Monthly Archives: September 2008


In the world of words, there are some that are simply more “nutritionally dense” than others. Take, for example, the word “sorry;” it’s amazing how this one little word can convey such a wealth of feelings. In the case of an adult, those feelings usually include regret, chagrin, dismay and sometimes even shame–a lot for just one word to cart around. Put that same word in the mouth of a child, however, and the meanings expand exponentially.

“Sorry (that you’re such an uptight idiot that you get upset over a little thing like a snowball in the face. There weren’t that many rocks in it, and besides: why do you even live someplace where it snows if you can’t put up with little things like this?)”

“Sorry (that you yelled so loud that I got caught holding you down and punching you in the kidneys, but just you wait until Mom leaves, then you’ll really know what ‘sorry’ means).”

Of all the words we have to teach our children, “sorry” is definitely one of the hardest to define (it’s right up there with “compassionate conservative”). After all, genuine contrition is something that cannot be forced–you cannot command someone to feel actual regret any more than you can command someone to feel hunger, or cold. So, when we teach our children how to apologize, basically we’re teaching them how to put on a believable show until they get old enough to actually feel the emotion. In other words, we’re teaching them how to lie.

Not that this is a bad thing: ninety percent of all social skill is really just the judicious application of timely lies. We say, “No, thank you, I’m full,” when we really mean “There is no way I am taking a single bite of that rutabaga casserole; I don’t care if it is your Great Aunt Edna’s secret recipe;” we say, “I’d love to come to your cousin’s life insurance seminar, but I’m busy tonight,” when we mean, “I’d rather stay home and rinse out my comb;” and we always, always say, “No, of course those pants don’t make you look fat,” when what we mean to say is, “It’s not the pants that make you look fat–it’s your fat ass that does it.”

When it comes right down to it, we lie (including insincere apologies) to be kind. (As Robert Brault once said: “Today I bent the truth to be kind, and I have no regret, for I am far surer of what is kind than I am of what is true.”) It is, therefore, this presumption of implied kindness that makes it is such a doubly whammy when our children apologize so very badly: not only have they offended someone with their actions, but also with their transparently insincere contrition.

In fact, children are so very bad at apologizing that the only group I have ever seen who are worse at it are national leaders. No wonder the world is in a constant state of war. The toe-digging-in-the-dirt, arms crossed, muttering way some leaders approach the whole issue of guilt makes even a childish apology seem sincere–after all, not even a child caught with his hand in the cookie jar would have the audacity to come up with, “that depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.”

Some people, like child behaviourist Rosalind Wiseman, suggest that when our children apologize badly we do it for them: we say, “On behalf of my family, I’d like to apologize for that icy snowball to the face; I sure hope that wasn’t a permanent tooth.” And although I usually roll my eyes at suggestions from “child behaviourists,” this one actually makes sense to me, perhaps because of the world-leader analogy. After all, come November we’re certainly going to be apologizing to the rest of the world for the last eight years.

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I Forgot

Back in our twenties, my friend Regina and I found ourselves in a Scottish bar surrounded by, of all things, a bunch of drunken Scots. One of them–Murray–kept asking us the same question over and over, which, due to a combination of his accent and all of our various levels of inebriation, came out sounding to us like “Wanya ga furbyin’?” After asking him to repeat himself several times we could tell that he was starting to get irritated, and so, in desperation, we finally just said, “Sure. Ok.” At which point we found ourselves whisked into a cab with several of the drunkest Scots (including our questioner), and driven down a dark Scottish road to, presumably, a dank cellar filled with torture devices and piles of freshly cleaned American-girl bones. (What was it they said in An American Werewolf in London? “Stick to the road, stay clear of the bars”?). Luckily for us, the place we ended up at turned out to be nothing more sinister than another bar, filled with another set of drunken Scots. (When we saw the name of the place–The Far Bay Inn–Murray’s persistent question suddenly started to make sense).

This experience taught us a valuable lesson: never give an answer to a question which you don’t fully comprehend. It was too bad we had to wait until we were in our twenties to learn it, though, especially as that probably means that–at ages seven and eleven–it will be many a year before my children finally figure that one out for themselves.

