Things I’ve Learned the Hard Way, Parenting Edition

Recently Ace offered up a useful piece of advice: “If you ever pick up a toad and it seems extra squishy, be careful, because that means it’s about to pee on you. I had to learn this the hard way.”

When Sonny nodded sympathetically, Ace asked him if he’d ever had to learn anything the hard way. He had. Specifically: “When you are really tired and your eye is bleeding, don’t ride your bike, because you will crash it.”

(It’s good to learn from others’ mistakes, so everyone take heed.)

My sons wanted to know what sorts of things I’d learned the hard way. I paused, wanting to select the most useful example among so many. It’s best to tell the truth the first time? People who gossip to you will also gossip about you? Do what is right despite what other people think? You can’t pull words back in once you’ve unleashed them?

While I considered, Sonny and Ace wandered away. Perhaps they’d already learned the hard way that my particular expression was a portent of a boring tale.

But now I was thinking about things I’d learned the hard way during my eight-plus years of parenting, and of the many more that will come. Some plant deep regrets. Others may not be as harsh, but they’re still worth tucking away so as not to have to learn them a second time. Here are but a few of those:

  1. Parenting books never include enough disclaimers and may tempt the reader to take false hope in particular formulas.
  2. Never let your vehicle to be without something that can serve as an emergency barf bucket.
  3. The child who is seemingly talking to himself in the living room for 15 minutes may in fact be talking to a toad. (May it not be an extra-squishy one.)
  4. Telling your kids that your name is not But Mom will send them to the floor in homophone-induced hilarity. Also, they will still call you But Mom but now will probably laugh while doing so.
  5. To mention that the entire household has remained exceptionally healthy this winter is to invite trouble.
  6. The kid crafting the paper airplane from the church bulletin may suddenly launch it over the heads of fellow congregants, even if he has always previously kept these airplanes grounded.
  7. Not all root beer is caffeine free.
  8. The longer you wait to respond to the Sign-Up Genius for the school event, the more likely it is that you will end up providing chocolate spoons or cheesecake on a stick instead of ketchup or paper plates.
  9. It’s unwise to take one child to urgent care with strep-throat symptoms early on a Sunday without confirming that his brother, who is still abed, does not have similar symptoms. Making two back-to-back trips to urgent care feels very inefficient.
  10. If you get pulled over for going a wee bit over the speed limit with a three-year-old in the back seat, that three-year-old will proudly and with great relish rat you out to everyone he sees for the next two weeks.
  11. Failure to warn your kids from the get-go that the Tooth Fairy keeps an erratic schedule may require you to scrape up early-morning excuses for her unpunctuality.
  12. Despite best efforts, sometimes the hard way is the only way to learn.

What have you learned the hard way?

Have Yourself a Simple Little Christmas

Last month I happened upon an article with the approximate title of “Twenty Parenting Hacks That Will Make Your Life Simpler.” Ever seeking a simpler life, I plunged in.

Hack #1: “Wash Legos in a laundry bag in the washing machine.” (Because evidently Legos should be washed once a week. Who gets to decide these things?) My admiration for whomever had come up with this ingenious (although undoubtedly noisy) method to purify Legos was overshadowed by a burning question: How is washing Legos in a laundry bag simpler than not washing Legos, which is what I do now?

I did not finish the article.

December brought an onslaught of other not-simple ideas masquerading as simple. “Thirty Hassle-Free Elf on the Shelf Ideas! Each simple idea takes less than five minutes to set up.” Wouldn’t leaving the Elf on the Shelf on the shelf, per his moniker, be even more hassle-free—if one doesn’t bar him from one’s home entirely, which, let’s face it, is the most hassle-free approach of all? Many families enjoy Elf on the Shelf, but let’s not pretend that having to pose that creature every evening lends simplicity to one’s season.

Nor does twisting napkins into Christmas tree shapes, suggested as a “simple” way to set one’s table. Festive? Yes. Simpler than a folding a napkin into a rectangle? No. Same goes for the six “simple” ways to decorate one’s car for Christmas. Really? Decorate my car? Hanging ornaments from the rear-view mirror is not complicated, but whoever decided that cars should be decorated was not thinking simply.

Still, I have found a few ways to keep the Christmas season a little simpler. Here are a few of my attempts.

(Note: It may seem that one or two of these endeavors are driven more by laziness or incompetence than by a noble quest for simplicity. Let’s just blur those lines, shall we? Potato, potahto . . .)

