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?

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Who Were Those Caped Boys?

A few years ago Sonny and Ace received superhero capes for Christmas. Red, blue, and yellow capes, one with an S and one with an A: Super Sonny and Super Ace. They zoomed around the house in them, a preschooler and a toddler, valiantly coming to the aid of stuffed animals, each other, frogs, their parents. Grapes. Pencils. They rescued anything that needed rescuing.

Cape-wearing waxed and waned at our house and then went dormant a time. But then Ace took up the A cape again. He wore it everywhere, usually with his trademark rain boots. Story Hour at church. The grocery store. The apple orchard. Relatives’ houses. Bed.

The bathtub.

Everywhere.

People notice capes, as it turns out. Observers often smiled or even commented, which seemed to mystify Ace a little. He didn’t wear it for attention; he wore it because it was his cape. It was part of him, like his hair. Of course he was wearing it; why wouldn’t he?

Two years ago Ace faced screening for Young 5s; he felt nervous about what this process would require of him. He did not want to go. He dragged his rain-booted feet. Finally (finally!) we were out the door, but then he turned and ran back in—only to reappear sporting the cape, which seemed to shore him up. Thank you, cape!

He continued to wear the cape to the grocery store, to relatives’ houses, to the apple orchard.

Everywhere.

Last spring he had an early soccer game. Too early for his liking. He wore his cape over his gold AYSO uniform in the car, having agreed to doff it when we reached the soccer field. But when it was time for the game to start, he didn’t want to play. He hunkered down on the tired grass and shut down, cloaked in red and blue felt. But his coach, who was a wise coach, knew that soccer games for five-year-olds are more about the five-year-olds than about soccer. He hunkered down in front of Ace, getting eye to eye.

“Don’t you want to play today?” he asked.

Ace shook his head.

“Will you play if you can wear your cape?” he asked.

Ace nodded.

“You can wear your cape,” he said, and glanced over at J and me. “He’s five,” he stated. “He can wear it if it helps.”

So Ace played, slightly out of uniform—or not, depending how you look at it..

He wore the cape the rest of the day.

And he continued to wear it, though less and less. Meanwhile, Sonny’s cape hung, untouched, next to the bathrobe on its hook in the bedroom.

This past winter, Ace hopped out of the vehicle onto the grocery store parking lot on Saturday morning and hesitated. He glanced around.

“Just a second,” he said. He tore off his cape and laid it on his booster seat before pulling the door shut.

There is probably a word for the thing my heart did then, but I’m not sure what it is.

After our shopping trip he put the cape back before buckling up for the drive home, and he wore it the rest of the day. And he continued to wear it, though less and less.

This spring Sonny and Ace’s school had superhero day. Sonny thought he might dress as Batman. Ace had a harder time deciding. He has a Laval costume, but evidently Chima are not superheroes, and apparently it was rather ridiculous of me to even suggest it. His ninja costume might work, he conceded; ninjas aren’t exactly superheroes, but they are close enough.

Then I suggested his A cape.

“No,” he said. “I don’t want to wear that cape anymore.”

There is probably a word for the thing my heart did then, but I’m not sure what it is.

He decided to wear the Spiderman costume from the bin in the basement.

The next morning Sonny reconsidered his Batman choice. “I’ve dressed as Batman enough times already. Maybe I’ll just wear my S cape instead,” he said, running upstairs to retrieve it. He came back down and stuffed it into his backpack between his lunch and his homework folder. “I love this cape,” he said. Ace nodded, understanding.

There is probably a word to describe where my heart went then. I’m not sure what it is, but I know my heart traveled there by cape.

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s No Crying in Screen Time

“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
― William Shakespeare, King Henry VI

Life dishes out plenty of grief, even (perhaps especially) to kids. Loss, fear, injury, insults, heartbreak, disappointment, sickness, rejection, worry—what child has not been dealt these and has wept accordingly? Any impatience adults have with such weeping reflects our own shortcoming, not the child’s.

Even so, weeping—and its cousins, whining and grumbling and bellowing of indignation—is sometimes indulged in a little too liberally. Some laments seem more akin to complaints than to expressions of actual grief.

