he sniffs some ether and hallucinates before passing out; and the entirety of Curious George Gets a Medal is so bizarre that I can only assume there’s a missing page explaining that the whole thing is an acid trip. Plus, with marijuana being legalized in more and more states, a children’s book explaining the ins and outs of edibles, cannabinoid vaping, and traditional joints seems all but inevitable. It’s progress, baby! Sample text:

“This is George. He was a good little monkey, and always very curious. One day he was curious about a plate of brownies the man with the yellow hat carried into the kitchen. “George, these brownies are for my party later,” said the man. “Please don’t eat them. Now I have to go pick up some more supplies. Remember, these brownies aren’t for you!” George tried hard to be good, but sometimes little monkeys forget. He looked at the brownies. The man hadn’t said anything about smelling them. George took a big sniff. My, they smelled good! Surely just one brownie wouldn’t be missed?”

Woke Mad Libs: Smash the patriarchy with this classic activity book. Sample text:

“______ (subject pronoun; don’t limit to “he/she/I”) educated the white cisgender straight AMAB on ____________ (gender studies subject) while _______-ing (verb) the AMAB on the _________ (body part).”

The Big Book of Bull**** Facts

Ever wonder whether firetrucks go faster than dinosaurs? Or whether we poop in Heaven? Well, my kids have wondered all this and more, and others will, too! Now, instead of cudgeling their brains for answers to the outlandish and nonsensical, parents can consult this handy reference book. Sample text (taken from an actual conversation I had with one of my kids):

“Q. What would happen if there was a good guy dressed like a chicken and another good guy dressed like a bad guy and the guy dressed like a chicken killed the other guy because he was dressed like a bad guy? How long would he be in jail for?

“A. A really long time–first for killing the other guy, and second for his crime against fashion.”

 

I look forward to your reply to these proposals. My advance for these surefire moneymaking hits need not be large–a low six-figure number would be perfectly respectable.

You’re welcome.

 

 

 

*This was my husband’s idea.

Bad Co-Parenting is Bad Parenting

I’ve said before that, barring really serious issues (adultery, spousal battery, unaddressed alcoholism or drug addiction), it’s better not to DTMFA. Today’s Dear Prudie advice column provides a good example of why this is true.

This advice-seeker is divorced and shares custody of one daughter with her ex-husband, who married a younger woman a year after the divorce. “His new wife whelped out three babies within three years…” what a charming way to describe having children…” and likes to think she is an authority on my child, “Katy.””

It appears that the stepmother treats Katy and her mother in a truly evil fashion. She is always texting the mother to ask if Katy can stay longer to go to a birthday party, or requesting permission to buy Katy a new pair of skates, and other such heinous acts. “I really can’t compete with cute little half-sisters, a private pool, and the gift-giving. My daughter loves going over to her dad’s.”

Goodness, I can’t imagine why Katy might prefer her father’s house to her mother’s, can you? On the one hand, a happy, cheerful family that tries to do nice things for her; on the other, a cantankerous, bitter woman who’s “competing” against her co-parent for her daughter’s affection. Total mystery.

“Except now the woman is trying to replace my daughter with a dog.” Wait, what? You mean the stepmother is trying to get the dad to relinquish custody and replace her with a dog? That would indeed be pretty vile. Let’s see….

“The wife’s brother got a dog named Katie and decided he couldn’t keep it. She took all the kids over to play with the dog and then told them Katie was going to be theirs. My daughter excitedly told me all this, and all I could do was ask if they were going to rename the dog.”

Oh. Uh. So, the evil thing the stepmother did was adopt a dog that Katy loves. Yeah, a real witch on a broom, that one.

“My daughter told me Katie was her name, and I corrected her: Katy was her name.”

Way to rain on your kid’s parade!

“I called my ex to tell him they needed to rename the dog. He told me the dog was trained to respond to Katie and didn’t see what the big deal was.”

Neither, apparently, does Katy; one might think her opinion would be the most important factor here, but her owner–er, sorry, mother–thinks differently.