  • Believed that Sonny was already booked on the morning of the Christmas recital and therefore did not sign him up to participate. Was wrong about him being booked, a discovery that came too late for the sign-up deadline. Not preparing for a recital during an already busy season: simpler than preparing for a recital.
  • Tried a new recipe wherein “Batter may be soft” was a shameless understatement. Poured the batter into a 9×13 pan and offered it to the oven. Renovating would-be cookies into (mediocre) bars: simpler than making a new batch of cookies.
  • Resisted the fleeting urge to rearrange the ornaments after the tree decorating session. Yes, five of the six striped glass bulbs are clumped up together, nearly touching each other, instead of spaced evenly around the branches. Yes, the Nutcracker and the straw angel are both facing the tree trunk. But so what? The kids who decorated this tree are convinced it is “the best tree EVER, and perfect.” Besides, in a few years Sonny and Ace will decorate the tree more conventionally, or they won’t want to help decorate it at all, and I will feel nostalgic. Letting the decorators’ style remain: simpler than trying to refine the tree.
  • Accepted Ace’s offer to wrap presents. The result, many meters of tape later, is a pile of gifts that look like a five-year-old wrapped them. Martha Stewart would recoil and avert her eyes, but the recipients won’t mind. And the five-year-old is proud of having helped. Allowing a volunteer to wrap the presents: easier than doing it oneself (assuming an ample supply of tape).
  • Avoid irritating “Christmas” songs. Yes, music is a matter of taste, so I won’t specify any titles, but some of these songs are plain creepy (cough“BabyIt’sColdOutside”cough). At least one is a carol of self pity that has nothing to do with the Christmas season itself (“Last Christmas,” I’m looking at you.) And have you ever suffered through an hours-long earworm of “Wonderful Christmastime,” a song that is annoying even on its first pass through your head? So if you encounter a woman with her hands over her ears humming loudly to drown out the loudspeaker’s rendition of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer,” that woman might be me. Listening to meaningful music or just enjoying the silence: simpler (among other things) than suffering through “Santa Baby” and its ilk.
  • Trying to remember that Christmas will preval despite missed recitals, imperfect food, ideal plans (as defined by me) going awry, and too-high expectations of myself and others. It will triumph despite unmet goals and hangry kids . . . and cranky grownups. It will go on despite commercialism. These things are not what Christmas is all about. And I’m so glad.

Lies and Otherwise

Once upon a time, before I became a mom, I believed that I would never lie to my offspring. I believed this firmly, as firmly as I believed that a few exposures to any given food would guarantee that a child would learn to accept it—yea, even love it. Or that a toddler cleverly offered two acceptable choices (for example, that between the red pajamas or the striped ones) would dutifully pick one instead of, say, fleeing the room mightily protesting bedtime. Or that there was never any reason to bribe a child.

But parenthood divested me of these notions. My sons have yet to willingly consume black beans despite the beans’ frequent presence at our table. The “just give them a choice and they’ll automatically cooperate” tactic: futile. And if M&Ms are the key to persuading a four-year-old to swallow his medicine? So be it.

And despite my lofty aspirations, I have told Sonny and Ace things that aren’t true.

To wit:

“Close your eyes, and I’ll push a button so the car will fly over that overpass. It only works if you close your eyes, though.” (My dad used to feed this line to my sisters and me, and we turned out okay. Besides, it’s fun.)

“It’s against the law to whine on your mom’s birthday.” (Don’t judge me. It works.)

“If you walk around with food on your face, the bunnies will come and lick it off.” (Do I get credit for saying “bunnies” instead of “cheetahs”?)

“I guess I’m getting a cold.” (This on the terrible evening of the Sandy Hook massacre, when at bedtime Sonny asked me why my voice sounded funny. Even the simplest honest explanation—“I’m sad because some people got hurt”—would have spawned more questions whose answers I could not give.)

“I can tell always if you haven’t brushed your teeth.” (Regrettably, this is not true; my mom-skill set is incomplete. I can sometimes tell, though, and they need to brush their teeth, right?)

“You can’t have a cookie because the jackals came this morning and ate them all.” (Dinner was being dished up at the time. Ask a silly question, get a silly answer.)

“The class I took on how to be a mean mom recommended never saying yes to anything.” (Contrary to his contention, I don’t say no to everything. Just so we’re clear.)

So it’s true. I’ve lied to my kids. This should probably unsettle me more than it does.

But I am more unsettled by the truths I tell my children. Oh, I believe them wholeheartedly, and I want Sonny and Ace to believe them, too. But sometimes I worry that my actions will belie my words so that Sonny and Ace will regard as lies truths such as the following:

  • God loves everyone. He doesn’t hate anyone.
  • It’s okay, often even good, to make mistakes. You don’t have to pretend to be perfect.
  • Apologizing when you’re wrong is essential and is not a sign of weakness.
  • I will always be there for you, no matter what.
  • You are not better than anyone else, and no one else is better than you.
  • Comparing yourself to others is pointless.
  • Cutting down others is a sign of insecurity. Remember that when someone cuts you down; remember that when you are tempted to cut down someone else.
  • Money and contentment are unrelated.
  • Money and is unrelated to one’s worth.
  • It’s much easier to judge than to show mercy, but mercy ought to trump judgment.
  • You don’t have to be the best at something, or even good at something, in order to enjoy it.
  • If someone needs help and you can help them, it’s your job to do so.
  • You have many gifts.
  • Everybody deserves respect. This means you; this means everyone else.
  • God forgives, and so should you.
  • You are loved—not for what you do, what you’ve accomplished, what you own, what you say, or how you look. You are loved for being you. Nothing will change this.

How many inconsistencies between words and actions will it take before they reject these messages? How many slip-ups am I allowed?

It’s a lot easier to stop threatening my kids with fictional face-licking bunnies than it is to always demonstrate mercy or to always show respect to everyone or to brush off one’s own mistakes. But I’ll try to clean up my act on all counts.

And that’s no lie.