For example, whining to express that one’s brother is not doing his share of the chores or, conversely, that the brother is helping to pick up the sticks in the yard when one wanted to do this job by himself.

Or perhaps one’s brother refuses to smell one’s “good-smelling breath,” post teeth-brushing.

One’s food is detestable.

A boot is missing, only to be found in a place where the owner did not put it, and how did it get there: How?

Someone is scraping cardboard against a table in a way that he knows his brother finds annoying, and that’s why he’s doing it, too!

Lights-out came too soon, as will morning, as it turns out, 10 hours hence.

Someone quit the Monopoly game prematurely.

Impending haircuts will itch.

Shoveling snow makes them cold.

(Let’s pause to admit that the airing of such grievances is are not limited to children. Adults do this, too, in our own, more sophisticated—we think—way.)

But still, this is life, isn’t it? Whining and all?

Fortunately, there is an asylum from such absurdities, a rest for parental ears. It’s offered by screen time.

Screen time can be complex. For example, Sonny and Ace enjoy many educational games, and while we appreciate the educational value thereof, educational value is not why they play the games. School has educational value, as do books and the great outdoors, so they can get that in those places. And while I do not object to their playing games or watching videos purely for entertainment, they can easily find recreation elsewhere, if they have to, which they often do.

The chief reason they have screen time is so I can have peace and quiet. Ugly, maybe, but true. Screens are mesmerizing, after all, and we might as well channel that to some purpose. While they are being mesmerized, my brain is regrouping. It works.

But hark. What’s this I hear? Weeping’s cousins?

Netflix froze­­­­.

Someone’s brother is not letting him watch him play Minecraft, even though he let him watch when he played.

The tablet is out of power. Someone didn’t charge it! Who did not plug it in?

One’s allotted screen time is up long before one is finished playing the game, and that’s not fair!

Why are they complaining? Why aren’t they mesmerized? Where’s my peace and quiet? Don’t they know that’s what screen time is for?

And suddenly I am channeling Tom Hanks: “Are you crying? Are you crying? ARE YOU CRYING? There’s no crying! THERE’S NO CRYING IN SCREEN TIME!”

Because if there’s crying in screen time, opportunities for screen time—yes, even the educational apps—will go away. Ugly but true. The kids can go outside and shovel more snow instead.

Thank you, Shakespeare, for reminding us that weeping has its place.

And thank you, Tom Hanks, for articulating that weeping can be misplaced.

And may we all learn the difference.

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.

Those Pesky Cats of Kilkenny

“There once were two cats of Kilkenny,
Each thought there was one cat too many,
So they fought and they fit,
And they scratched and they bit,
Till, excepting their nails
And the tips of their tails,
Instead of two cats, there weren’t any.”

When in our much younger years my sisters and I would fight/argue/vehemently discuss, my parents took up the habit of reciting this poem to us. It was their defense against hearing about whose right it was to invade someone else’s bedroom, for example, or who hadn’t done her share in cleaning the fish tank, or who poked whom and whether this was done on purpose. Eventually they decided to save some of their breath and began abbreviating their point by simply announcing into the air, “Oh, look, it’s the cats of Kilkenny.”

Cats of Kilkenny

Any success with shushing us with this method was due not to the fact that we internalized their warnings of destroying each other. It was because we didn’t want to listen to cat poetry when we were trying to determine which unlucky sister’s turn it was to sit in the middle seat of the car or exactly what qualified as hogging the bathroom. Meanwhile, I mentally added “say ‘Cats of Kilkenny’ at them” to the list of the hardships I vowed never to deliver to my own children someday, along with “force them to make their beds when they’re just going to sleep in them again anyway” and “refuse to serve sugary cereal for breakfast.”

Fast forward until last week. Sonny and Ace were engaging in constant and noisy disagreement over . . . well, almost anything. Whose turn it was to set the table. Who was hoarding the green marker for no reason. Whether the word pool could be said to rhyme with itself.

And then it happened. As I wandered past a heated discussion about who had neglected to close the door of the couch cushion fort, the immortal words of “Cats of Kilkenny” poured from my mouth as though with a life of their own.