“I told him that his wife bringing a dog into the house with the same name as his daughter was disrespectful. He told me this wasn’t something I had a say in.”

Yeah, you don’t get to dictate behavior to a grown adult who’s not part of your household. And to return to an earlier part of the letter, note the use of “whelped” to describe her husband’s younger children. She clearly regards them as little more than dogs, herself, and I think her outrage is in part the result of some massive projection. She is unable to see these kids as lovable humans, and cannot imagine the other woman’s kindness toward her child to be genuine.

“I texted his wife, and she responded with “I respect you, but I stand with my husband here, and Katy was happy when she played with Katie.””

Remember, this woman is trying to present her ex and his wife in the worst possible light. The best she can come up with is this extremely respectful, calm, reasonable text.

“I am steaming here, and I don’t know what to do. I can’t afford to go to court or counseling again.”

Oh yes, please sic the family court on your husband, who’s probably suffered through an enormous load of crapola; that is such a reasoned, proportional response to your daughter acquiring a new dog. Which she loves.

“Help.”

Hon, you’ve dug yourself a deep, deep hole here. Your ex and his wife seem to be treating you with exceptional courtesy and respect. My best advice would be to get a time-machine, travel back to your marriage with your husband, and do not be the kind of resentful shrew that winds up bemoaning her lot in life. My second-best advice is apologize and do your best, going forward, not to be so consumed with resentment. Prudie actually had some pretty decent responses:

“Your tooth-grinding misery, resentment, and hostility toward others absolutely radiated off your letter. I’d want to take a break from living with you, too….You’re not competing with cute little kids and a swimming pool when it comes to your ex’s house. You’re competing with peace, patience, gentle speech, reasonable expectations, and a lack of tension.” Prudie was also extremely kind to the LW, trying to get her to see that her attitude is only causing misery to herself and her daughter. Some of the commenters were quite a bit more vicious.

But indeed, the LW does have good grounds for envy and resentment:

  1. Her ex-husband married a younger, sweet, fertile woman a year after the divorce; she herself mentions no second husband or long-term boyfriend.
  2. Her ex-husband has three additional cute children; she has little prospect of more, unless she secures another man.
  3. Her ex-husband is materially better off than she, being able to afford a pool and gifts. She cannot enjoy his assets as she would if married to him, and since she shares custody is probably not getting much child support, if any.

Now, I do not know why the letter-writer and her husband divorced. It is possible that her husband divorced her with no real cause; given the rancor in her letter, though, and her readiness to exaggerate perceived wrongs to the point of absurdity, I find it difficult to believe that her husband cheated on her or hit her. This information would surely have been included in the letter. In other words, it is extremely unlikely that she’s been “done wrong”; either she initiated the divorce because he kept leaving dirty dishes on the counter, or she was so insufferable to live with that he left her.

In either situation, she is the major engineer of her current unhappiness, and will continue to be so as long as she cannot release her own bitterness. And Katy, who has at least the refuge of a happy, peaceful household with her father and sisters, will suffer too as she’s forced to endure her mother’s emotional poison.

No Vegetarians Yet

We’re buying a half cow from a family we know. We toured their farm and met the meat. My kids loved the tour–they got to raise and lower the front-loader attachment on the tractor, were given a ride on our host’s RTV, collected eggs from the chicken coop (we got to take the eggs home), rode in the house elevator, and were nuzzled by friendly horses.

But then there arose a snag.
“My friend thinks that the butcher will have our cow ready some time in September,” I told my husband at dinner.

“Our cow? Where are we going to put a cow?” asked my daughter. “Will it live in our yard?”

“Well, we’re just buying half the meat off the cow,” I explained. “The cow’s got to be killed first. ”

“I don’t want the cow to die,” cried my daughter.

“He has to die before he can be made into beef.”

“But I don’t want to eat that cow!”

