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?

The Elephant of Brotherhood

Sonny was seething. “Ace is saying yes like a parrot! And h­­­e keeps saying it! Just to annoy me!”

“Yes. Yesss.­ YES!”

“Ace! Stop!”

“Yeesss,” squawked Ace, encouraged. “Yeess!”

Cognizant of the need for a tactical change, Sonny dipped into his own arsenal.

“Yawn,” he said. “Yawn!”

Ace, who hates the word yawn because it makes him yawn, erupted in fury. Explosive, yawning fury. But he did stop saying yes like a parrot.

Brotherhood: feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people. (Merriam-Webster)

One wonders how many sets of brothers Noah Webster researched before penning his definition. Or what they were doing at the time. Evidently they weren’t kicking the back of someone’s seat in the carpool, driving hard bargains in a Halloween candy swap, or splitting hairs over whose Lego that is and whose job it therefore is to pick it up. It seems that any number of definitions would fit the bill.

Sonny: You know I don’t like it when you call me “dude”!

Ace: Well. You know I don’t like it when you say you don’t like it when I call you “dude.”

Brotherhood: the rapid exchange of accusations.

Sonny: Can I look at your new book?

Ace: Yes. But just for a minute. And don’t read the words; just look at the pictures. You’re not reading the words, are you? Don’t read them! Just look at the pictures!

Brotherhood: needless tantalization.

Sonny: Ace, when we are grown-ups, you can come to my house every week. We’ll watch the ball game and have chips and cheese.

Ace: I will be there.

Brotherhood: shared dreams.

Ace: Sonny, in real life you will always be my sidekick, but in the movie I’m making you won’t show up until Episode 3.

Brotherhood: simultaneous injections of confidence and humility.

Ace, for 36 of the 40 minutes of the soccer game, very loudly. (Very.): “Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Why isn’t anyone else cheering? Go, Orange Dragons!”

Brotherhood: unbridled fandom.

Sonny: Ace, probably the reason he keeps pushing you is that he is frustrated that he doesn’t speak English yet . . . but he still shouldn’t push.

Brotherhood: wisdom and comfort.

Ace: My friends thought Sonny had been lying when he told us it was raining, but I told them he wasn’t.

Brotherhood: fierce loyalty.

Sonny: I miss Grandpa.

Ace: So do I.

Brotherhood: shared grief.

Ace: My favorite part of staying at the cottage was building stuff on the beach.

Sonny: Mine too! And swimming!

Brotherhood: shared memories.

Sonny: Three cheers for that pumpkin!

Sonny and Ace, in unison and laughter: Hip!

Brotherhood: shared humor.

Ace: Do you like pepperoni or sausage better?

Sonny: Actually, Ace, pepperoni is a type of sausage.

Brotherhood: pedantry.

Sonny: Ace, do you want half of my treat? I think you would like it.

Brotherhood: generosity (albeit sporadic).

Sonny: The Green Bay Packers are the best team ever!
Ace: They are . . . after the Lions.

Brotherhood: smack talk.

Sonny: Let’s leave this where Mom will find it.

Ace: Yes! It will give her the heebie-jeebies!

Brotherhood: the homing in on a common target.

How does one distill brotherhood into one succinct definition? Is there even a workable definition or, like the Indian tale of the six blind men describing an elephant, does it depend on an isolated perception? Like humanity itself, it’s hard to sum up.

Brotherhood: a looming, extraordinary giant fashioned seamlessly from incongruent parts.

Brotherhood—loyalty, parrots, dreams, and all—it’s worth having. Keep it up, my sons.

Ten Things I Learned from My Mom

It’s Mother’s Day, that day when we officially focus on doing what we should do every day of the year—express gratitude for our mothers. And while I don’t say so nearly often enough, I am grateful for my mom. She’s taught me many things, some of which are spelled out below.

Of course this list could go on well beyond ten points; sorting out which messages to include proved more difficult than I expected. But then I decided to stop overthinking things (something my mom taught me) and just get on with it (something else she taught me), because this list doesn’t have to be perfect (see item # 9 below).

So here are, in no particular order, ten things I learned from my mom over the years.

1. It could be worse. Occasionally, or more often, my sisters and I would offer up to her various laments. She would sympathize as the situation warranted but then, when the time was right, point out that it would be worse. A scrape? At least we didn’t need stitches. A disappointing test score? At least we cared enough about our grades to be upset. An infected mosquito bite? At least it wasn’t a bee sting. The power went out? At least we usually had power at our house, unlike most of the world for most of time.

“It could be worse” is a lesson in perspective and in gratitude. Go ahead and nurse that wound for a little while, but know that it’s not as bad as it could be.

2. “Serviceable” is good enough. Occasionally our family would rent a camper for a summer trip—usually new large pop-ups, and once even a motor home, so when I learned my parents had actually purchased a camper for our upcoming vacation, I envisioned something similar to these. “Don’t get too excited,” my mom warned. “You haven’t seen it yet.” Well, I did get excited, because, really, how bad could it be?

