Monthly Archives: May 2008

Surly Girl

Possibly the only thing my daughter, Clementine, hates more than my sarcastic responses to some of her best dramatic moments are my “pithy” sayings. She hates it when, in reply to her question as to why I insist on checking under her bed every time she “cleans” her room I say, “Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me,” or when, after presenting me with some injury she believes worthy of a school absence I come back with “It’s a long way from your heart.” But, ironically, the one she should hate the most is the one that she has never heard: “You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” And the reason she has never heard it is because whenever she is in the state that most inspires it is exactly when the rest of us are most likely to avoid saying anything to her at all.

Of course–as with most things to do with Clementine–it doesn’t help matters that in this, too, her little brother Clyde is her complete opposite. When it comes to getting what he wants, he is the honey. Take, for example, my most recent trip to the shoe store: even though Clementine was clearly the one who was in desperate need of shoes (the ones she were wearing were so outgrown that her new pair turned out to be a full three sizes larger), I refused to actually get off the couch and over to the store until the day Clyde gave me an adorable picture he had drawn of the two of us standing together surrounded by hearts–one in which the stick figure representing Clyde can clearly be seen to be wearing a brand new pair of sneakers. (Whereas Clementine’s limping into the room with shoes held together by duct tape and growling “You need to buy me new shoes” had no effect on me whatsoever.)

By the same token, Clyde usually fares better in the breakfast department: his cheery “Good morning, best-Mom-in-the-world. What’s for breakfast?” can move me into creating weekday funnel cakes, whereas Clementine’s surly “You forgot to buy milk again,”–bowl of dry cereal in hand–only succeeds in inspiring my return growl of: “Improvise.”

Still, I do sympathize with her: I am well aware that the charm gene in our family is almost wholly gender specific (the women in our family are more likely to be known for our “get the hell away from me” glares than our “come hither” glances). Also, it can’t be easy competing for favors with a pint-sized ladies’ man; although I’ll admit I’m no great shakes in the suavity department myself, that doesn’t mean that I’m not still very much affected by it. Case in point: I may be years away from high school, but that doesn’t stop me from being reduced to a compliant puddle every time the cutest boy in the room sidles up next to me and says, “You look nice. Can I have a cookie?”

Not too surprisingly, Clementine–blessed with a sibling’s immunity to almost all forms of brotherly charm–is completely disgusted by these maneuvers. What is surprising, though (to me at least), is that my husband is as well; not only is he, too, almost completely immune to Clyde’s little overtures, but he also regards Clyde’s playerism with the kind of disdain that only one man can feel for another while he watches him successfully schmooze.

You’d think it wouldn’t be that way, that he would be happy that it is his own son–a member of his own gene pool, no less–who is having such luck, but that’s not the case at all. Then again, it’s probably hard to cheer anyone on while they’re buttering up your own wife–including your son. Especially when success usually means having to share your bed with the interloper yet again.

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The Chosen

Recently, my family had the dubious privilege of being present at the opening of The Great Rift. Not the one in Africa, or even the one in Cardiff, but the one that appeared in the seat of Clementine’s pants.

I call it “great” not because of the size of the tear (although, stretching nearly from cheek to cheek as it did, it was quite substantial), but because, unfortunately, the pants in question happened to be Clementine’s only pair.

Well, not really. Not by adult standards. But then again, adult standards are so lax that we actually believe that just because someone has so many pairs of pants that the only way they can shut their dresser drawer is by scooping out the top layers and slinging them into the dirty clothes hamper they have pants to wear. Sure, by those standards she still had plenty of pants. But by Clementine standards it was her very last pair.

Now, before you go taking her side and assuming that this is because her other pants are so hideous that even Jan Brady would look askance at them, know this: all those pants were picked out by Clementine herself; at one point, each pair was not only wanted but positively begged for. Somehow though, one by one, they each fell out of favor–some of them even making this descent during their brief trip from shopping bag to drawer. The problem, it seems, is that no matter how good a pair of pants might look in the store–no matter how thoroughly they destroy their dressing room competition–once they get home they still have to face their ultimate rival: The Chosen Ones.

The Chosen Ones are those pants that get called up for duty morning after morning; in the singles’ bars of the pants world, they are what’s known as a sure thing. Facing that kind of competition, can you really blame the others for bowing out (or, more precisely, “bowing into the dirty clothes hamper,”)? Of course not: they know they don’t stand a chance against a rival like that–not even when that rival has a tear in the seat big enough to drive a–well, drive a butt through. And this even though they are, to all outside observers, completely identical to The Chosen Ones in every quality. (And, when it comes to their butt-hiding qualities, even a little bit superior.)