“Look, kid, see those meatballs on your plate? They came from a cow. Every time you eat meat, it came from an animal. And most of the animals we eat weren’t treated anywhere nearly as nicely as the cow we’re buying.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, they don’t get to wander around a farm like the cows our friends raise. They have to stay in very small, crowded places, and their lives aren’t as happy as the life of this cow.”

“Then we should only eat cow from the grocery store,” said my daughter, calmly chewing a forkful of spaghetti and meatball.

“Er, why is that?”

“Because it’s better to kill cows that have a sad life than a happy life.” I was a bit nonplussed, so my husband jumped in.

“Honey, these cows only exist because people want to eat them. Without people wanting to eat cows, there would be a lot fewer cows in the world.”

“Some people don’t eat meat because they think it’s wrong to kill animals,” I added. “We think it’s okay because, besides being delicious, animals have lots of protein and other nutrients that are good for your body. But, I mean, if you want to be a vegetarian and not eat meat, you can have a perfectly healthy diet without it.”

My daughter frowned, looked at her plate, and popped another meatball into her mouth.

We’re picking up the beef today.

 

Postscript: And here it is, minus some bones and ground beef defrosting in my fridge.

IMG_6373

Diary of a 2-Year-Old

7:15 AM: Hooray, I’m awake! I get to go see Mommy! Time for breakfast! I love breakfast! There’s brother! I love brother!

7:16: Brother pretends to shoot me. SCREAM!!!

7:18: Oh, boy, Cheerios! I love Cheerios!

7:20: I ask where Sister is. Mommy says she’s at school. That’s what she said yesterday, too.

7:26: Brother looks at me and made funny noises. SCREAM!!!

7:30: Mommy reads us a book. Hooray! I love books! I give Mommy and brother kisses.

7:56: I wannanother book! Mommy only read me three books!

7:58: Mommy says I have a poopy diaper. I tell her there are lollipops in my diaper. Mommy cleans me off and makes me sit on the potty. I like sitting on the potty because I get to play games, and I’m good at holding it until Mommy puts me back into a diaper.

8:25: Daddy comes downstairs and eats his cereal. I pick him spicy peppers. He shows me a spider he caught. Brother and I close the basement door behind Daddy; Mommy yells at us to let Daddy get down the stairs before we close the door.

10:46: I help Mommy unload the dishwasher. I am a good helper. I even help Mommy get the broom and dustpan to sweep up the pieces of the glass that fell out of my hands.

11:05: I ask Mommy for a snack. She says no, lunch will be in half an hour. I don’t like lunch! I want a snack!

11:30: Brother runs to the basement to tell Daddy that lunch is ready. I wanted to do that! SCREAM!!!

11:31: Oh, boy, lunch! I love lunch! I tell Mommy she made a good dinner because I get lunch and dinner mixed up.

12:06: Brother and I clear off plates. Then Mommy makes us pick up toys from the family room floor. Bad Mommy! I’m too tired to pick up toys, but when Mommy says that if I’m so tired I should be taking a nap now I don’t have any choice. Rats! Outwitted again!

12:56: I wannanother book! Mommy only read me two books!

1:02: Mommy rocks me in my room. “Jesus loves me…Mary had a little lamb…En mi vida….” She puts me in my snuggly bed. I hate this bed because it’s not my yellow crib, which Mommy and Daddy took apart because I’m a big boy, but right now it feels soft and warm and I cuddle under the blankets with my stuffed animals.

1:07: I had a good nap! I try to visit Brother in his room. Mommy yells that I can’t come out yet.

1:09: Still can’t come out.

1:12: Still can’t come out.

1:15: Still can’t come out.

2:15: Mommy finally says I can come out. Is it TV time yet? I’m hungry for a snack.

2:58: Mommy walks to the bus stop to get Sister. Brother goes with her. I can see them from the window. Now is a good time to find out how many bubbles I can make in the bathroom sink. Huh, look at all the bubbles on the floor! They’re so pretty.

