I have friends who are so precise about parenting it makes me wonder if there was a class along the way that Mike and I missed. Most of our parenting tactics were passed along to us by the way we were parented, a small few we adopted by virtue of the way we wish we were parented. At one point in our parenting journey I was into reading books about parenting. I had all of the “What to Expect” books, Dr. Spock, Baby Signs, and a few of the pop psychology tomes about the inner workings of the adolescent and pre-adolescent brain. I read about Love and Logic™ and actually practiced it for a few weeks before I regressed into the “Better Parenting Through Screaming and Yelling” style that I had heretofore perfected.
At one point, when Colin was little, I apologized to him for a particularly bad parenting moment. Parents are fallible, which is something I admit to my children readily, and for which I’ve asked forgiveness more than once.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve only just started this parenting thing and I’m still working at it.”
Ever the one for logical, if disturbingly inappropriate solutions, Colin responded: “Well, why didn’t you and dad train with a hobo kid first before you had me?”
Actually, the concept of a “test baby” has occurred to a number of prospective parents. Then they get a dog. Which all their friends who are already parents think is stupid. Dogs are far more forgiving than children. They won’t tell their teacher how you used the “F” bomb when your hair dryer broke before work. They don’t require explanations about what you and dad were doing in the bedroom when they barged in on Sunday morning. They’re not picky eaters or tattle tales. They don’t need help with homework.
We did, in fact, get a dog in order to prepare for parenthood. A black lab, who was bigger than I am and sure he was smarter. Come to think of it, “Hobo” would have been a good name for him. But I digress.
There are nuanced situations in parenting that may well be outlined in dozens of parenting books. When it comes right down to it, faced with such a situation four out of five parents will forget what they’ve read. This is because many of these touchstone moments happen in the life of a young parent when they’re also coping with:
– too little sleep
– too much to drink
– low blood sugar, or
– are in a rush to get to somewhere on time,
….Or some combination of two or more of these factors (one hopes not the drinking and rushing to get somewhere on time).
Here’s how our family coped with a common parenting challenge: “The Santa question.”
Step I – Wait until the subject comes up on its own ….
We were driving home from an Easter celebration at my in-laws when Colin dropped the question:
“Is there really an Easter Bunny?”
It IS ridiculous: an oversized, pink rabbit delivering eggs. What kid even likes eggs? The candy thing is reasonable, but then there’s the gruesome rite of eating said bunny in chocolate effigy. And then there’re marshmallows. Marshmallows are gross. And which of these traditions has anything to do with the reason we celebrate the holiday? It’s a cumbersome set of rituals to explain.
Our two boys represent opposite sentimentalities: the pragmatic and the sympathetic. Colin was and still is Mr. Pragmatism. At age six, he knew rabbits don’t come in shades of pink, dragging overflowing baskets of goodies to give away. In fact, bunnies don’t take kindly to being chased or picked up. They bite. They have fleas and zero personality.
Our older son is pure emotion. Like his mom, Jack will tear up at movies about dogs, and commercials about cup-of-coffee-a-day children in Africa. Not normally a tidy person, he could nevertheless be persuaded to pick up his toys as a toddler when I told him they actually felt more comfortable in their proper places, or maybe with children who would care enough about them to put them away.
Our family tradition for Easter calls for mimosas at brunch, likely followed by a couple of beers under a warmish spring sun while older kids hide eggs that the younger kids nearly kill each other to find later. There’s an early dinner with way too much food, some wine, and good conversation with family. By the time we pack up to leave, the kids are well on their way to a sugar crash and I am in serious need of a nap. Which leads us to:
Step II – When asked a direct question, answer with whatever stupid thing comes into your head ….
Which in my case was: “No, there actually really isn’t any Easter Bunny.”
At this point, Mr. Pragmatic was fully engaged in dismantling an empty Pez dispenser and no longer paying attention, but 10 year-old Jack had a follow up:
“I suppose now you’re going to tell us there’s no Santa either,” he said.
“No, honey. I’m sorry. No Santa.”
“No Tooth Fairy either, then.”
Jeez, I couldn’t catch a break. “No, no tooth fairy.”
I can’t recall specifics from this point, it was about three years ago. I know there were tears and accusations. And later, when the occasion warranted, my little people were far less willing to wait in a long line for a photo opportunity with the guy in a red suit than they had been previously.
It may have seemed to some that we drug the Santa myth out way too long anyway. I didn’t have a firm example to go on for the revelation process and hadn’t thought to make a plan. The Santa tradition I grew up with consisted of my mom staying home to “wash the dishes after dinner,” while we would go visit a neighbor on Christmas Eve. She would later join us, having stepped out of the house at the very moment before Santa arrived, ala Bruce Wayne and Batman. I knew that she had something to do with the Santa process well before I was Jack’s age. I was alarmed one year when mom walked to the neighbor’s house with us after dinner instead of lagging behind. My parents had arranged for a friend to drop off and display our shiny new bikes in the living room for us to discover when we returned.
My parents continued to address presents to us and to each other as “from Santa” well into our adulthood. My dad was the source of the sentimentality that’s been passed through me to Jack and I’m sure he never found the heart to be direct about the Santa situation. Or, more likely, no one had ever told him there was no Santa …
Step III – Duck and cover until things calm down
So time passes and we bumble our way through to the next holiday season. We no longer have to buy special wrapping paper for the presents that were brought by Santa in the middle of the night. We don’t have to intercept Santa before the kids present a list of demands for outrageous gifts they are never going to get. We don’t get to threaten to call the big guy as punishment for bad behavior.
But when March rolls around, I catch Mr. Pragmatic upstairs with a box and a stick with a string trying to rig a trap. I help him set it and stack a few crackers under the box, with some “gold” costume jewelry and other sparkly things sure to tempt a Leprechaun.
The kids go to bed and Mike and I gleefully prepare a scrap of green felt to be artfully trapped under the sprung trap, the goodies scattered across the carpet as if dropped in a moment of panic by a fleeing verdant pagan. Mike stops me before I use green poster paint to leave footprints on our carpet.
In the morning, Colin will wake up and enthusiastically buy into our ruse. He’ll tuck that scrap of cape in with his other treasurers and keep it for years. It is a memento of childhood and magic representation of mischief, raucous behavior, and lack of impulse control with an Irish fairy’s tolerance for green beer and love of bawdy, off-color limericks.
Because, in our house, Leprechauns make so much more sense than the Easter Bunny, fat guys with fake beards or kindly sprites who sometimes forget to leave cash under your pillow when you’ve lost a tooth.