Pretty bad, as it turns out. This camper was little more than a faded canvas tent over a flimsy metal base. This camper was ancient. This camper was rickety. This camper was homemade.

It was the most embarrassing camper in all the land.

But camp in it we did. While for a week my sisters and I slunk around the campgrounds, valiantly avoiding association with it, my mom was unfazed. “It’s just fine,” she maintained, confident in its utility. “It’s serviceable.”

It was, in fact. A family can still sleep and consume S’mores and play cards and sightsee while burdened with a decrepit RV. This vacation proved to be just as enjoyable as previous vacations. To this day we reminisce fondly about our trip in The Serviceable Camper ™, and to this day we all appreciate that something that can only be deemed “serviceable” is usually good enough.

3. Beautify your surroundings. Despite her contentment with serviceable accommodations, my mom cherishes beauty. So she plants flower gardens. She repaints the bathroom if she doesn’t like the way it looks. She garnishes food with a strawberry or a mint leaf or a swirl of frosting. (If you ever find an ice-cube-encased pansy in your lemonade at my parents’ house, fear not; pansies are edible.) She regularly turns on classical and sacred music. She sets the table with attractive napkins. As seamstress to all of our childhood clothes, she would adorn them with the prettiest possible buttons—sunflowers, strawberries, ladybugs.

She knows it’s within everyone to make the world a more beautiful place, so she does it.

4. Keep commitments. When I was about 10, a blizzard struck on a Saturday night and drifted our road shut. Did my mom plead “snowbound” and shrug off her obligation to play the organ at church the next morning? No. Instead, she contrived a solution that involved riding shotgun on my grandpa’s tractor.

If you think this is a woman who would allow her daughters shirk a commitment for any old reason, you would be wrong. There may have been a time when my sisters and I asked why we had to go to piano lessons while in the (non-contagious) recovery stages of virus, what would be the big deal about skipping catechism class once in a while, or why we couldn’t cancel our babysitting plans if a more appealing opportunity came along. If so, we quit asking, because we knew the answer: “You signed up for this,” she’d say. “It’s your job to be there. It’s not okay to let people down.”

5. One good reason trumps several flimsy reasons. “If you don’t want to do something,” she would advise, “offer a solid reason. The more reasons you give, the more it sounds like you’re making excuses.” So true, as was the unspoken but obvious message—if you have to offer several flimsy reasons, you probably don’t have even one good excuse, so examine your motives and act accordingly. (So why, exactly, can’t you paint the porch today?)

6. Know how to refresh yourself. One of my earliest memories involves my music-loving mom leaving the house for a dulcimer-making class. She loves hymns, so she attends hymn festivals. She enjoys sewing, so she sews doll clothes to give away. She travels to other states for Sacred Harp singings. She gardens. She laughs with her friends. She plans trips with my dad. She plays with her grandkids. And her mind and spirit are refreshed, and it shows.
7. Pick your battles. “Nobody will pay any attention to you if you try to get your way every time,” she’s point out; demonstrations abounded. She didn’t hound us over every little thing. She probably overlooked many matters that mattered more to her than she let on, but the standards that she did choose to enforce—among others: using proper grammar, avoiding profanity, participating in the church, and, of course, keeping commitments—highlighted her most cherished values.

8. Family stories matter. What is as captivating as a family story? I love the connection to my ancestors, both recent and distant. My mom is skilled at weaving her own memories and other bits of family history into conversation, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to make a point, sometimes to empathize, sometimes just because.
These stories have always fascinated me: her childhood fall from a moving vehicle; the car-radiator fire that my grandpa doused with their picnic lemonade; the relative who sent his regrets to her wedding because he wasn’t planning to make the five-mile trip into town that day; the notoriously bad cook whom other family members discouraged from contributing to potlucks; my great-grandma’s love of laughter. “You’re related to these people, you know,” she often adds. (Is there anything as humbling as the reminder that one shares DNA with a cantankerous great-great uncle who refused to observe Daylight Saving Time?)

9. Don’t pretend to be perfect. A non-spotless house would never prevent my mom from welcoming someone into it. Pride would never keep her from telling a self-deprecating but entertaining story—for example, that of when looked down while in a meeting only to discover that her shoes did not match. She has always matter-of-factly admitted mistakes, signaling that they are part of life and no cause for shame. “If pretended to be perfect all the time, you wouldn’t fool anyone anyway,” she once said.

10. Loved ones are a privilege, not a burden. I don’t have enough space to record all of the appropriate examples, ranging from dedication to elderly relatives to doting on grandkids, but this one speaks for itself. “Keep it simple,” as my mom would say, so on this final last point I will do just that.

I want to be like you, Mom. Happy Mother’s Day!