3:04: Sister eats a snack. Is it TV time YET? No, we read a book, then play outside on the swing set with our friends. Mommy asks who made a mess in the bathroom. I don’t know.

4:30: Hooray! It’s TV time! Oh, no, Brother and Sister want to watch Woody Woodpecker. I don’t like Woody Woodpecker. I like monster trucks. I want to watch the monster truck show. Ha, ha, look at Woody Woodpecker tricking Wally Walrus! Wally Walrus is so funny!

4:57: I am bored with Woody Woodpecker, but Mommy won’t read me more than one book because she has to make dinner! I hate dinner!

5:20: Mommy lets me set the table. She has to help me get the plates and forks and knives and napkins and do the drinks herself, but I do everything else! Sister announces that I set everything crooked.

5:30: Sister runs to the basement to tell Daddy that lunch is ready. I wanted to do that! SCREAM!!!

5:31: Oh, boy, dinner! I love dinner! I tell Mommy she made a good dinner.

6:45: My teeth are brushed and diaper changed; Daddy rocks me in my room and sings. “Now I lay me down to sleep…Jesus loves me…When I fall in love….” He puts me into my bed, which I still hate, but is so very cozy with my stuffed animals. He kisses me, then Mommy comes in to kiss me. I’m not really tired, but the pillow feels so good….

The Haircut

We’re working toward our kids’ independence.

We don’t neglect them, because then they’ll lack the examples and information they need to make good choices.

We don’t smother them, because then they won’t be able to make choices at all–or when they are finally away from our orbit, they’ll go nuts because they’ll have had no practice at responsibility, risks, and decision-making. (Indeed, a neglectful parent and a smothering parent can produce similarly-handicapped children.)

All this to say: We didn’t punish the child who decided to experiment with a new, much shorter hairstyle. A professional will shortly be cleaning up the, er, ragged edges; once this is done, the kid will probably look decent. Technically, this child didn’t break any rules; it is one of the two who are allowed to handle scissors, and we’ve never explicitly told our kids not to cut their own hair. We have since discussed that, in the future, if our kids want a haircut, they must come to us.

My mother thinks I should have punished the child. After all, cutting your own hair! And see how awful it looks! Eek! My husband and I disagreed. We come down on deliberate disobedience, disrespect, lying, and meanness like a ton of bricks. We don’t think that this child’s action falls under any of those categories, although future self-administered haircuts would. As for appearance–hair grows, and all of my kids grow hair very quickly.

There is a larger concern about this incident: The child acted in an impulsive manner, without consulting Mom and Dad. Acting on impulse could be very harmful if, some years down the line, the kid decided to try some weed or cheat on a test. However, this child is very independent, but not especially prone to doing dumb things because they seem like a good idea at the time. I think this was an aberration, and not an indicator of a Disturbing Pattern.

All of these considerations I can turn over in my mind, and ruminate on the best course of action and how it relates to our long-term parenting goals. But in the final analysis, I have a level of sympathy for this kid that is irrational, and based on my own childhood. My parents loved my long hair and told me how beautiful it was. I hated washing it, hated having it combed and brushed, and hated the way it flopped in my eyes and blew about my face. Pony tails and bobby pins hurt. It never occurred to me to ask my parents to cut my hair, because I knew they loved it. In sixth grade, however, after a night spent on an old sailing vessel in very stormy weather (best school trip ever), my hair became so hopelessly matted and tangled that it had to be cut to just above my shoulders. It was wonderful. What a burden had been lifted! How freeing! I wish my child had come to me about wanting an alteration in hairstyle; we would have made it happen.

Parents ought to police the appearance of their children. Most parents agree to some extent–even the most liberal would hesitate to send a kid to school in a bathing suit on a 20-degree day. Most would wash the mud off their protesting children’s faces if they were going somewhere. Our kids will have to abide by our standards, and we won’t allow them out in something we consider immodest, trashy, or otherwise communicating an offensive message. Our standards are arbitrary, as most standards of appearance or custom are, but abiding by these standards shows respect for us.