Of course, identical to an adult and identical to a child are two completely different things: to a discerning child, no two pairs of pants are ever the same. For one thing, just like with certain valuable antiques, a truly loved pair of pants will have acquired an ingrained layer of filth (the “patina”) that makes them unique. Then again, even without this feature, there are still other highly mysterious factors that determine which pair will be The Chosen Ones. (One theory is that–like stallions fighting for dominance of the herd–the pants every so often must fight their way to supremacy, with the victor throwing itself spent and torn on the floor besides the child in question’s bed. This also explains why the dresser drawers are so often messed up.)

Which brings us back to the problem of The Great Rift: since the pair in question had been vanquished not by another champion, but by an outside force (me, throwing them away), suddenly the line of succession was no longer secure. How would the new champion be chosen? Would there be a lottery? Feats of strength (with special emphasis being placed on “butt strength)?
Although I was tempted to stay up that night and learn the inner secrets of the pants tribe (and be present when the puffs of indigo smoke signaled a new Chosen Pair), in the end I decided that–as with many aspects of child-raising–there are just some things it is better not to know.

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A few months ago, there was a newspaper article about an East coast woman who was being arraigned for child neglect. It seems that last year, just before Christmas, her two preteen daughters had spent the afternoon going around their neighborhood collecting change for the Salvation Army. Later that evening she drove them and their two-year-old sister down to the local Wal-Mart so that they could pour the money into a collection kettle, whereupon she was promptly cited for both child neglect and endangerment. My first thought upon reading this story was Boy, and I thought I had a thing about Wal-Mart. However, after a closer reading I discovered that she wasn’t actually being cited for exposing her children to a culture of Everyday Low Wages (she never set foot in the store), but for leaving her sleeping two-year-old inside her car while she walked her older children to the collection kettle–a car that was locked, had its alarm system engaged, and was parked within her line of site in the nearby loading zone–with the hazard lights flashing. Oh, and did I mention that it was December, and that it was sleeting outside?

For this she is facing not only a $2000 fine, but also the wrath of the internet, where posts are being made daily denigrating her both for her unfitness as a mother and for her criminal lack of common sense (or, as most posters put it, for not understanding “how the world is today”–this from people who probably couldn’t find Darfur on a map if you spotted them the latitude and the longitude.) As you have probably guessed, I feel nothing but sympathy for this mother, as I would for any mother who is unfortunate enough to be pilloried in the fickle courts of public opinion.

President, pop star, and parent: are there any jobs to which people feel more entitled to comment upon the job holder’s shortcomings than these? At least in the case of Presidents and pop stars the argument can be made that they must have seen it coming: after all, even the most Nepotically-elected President or stage-managed starlet had to undergo some kind of an audition–with parenting, however, there is no preparation at all before you are thrust into the public’s (very critical) eye; from the first moment you and your newborn appear in the world there is somebody there trying to tell you that you are doing it wrong. (Ironically, the first criticism many new parents receive is for taking their baby out in public too soon; in other words, they are criticized for exposing the baby to people just like the critic.)

And it’s not as if the criticism stops there. People feel extraordinarily free to comment on the things you are feeding (or not feeding) your child, the clothes they are wearing (or are not wearing), the pediatrician you visit–even the manner in which you decide to deal with their poop. (I’ll always remember the woman who peered at my infant son and sadly announced: “You know, that type of diaper isn’t very good for his testicles.”)

And yet, being chastised by all the grandmothers in the world must pale in comparison with being slammed in countless internet blogs as an “unfit mother,” simply because you took two steps away from you car on a snowy night.

The real issue here, I believe, is control–or at least the illusion of it. We’d like to think that if we could only control everything–if we could only do everything “right”–then nothing bad will ever happen to our children; the bad things will be reserved for the mother who left a sleeping toddler in a car, or let her six-year-old eat an unwashed apple. Or maybe, even, exhibited criminal indifference when confronted with the potentially dire future of her young son’s nether regions.

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Where childhood development is concerned, I’d like to believe that I’m pretty laid-back–especially when it comes to the whole notion of a “time line.” In fact, when my children were smaller, anyone who suggested to me that they might be “late” getting started on something like potty-training always got the same response–“I’m sure it will happen when they’re ready; after all, you don’t see too many 20-year-olds who have yet to learn to use the potty.” (Although, having shared a house with several male room-mates while I was in college, I have to admit that the bar for actually knowing how to “use” a toilet is set fairly low.)

I have taken this same approach to many of childhood’s “milestones”: tying their own shoes, telling time, sleeping in their own bed–in each of these instances I have tried to take the laissez-faire approach–with most of the emphasis being placed on the “lazy.” Why, I thought, should I drive myself crazy trying to teach them something that they are obviously not yet ready to learn? Wouldn’t it be better to focus on where they were right now than try to push them on to the next stage? It was, I felt, the most “Be Here Now” approach to parenting I could come up with, and I’ll admit that it continually filled me with no small amount of smug satisfaction. Which makes it all the harder to understand why, when it came time for Clyde to learn how to ride a bike, I became such a jerk.