In a way, I guess that, as parents, we’re partially to blame; after all, we do kind of start them down the road of misunderstanding when we try to teach them basic manners as infants. “What do you say?” we prompt them, at occasions as diverse as receiving a present, asking for a cookie, and stepping on their playmate’s gerbil. “What do you say?” And, like the poor traveler who only knows three phrases of the native language–and even then manage to confuse them–the poor toddler is left to guess at which answer (please, thank you, or sorry) will most quickly please his inquisitor. (Let’s see, I just squished this little mouse thing and everyone is glaring at me– ‘Thank you?’ No, that’s not it–‘Please?’ Oh crap, it must be ‘Sorry.’” ).

It would be one thing if this language confusion ended in toddler-hood; however, (as we saw from our Scottish encounter), it usually only gets worse. Case in point: “I forgot.” Somewhere along the line, children started confusing “I forgot” with “I got caught,” to the point where, eventually, they became interchangeable.

“Why didn’t you put you plate in the sink?”–“I forgot.”

“Why aren’t you wearing any underwear?”–“I forgot.”

“Why did you go into the bathroom, run the shower for twenty minutes, splash some water on your face and then come out pretending you had taken a shower?”–“I forgot.”

Again, just as in toddler-hood, when this phrase fails to have a suitably soothing effect, they begin to toss more and more phrases into the mix in a desperate attempt at appeasement, because now they are no longer simply the traveler with limited language skills, they are that same traveler after he has been stopped at the border with 27 live parrots stuffed down his pants. “I forgot” becomes “I didn’t know” becomes “It won’t happen again”–anything to stop the inquisition, because now they aren’t so much answering this particular question as trying to forestall any new ones. In fact, after awhile you might as well be asking them if they “wanya ga furbyin.” Although, at least with children, it is unlikely that you will ever get them to just say “yes.”

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Of all the questions I get asked concerning my column, probably the one that I hear most frequently is: but how do your kids feel about it? My answer–as it so often is when it comes to children–is: it depends. For instance, my son, Clyde, is totally nonchalant about the whole thing: in his “I love everybody/everybody loves me” world, there really is no such thing as bad publicity–it’s all good. And then again, there’s the fact that, he is, after all, a guy; in other words, he just doesn’t notice it.

Clementine, on the other hand–being a girl–is much more cognizant of what’s going on; not only does she recognize that I write this column every week, but she is also savvy enough to realize when I am on the lookout for column fodder. When she decided to trim off her eyebrows to Bob Geldof, (The Wall) levels, the first thing she asked me was not how long would it take for them to grow back, but rather how long before I wrote about it. (The answer? About three months–for both).

Sometimes, of course, people don’t just ask me what my kids think about this column; they ask me how I can do that to them. To these people I always tell them one of three things: one, that I had the chance to meet Erma Bombeck’s children a few years ago in Dayton, Ohio, and that they were all completely normal and well-adjusted, (and, in the case of the youngest son, downright HOT); two, that at least I don’t turn my kids into creepy little Hallmark ads haunted by dead Grandpa the way that Bil Keane does; and three, that if my kids don’t like it they can always get their revenge a la Mommy Dearest. As my favorite writing teacher used to say: writing well is the best revenge.

In the case of number three, however; while I might say that they are welcome to get their revenge in their own writing, the truth is that I’ve always believed that I would have years and years to prepare myself before those literary chickens came home to roost–years until the unflattering biographies started coming out. After all, I figured they would at least have to learn the basics of a five paragraph essay before they could pillory me in print, or even how to successfully use spell check. Unfortunately, though, I forgot about one thing: the song. I forgot that you don’t have to know how to spell to write a song.

That’s why it caught me off guard when Clementine wrote her first angsty rock song about me. It’s about my supposed cleaning “fetish,” and it’s called “Put It Away.” In it, I come across as some sort of neurotic neat freak. In other words, it is spot on.

It kicks off with a sort of primal scream, which, as Clementine delights in telling her audience, is the sound I make whenever I walk in the front door and find the living room knee-deep in books, shoes, toys, and teetering glasses of sticky lemonade. Then it launches into the chorus:

Put your things away/ before I throw them in the trash/and if I find them out again/I will kick you in the [electric keyboard bleep]. (That last part is actually an improvement over my usual vocabulary; I don’t often carry around a keyboard so that I can bleep myself, although I probably should.)

Although this is only her first foray into song-writing revenge, something tells me that it won’t be her last. That is, if she can only start remembering to put her amp and bass away when she’s done with them. They’re both rentals, so I can’t really “throw it in the trash.” I can, however, still kick her in the [electric keyboard bleep].

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