But within certain limits, we want also to allow our children freedom over their appearance. To guide, but not to smother. My son used not to leave the house without a hat made of a toy sink-bowl, and my daughter used to layer brilliant colors and patterns on until she looked like something in a fever dream. They grew out of it, and generally pick acceptable outfits from what’s available. I am sure that some day I shall look at my grown child’s appearance and sigh, “You’d be so handsome/pretty if you’d just do X,” but I hope that I’ll do so inwardly. After all, the goal here is independence, and not the production of a carbon copy of myself or my preferences.

Fetuswise, or: To Train Up A Fetus

In order for your child to grow up to be a balanced, decent adult, you must actively parent that child. Children do not need to be taught bad behavior, but they need considerable direction in order to learn how to be good, truthful, obedient, and well-mannered.* “The child is father of the man,” says Wordsworth, and the infant is father of the child; many experts have recognized the value of training infants to eat and sleep on the parents’ schedule, and do whatever the parent wishes. By strictly controlling every single aspect of your infant’s life, you will therefore ensure that they grow up to be adults who behave precisely as you wish. 

Although there are plenty of resources for parents wishing to train their babies, there is a dearth of materials available for training the pre-born child. I find this gap disturbing; if training a 6-week-old is desirable, how much better to train the child at 6 weeks of gestation? Get them before they’ve had several months of developing terrible habits, and you will be guaranteed a perfectly-behaved child forever. I offer the following short guide to nipping bad behaviors in the bud–that is, in the womb.

Eating

Newborns have a terrible habit of demanding feeding every 2 or 3 hours, and sometimes more frequently. Pediatricians would have you believe that this is because the newborn’s tiny stomach does not allow it to take in sufficient milk to keep it from getting dehydrated or having a low blood sugar level; they’ll say all sorts of things about jaundice, rapid infant development, brain damage, blah, blah, blah. The truth is that the newborn has been spoiled by 9 months of constant feeding-on-demand through the umbilical cord. The only solution is for you to fast several hours so that you aren’t digesting new nutrients until the time that YOU determine the fetus should be fed.**

Potty Training

Likewise, rather than allowing the lazy little thing to constantly pee and drink its own urine, start your potty training promptly, by only drinking twice per day.***

Sleeping

As every new parent knows, infants are born without knowing that they should be active during the day and sleep at night. Indeed, many a pregnant woman has found that her settling down for the night seems to be an invitation to her unborn child to start practicing soccer or MMA. Aside from yelling “Knock it off and go to sleep!” the mother can prevent this mixup by shining a flashlight into her abdomen during the daytime hours, along with screaming continuously to let the kid know that it isn’t sleepy time (except for duly scheduled naps).

Thumb Sucking

Everyone knows what a dangerous habit this is, and it occurs as early as 9 or 10 weeks of gestation. This behavior can be eliminated with permanent ultrasound surveillance of the fetus and some well-timed pokes to the abdomen to encourage the baby to desist from thumb-sucking.****

General

Make sure to talk to your unborn baby every day. You should emphasize that it was conceived in iniquity and is totally depraved and dead in its sins. If the child isn’t born able to recite the Westminster Confession and several volumes of Calvin’s Institutes, you have failed as a parent. Congratulations on your little bundle of wrath!

 

 

*The foregoing is true. The rest of the post is satire. Although I do indeed believe that children should be trained, this training should be loving, age-appropriate, and postnatal.

**This won’t work. Don’t do it. Here’s some guidance from the National Institutes of Health on nutrition and weight gain during pregnancy.

***Really, really don’t do this; dehydration can lead to contractions, improper fetal development, and other bad outcomes.

****If you’re even considering doing something like this, please get help immediately.

Nice Kiddos

I like our kids. I think they’re generally nice and fun to be around (as long as you aren’t trying to get something done that needs focus). Sometimes they’re cranky or mean or disobedient or stubborn; sometimes I very much need to step away from them; but mostly I like being around them.