I was never this way with his, sister, Clementine–and her bike ( a very cool vintage Schwinn with the original “Good Buddy” banana seat still attached) was purchased for her back when she was still in utero. Sure, we encouraged her a little bit–we took her up and down the street a few times to show her the basics–but after that we left her on her own. Amazingly, this plan actually worked: after mulling it over for 18 months or so, one day she just picked up her bike and took off riding.

With Clyde, on the other hand, I am downright mean.

“Did you hear about the party I’m throwing?” I casually asked him after he rode his scooter home from school yet again. “It’s going to be at Peter Piper Pizza–all the pizza and tokens kids want. It’s only for bike riders, though; no scooter riders allowed. Too bad you won’t be coming.” And then I rode off–on my bike.

Poor Clyde: part of the reason that he is getting the hard sell whereas Clementine did not is that he is the last one. While Clementine was taking her own sweet time to learn how to ride a bike, Clyde was still a toddler: it hardly mattered when I got her up and on her bike if I still had to pull Clyde around in the bike trailer regardless. Now that Clementine is a proficient bike rider, though, a tiny, white light shining at the end of the tunnel has crept into my field of vision–one that looks suspiciously like it’s mounted on a pair of handlebars.

Suddenly my memories of the glorious bike trips of my youth all come back to me: Scotland, Cape Cod, the Blue Ridge Parkway–even a six-week tour of Arizona–and with them also comes all the plans I had for bike trips yet to be done–the C & O canal, the Oregon coast, the South of France. Plans that were put on hold once my children came along. And just like that it’s “good-bye mellow hippie Mom” and “hello Peter Piper Pizza pusher.”

And my new mantra? Bike Here Now.
(Update: the Peter Piper Pizza Ploy actually worked–Clyde is off the scooter and on the bike, just in time for Bike to School Day, Thursday, May 15. For more info, go to

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Collect ’em All

Back when my 11-year-old daughter, Clementine, was still small, my husband and I would often organize impromptu raiding parties into her room at night in order to sneak away excess toys. An average haul would be a few dozen beanie babies or a score or so of Happy Meal toys; a pitiful night would consist of a handful of puzzle pieces, and a really good night would net an entire My Little Pony Dream Castle.

Back then we felt like we had to be sneaky about taking toys away from her, partly because we were afraid of the reaction we’d provoke, but mostly because we felt extremely guilty that she had so many toys in the first place; after all, collectors are not born–they’re made. She would have never had any idea about Barbie or My Little Pony if we hadn’t been the ones to introduce her to them. And even worse–she wouldn’t have had a room that was overflowing with “collections” if we hadn’t been the ones who kept buying new pieces for her. And yet, even though we knew that it was wrong, we found it terribly hard to stop; there was just something so appealing about seeing her little face light up with delight that kept us going back for more. Besides, we’d tell ourselves, what difference did one more little Polly Pocket doll make anyway?

Later, of course, after we realized that we could no longer walk across the floor of her room without hearing ominous crunching noises underfoot, we experienced a profound sense of giver’s remorse, and repented by sneaking back and trying to get rid of as much stuff as possible. In other words: first we’d binge, then we’d purge.

Eventually, time and exhaustion helped us to break free of this vicious cycle; so much so that by the time her little brother, Clyde, came along, we were almost completely immune to any kind of delight whatsoever. In fact, by the time he was three years old we discovered we could pull an unopened Lite Brite set out of his delighted hands and whisk it into the Goodwill bag without a moment’s remorse–and this at his own birthday party, no less. Anything to nip a burgeoning collection–and collector–in the bud.

After we reached that point–after we could cold-heartedly execute toyus receivus interruptus–our midnight raiding parties became a thing of the past, and we began culling the toy herd during daylight hours, in full view of all affected parties–almost like the adults we supposedly were. And, if we ever weakened in our resolve, we always had crunchy floor memories to spur us on. In fact, everything would now be almost perfect on the home-crap front if it wasn’t for one thing: Clyde’s rock collection.

There is no culling Clyde’s rock collection. To cull something, you have to understand its basic attributes: what makes it good, what makes it bad, what makes it common or unique. From there you can go on to weeding out doubles, or inferior specimens, or even broken pieces, but with Clyde’s rock collection, every sample seems to meet those requirements; as far as I (or anyone but Clyde) can tell, they’re all just a bunch of rocks. Not pretty rocks, not interesting rocks–just rocks. In fact, it seems like the only thing that really makes a rock “collectable” to Clyde–the only thing that sets it apart from all the other rocks in the world–is its size and the distance a parent must carry it to get it back to the house.

And so, by quashing all of his other outlets for collecting, we’ve brought ourselves right back to where we started; only this time, instead of hearing ominous crunching sounds underfoot, we’re hearing the sounds of an incipient avalanche. I wonder if it’s too late to get that Lite Brite set back from Goodwill.

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