February 23, 2011

Taco Tuesday, and Other Union-Related Issues

Picky eaters. I've got 'em, you've got 'em, everyone's got 'em.

I struggle daily with the question of whether or not my kids will ever willingly eat a vegetable or turn down a french fry. I want them to eat healthy, balanced meals, but these days, I'm lucky to sneak some corn past them and into their burritos.

Mealtimes at our house are no different than playing roulette. In the game of roulette, you pick a number, place your bet on the table, and cross your fingers and toes while rubbing your lucky rabbit's foot, hoping your number will hit. In the game of dinner, my wife and I pick a meal, place the plates on the table, and cross our fingers and toes while rubbing our lucky rabbit's foot, hoping the meal will be a hit. I'm not sure which game has lower odds; it's pretty close.

I was puzzled when this trend started, but recently, I learned that, in fact, neither luck nor my cooking has anything to do with it. What we're dealing with, parents, is a very strong and influential organization that lurks behind the scenes: the Union for the Undertall and Underaged.

When our kids were babies, we fed them with blissful ignorance of what was to come. We gave them a bottle four times a day, spooned out the obligatory peas, apricots, and rice cereal at mealtimes without a peep of complaint from them, and thought it would always be this way. Then, around the age of one, we started to notice some changes. For a while, we had a full week's worth of basic menu items that were a sure bet and could be repeated as necessary, but over time, the number of sure things has slowly dwindled to two: macaroni and cheese and peanut butter and jelly. Everything else is guaranteed to bring about an impromptu protest from at least one of the kids, complete with picket signs and rhyming chants, like "Chicken and rice? Yuck!". OK, they're still working on the rhyming part.

But where do kids get picket signs that scream "Say NO to Vegetable Oppression!"? I mean, they can't even spell "vegetable". I started to wonder: are they backed by some kind of kids' union, one in which the collective bargaining agreement mandates a certain quota of mac-n-cheese and PB&J and allows kids to set their own bedtimes? These were my cynical and slightly exasperated thoughts as I slogged through another challenging meal last week, amused by the absurdity of the idea. But my amusement and perplexity were not to last for long.

All doubt and humor were removed when the lawyers showed up with shiny cease and desist orders and even shinier Armani suits and Gucci shoes. The cease and desist orders were to ensure we served no more broccoli or peas, and the shiny suits were to ensure our intimidation, no doubt. I'm proud to say it didn't work. We turned right around and served peas with grim resolve that very night, but the kids didn't budge. They just pointed to article twelve of the collective bargaining agreement (which I don't remember agreeing to, by the way), pushed their plates away, and started chanting, "Peas, peas, they make us wheeze, we'd rather eat some stinky cheese!" I'll give them credit for the creative rhyme, but it surely won't make me stop serving them green stuff. Let's just see if they can come up with a rhyme for "broccoli".

All kidding aside, there are some things you just can't force your kids to do before they're ready. This includes potty training, petting slobbery dogs, and yes, eating vegetables. They won't starve or have accidents in their pants forever, so we parents have to simply offer our best guidance with loving firmness and keep serving peas; they'll get it eventually.

Just ask my mom, who used to serve me lentils; the Union for the Undertall and Underaged can never stand for long against a determined and patient parent.

February 15, 2011

A Bad Day

Here's how Ellie feels when she's having a bad day. She's saying, "Don't mess with me. I ain't in the mood."

We all have those days. They remind us that we can't control everything and that overall, we've actually got it pretty good. They keep us somewhat grounded.

I'm not talking about a day during which you have a couple of minor setbacks that don't really matter in the grand scheme of things, a simple flat tire on the way to work or something like that. We can deal with that and move on. I'm referring to the kind of day that starts with a nasty shaving cut and spilled coffee on your new shirt to go along with the early-morning argument you have with your significant other, proceeds to a dead car battery that you could easily give a jump if you could find your jumper cables, which necessitates a tow to the shop where you find out the problem is actually an $800 repair job for a new fuel pump, and you have to meekly ask to borrow your still-upset significant other's car so you can make it to work, already knowing you'll catch some flak for missing an important meeting, and then experience the flat tire on the way to the office. And all this before 9 AM. These are the days when Murphy's Law is in full effect. Thankfully, they don't come along very often.

I had a bad day last week. I had car problems which did indeed turn into an $800 repair. I missed the call from Brady's preschool teacher about a tea party we hadn't heard about, so he was the only kid there without a parent. I felt terrible. I finally got to work and had phone problems. No spilled coffee or flat tires, but still one of those days.

For no particular reason, this got me thinking that there should be a scale by which to measure the level of badness in a bad day, so just for fun, I decided to dream one up. Scales can be fun; they give us order from chaos, a way to measure things, or, if you're a snake, a skin that's highly conducive to slithering. A scale is also a very ill-advised Valentine's Day gift to give your gal; that's a great way to get your gift thrown in a dumpster and your butt thrown on the couch for a few days. The Biggest Loser has highly-distressed industrial-strength scales. Earthquakes have the Richter scale. And why should those scales get to have all the fun? So for bad days, I've invented the Paris Scale.