I’m not saying this to brag about what awesome children I’ve got, or to insist that my superior parenting has made them pleasant people. Most kids aged 2, 4, and 6 who haven’t been mistreated and don’t have major behavioral issues are enjoyable; it is the nature of children to be appealingly cute, fresh, curious, energetic, sincere, and comical. Our family isn’t undergoing the kind of chronic, severe strain that shortens tempers and makes it difficult to connect pleasantly with one another. In other words, I have it easy right now.

Then why write about liking my children?

It is because they are not simply my offspring, but people.

When parents have children, they are inviting new people to live with them. This is hard to realize at first, when the stranger is a squalling blob who drinks milk, sleeps, and poops. And unlike in any other relationship, a child gestated by its mother is both known intimately and unknown until the moment of birth. I knew my children’s active and sleep times, which of my internal organs they preferred to kick, and their favorite stimuli (one loved apples). We talked to them so that they would be born knowing our voices; we printed out ultrasound pictures that were almost as detailed as photographs; and yet each time I went into labor our excitement was that of people anticipating a new and most important meeting. I met each child placed on my chest both with a sense of recognition and unfamiliarity.

The punch-drunk, giddy love I felt with each child is still buried in my heart, like marrow deep inside a bone, but joins other feelings that have taken longer to grow. Living every day with these little people allows annoyances to develop–why does that kid always forget to close the door?–but so develops also the closeness created by shared experiences, tender memories, and taking care of their needs.

And as the kids get older, it is easier to appreciate their unique qualities as individual people. I can say that this one likes to please; this one considers things carefully; this one has great self-confidence. They are all still very young, so I expect much greater character development as they become big kids and then young adults; also, I am not so naive as to imagine that I am an unbiased observer, and my own descriptions are necessarily limited.

I hope that my children will grow into good, wise, loving Christian adults. It is highly probable that at least one will go through one or more phases of being utter pains in the butt. But as they are, right now, they’re pretty nice.

 

Another School Year Begins

Tomorrow is my daughter’s first day of first grade. I have met her teacher, dropped off her supplies, packed her a thoughtfully-chosen, nutritious lunch,* and checked her bus schedule. She’s excited, and so am I; but I’m going to miss having her around.

I worry, of course. Will she be happy at school? Make friends? Make the wrong kind of friends? How strong an influence will her schoolmates and teachers be, and will they be opposing or aiding mine? I have checked the curriculum, and neither the subjects discussed nor the teacher appears to be about to convince her that there is no God and perhaps she’s really a little boy, but I don’t take anything for granted.

Why not homeschool? I’ve discussed the question before, and I still think that at this stage, at least, public school will be better for my daughter than my own homeschooling efforts would be. This may change at middle school, in which the children tend to transform into vicious, crazed hyenas driven mad by puberty, or maybe before then. I’m always reevaluating.

Whether or not we choose to outsource our children’s education to others, the responsibility for seeing to their learning lies with us–and with them, as they grow older. I must be satisfied that my kids will be learning that which is true and useful, that their talents are being cultivated and their weaknesses addressed, and that they are not being corrupted by their environment.

Learning occurs at home, of course. We’ve kept up with numbers and reading, although she hasn’t been able to write much because she broke her elbow in June; at bedtime, I’ve read her some Narnia books, Hitty: Her First Hundred Years, and Treasure Island (which we’re still on). Her younger brother is beginning to be able to sound out a few simple words and can count to 49 without assistance, and the youngest recognizes some of his letters and can count to 13. And all of them have exercised their imaginations over the summer in a way that makes me quite happy, except for the mess invariably created and grudgingly tidied up.

Summer’s done. I will look forward to taking first day of school pictures, and meeting my baby with a kiss at the end of the day. I hope the year is full of great things for her.

*Nutritious except for the chips, which are the only items I can guarantee she’ll eat. By May, lunch will be whatever leftovers I can throw into her box at 6:30 AM, along with maybe a can of sardines or some crackers.