Did they stop fighting? No.
Had I really expected them to? No.
Then why did I do it? I don’t know.

Fighting. It sets my teeth on edge. But sometimes amidst their howling onslaught, Sonny and Ace reach resolution. Sometimes they do eventually listen to each other. So maybe if they keep it up, they will become expert resolvers and listeners, cutting out the middleman that is their fighting.

Or maybe not. But this article  claims that sibling rivalry will eventually pay off with skills related to problem solving, regulating emotions, increased maturity and self-control.

Will this really happen? I don’t know.
If so, how long will it take before these new abilities kick in? I don’t know.

Just in case, though, next time Sonny and Ace fight, I might do something different. Perhaps instead of reciting “Cats of Kilkenny,” I will cheer them on: “Keep on practicing, boys. Try to keep it down, though, okay?”

Or maybe I’ll just claw my ears out. We shall see.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go compel my children to make their beds.

Do I Hear School Bells?

It’s 8:30 in the morning.

Sonny is grumbly because his brother keeps calling him Howard, because I haven’t let him watch TV in about seventeen years, and because his hawk paper airplane has a bent nose.

Ace is grumbly because I keep forgetting to address him as Diego, because I hung up the phone before he had a chance to talk to my parents (despite declining the opportunity before I hung up), and because he has to do everything around here.

The toxic combination of boredom and back-to-school jitters is compelling Sonny and Ace to trot out torments that only siblings can deliver well: copying each other (“He’s copying me, Mom!” “He’s coppppying me, Mommm!”), pretending to drink from the other’s cup,  and . . . wait for it . . . pointing at each other.  Darkly threatening to send each other to jail, to JAIL! Feigning ignorance (and innocence) over the whereabouts of his brother’s lost toy.

Constantly.

School starts on Tuesday, and that’s none too soon. We are sipping at the dregs of summer vacation, and these people need somewhere to go.

Sonny will be starting kindergarten. Over the last few weeks he’s dwelt on various concerns: the possibility of bullies, not knowing everyone in his class, wishing he didn’t have to be away from home all day. But yesterday he told a cashier that his new teacher smiles all the time, and he ended last night’s bedtime prayer with “and thank you that school starts soon.” Ahhh, he’s ready. Good.

Ace will be starting preschool. He is concerned because he likes alone time, which is scarce at preschool. He is nervous because he doesn’t know many of the other kids. But he also remembers being sad when he was two years old and went along to drop Sonny off at preschool. He’d wanted to stay, too. “When is it going to be my turn, Mommy?” he’d ask. And now, finally, it is his turn. Today he donned his new monkey backpack and marched proudly around the house. “Let’s pretend that I’m in preschool, Mommy,” he said. “Because . . . I AM in preschool!”  Ahhh, he’s ready. Good.

Am I ready? Ready for some solitude? Who, me? Sometimes the idea of completing a task, or a thought, without interruption has me almost salivating. Nobody lamenting that he accidentally bit his own hand while eating cheese, nobody knocking frantically on the bathroom door to report a cricket floating in the goldfish bowl, nobody arguing over whether to dig to China or build a fort, nobody boycotting the only pair of socks left in his drawer.

The other day Sonny and Ace spent a few hours at the neighbors’ house, and I amazed myself with how much I could accomplish when left to my own devices. I even seamlessly completed a phone conversation. The silence was golden.

Until it wasn’t. It became almost creepy. True, nobody was fighting. But also true: nobody was summoning me to the window to watch a deer or turkey. Nobody was calling me “Mommy-Tommy.” Nobody was painting pictures of volcanoes to hang on the fridge. Nobody was making his brother laugh helplessly, and nobody was playing pet store together. Nobody was issuing tickets for walking on the wrong side of the stairs.

Then Sonny and Ace returned home. They had enjoyed their time with the neighbors, and they were content . . . for about a minute, until one of them started pointing at the other. “He’s pointing at me, Mom!” (“He’s pooointing at me, Mom!”)

And so it went.

Am I ready for my kids to start school? Oh yes.

Will I miss them while they’re gone?

Absolutely.

Enjoy the school year, everyone.