On this scale, bad days are ranked from 1 to 10, with "1" being a nagging hangnail and "10" being a day in which you wake up to discover that Paris Hilton has been elected President, created cabinet positions for each of her BFFs, and changed the color of all nuclear weapon triggers from red to pink because red is SO 2006. Admit it; you'd be hard-pressed to think of a worse day.

My day last week was maybe a 5 on the Paris Scale, certainly not fun, but I'm over it. It brought to mind, however, a day about a year and a half ago that would have probably ranked a good deal higher, and here's the kid tie-in to this rather long post. The funny thing about that day is that I only remember two things about that day in particular: first, that it was just a rough day in general, and second, that it was the day Brady decided to call 911.


My wife was at home with a slightly colicky baby Ellie and a three-year-old Brady, who was discovering his independence and the wealth of practical knowledge he had at his fingertips. My wonderful wife is a remarkably competent mom, but a colicky baby mixed with a precocious toddler is a recipe for stress that would be taxing to anyone, and I knew we had issues when I got a panicky call from her as I pulled into our street on the way home from work.

We had been talking to Brady the previous day about what to do if there was an emergency, but I don't think we had laid out the ground rules quite clearly enough. Apparently, he called 911 twice while my wife was in the other room with Ellie, and of course, the police have to respond to a call like that. I never found out why he did it, but when you pull into your driveway to find a police car and two officers inside your house, the "why" doesn't matter. I felt like a horrible parent, like my son was entering a life of crime fresh off of potty training, like the police thought we abused our kids, but when the cops left and we'd had some time to cool down, we got to do some snuggling on the couch and talk about the lesson Brady had learned. Needless to say, he won't do that again. The Day The Cops Came made quite the impression on him.

Ever had a really bad day as a parent? Where would it fall on the Paris Scale? I'd love to hear about it, as long as it doesn't involve chihuahuas in pink sweaters. That's just wrong.

February 3, 2011

An Anatomy Lesson

We're curious by nature, we humans.

As babies, we discover things by chomping on them and seeing how much drool we can coat them with. It's a great method of exploration, really. It teaches us about textures, hard vs. soft, and which things stand up well to the chew test. A teething ring is A-OK. The cat's tail, not so much.

As toddlers, we learn the hard way, much to our parents' dismay. Their warnings about hot stoves and jumping head-first from our bunk beds are meaningless until we experience the results for ourselves, hopefully without any lasting injury. Eventually, it starts to sink in that mom and dad just might be onto something with their guidance, and it might go something like this: if I hit my sister, I get a major time-out or a spanking, neither of which are particularly pleasant, so I will therefore think twice before carrying out my revenge on her for stealing my Legos. We learn the concept of cause and effect in a hurry. Frankly, I'm amazed so many of us survive.

Around the same time, we get pretty curious about the anatomical differences we observe while in the bathtub with our siblings. We observe that we have one type of thing and our brothers or sisters have a different type of thing, so we realize that if we're going to be walking around with this thing for the rest of our lives, we should probably know what the heck it is and that it wouldn't be a bad idea to discover the name for the other thing while we're at it. Therefore, we ask our parents very pointed questions at unexpected times that can catch them flat-footed and stammering for an answer on the spur of the moment.

It's important for us, as parents, to be at least somewhat prepared for these questions when they come. We don't want to give our kids any reason to feel embarrassed. I think we did pretty well with Brady, staying very matter-of-fact and acting as if it was the most natural thing in the world for him to ask and us to answer these questions, which it was, but let's be honest: I have yet to meet a parent who doesn't feel at least a little bit squirmy when answering them for the first time. Especially us dads, for some reason. It's natural to feel that way, but we have to remember that they're just curious and we have the information they need. Just be cool, shoot it to them straight, and you'll be fine. It's not as if you have to have the sex talk with your two-year-old daughter, dads. You've got a few more years to sweat that one out.

That being said, I admit I was caught off guard the other night during bath time. Not by a question, but by Brady's explanation to Ellie about the facts as he saw them. Turns out we have a thing or two to review with him.

Brady has proudly announced what he has more than once. He's a boy. We do that. And since Ellie hadn't questioned us directly about her anatomy to that point, she only had one term in her vocabulary that she could employ: the one she had learned from Brady. But that was just the beginning of the conversation. Here's how it went down:

Ellie (after openly studying baby Riley for a little while): Daddy, my have a penis!
Me: Oh.....No, honey, only boys have a penis.
Brady (in a very condescending tone): Yeah, Ellie, girls have a virus.

Yes, a virus.

A thousand replies on the tip of my tongue, many of them inappropriate for the present company, I sat speechless for a moment. I badly wanted to blurt out, "Well, son, some certainly do, but you'll want to stay far away from those ones." Then I realized that this was a good teaching moment and that I should probably take the opportunity set them straight, so I did what any self-respecting parent would do: I fell on the floor laughing.

For some reason, I never did get around to correcting them. I'll have another chance soon, no doubt. Sometimes you're just so flat-out floored by what your kids come up with that you can't help but be caught up in the moment, and setting them straight just doesn't matter.

You don't have to seize every teaching moment. Sometimes, it's OK to just sit back and laugh.