To be a proper parent, contrary to what one sees any given Saturday afternoon at McDonald’s, is to train one’s children. What they don’t tell you before they let you take the kid home from the hospital, however, is that being a parent means being trained by one’s children as well. The question is, who will win?
As in all wars not involving the French, each side wins its share of battles. The challenge is that most of these training skirmishes are fought by the combatants unawares, such that occasionally one discovers, in a moment of frightening clarity, that one has been programmed to do the bidding of a little fartling. This is humbling, especially to those of us who have mistakenly come to believe that we are more clever than our children.
Baby Isaac, for example, has taught the rest of his family to entertain him. He did this by screeching at the top of his lungs. It is a bloodcurdling scream, the kind that makes your hair stand on end and gives you cause to surreptitiously check to see if you’ve wet yourself. When the boy goes on a screaming tear, it’s like being locked inside the chimpanzee exhibit — all that’s missing is the prospect of being hit in the head with flying poo, and once the little monkey figures out how to undo his diaper I’m not sure if we’ll be safe even from that.
Why does he do it? I’ve asked myself that question many times. I mean, the boy’s got a good life. He has unfettered access to breasts, unlike, say, his father. He sleeps whenever he wants. He is doted on by everyone in the family, not to mention countless women in public places. He is free to engage in belly-laughter uninhibited by the fear of inadvertent flatulence. This is a life of which most men can only dream.
Only recently did I discover why he mimics a jet engine. Saturday as we sat around the kitchen table eating lunch, the child let out one of his heart-stopping banshee screams. Without thinking, we all made little placating shushing sounds in unison. Isaac grinned with delight at our performance, and screeched again. And so we all shushed again.
He is the conductor, you see, and we are his shush orchestra.
I had a similar epiphany yesterday as the wife and I endured the End Times weeping and gnashing of teeth that defines the period immediately following naps in our house. You’d think the older two boys were prisoners on a chain-gang road crew, the way they moan and groan when we roust them from their warm little beds in the late afternoon. But then I took a closer look at the dynamic we’ve created. Nap time is when the wife and I do a lot of our chores, so we’re still in that get-stuff-done mode when we wake the boys. If they whine that they’re hungry, we stuff a snack in their little yappers. If they want to watch “VeggieTales,” we’re inclined to let them. This is not good parenting, because children are like a government bureaucracy; they always need just a little more to be happy.
So yesterday the wife sent them stumbling into the back yard after nap, to harass me while I mowed. (Honey, did I forget to thank you for that? It was wonderful bonding time. Thanks! Love ya!) Within minutes I found myself mowing a pattern of connected circles so Caleb could have a race track for his scooter. I did this with one hand, because I needed the other to keep a sniffling Eli balanced on my shoulders.
At some point it occurred to me that serfs working their master’s land probably had an easier go of clearing the fields than I was having mowing my own bloody grass. Am I not the lord of my manor? Am I not the king of my castle? So why am I breaking my back to placate two little rugrats?
Because they trained me.
Oh, they’re clever little weasels, these children. Keep your eyes open, good parents, because the person who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks didn’t have a house full of urchins.