This week, my mother shared with my daughter a lovely little tradition that has been going in my family for many years: dyeing Easter eggs. And folks, I’m talking old school. Hard-boiled eggs dipped into vinegar-based dyes of red, blue, and yellow. No stencils, no paints, no fancy tricks. Just a dozen eggs, three dyes, and a whole lot of love. Also stickers, since my child feels about stickers the way Portlandia feels about birds
She couldn’t wait to show us; when we picked her up, she urged us to take them back to her room and hide them so she could search for them. She hurriedly skipped out to the parking lot, swinging her bright pink basket front to back, singing back to us, “Hide them and find them!”
That’s when a bright blue egg jumped off the neon green plastic grass cushion and fell to the concrete with a dull splat
. White spider-web crack patterns shone through the blue-sky dye. “Uh oh,” she said.
“Oops,” I said. “Better throw that one away.”
“It will still hide!” she insisted.
“No, it won’t,” I explained, “the smell will give it away.”
The next casualties came when a bright yellow egg shifted from atop two other eggs and dropped with a crunch onto another blue egg.
“Now I don’t have any blue ones!” she lamented.
These eggs didn’t even leave the basket. Her enthusiasm just for carrying
the eggs turned that little basket into a production of Ten Little Indians.
It doesn’t take much for an excited child to damage eggs. The irony is that the more colorful and beautiful they are, the more excited she is, and the more likely to damage them. If the goal had been egg survival, then we shouldn’t have dyed them.
That wasn’t the goal, of course. The goal was her excitement and fun, and it was roundly accomplished. The eggs didn’t last long, and I suppose her excitement didn’t really, either. But it was worth it to see her skipping down the sidewalk with her Easter basket. That was a beautiful moment. An extravagant waste of eggs for one lovely moment of joy. Love is like that.
Fragile and easily broken, less likely to survive the more beautiful and colorful it is. But survival isn’t really the goal of love. We so often fool ourselves into thinking that our love’s delicate nature demands we protect and shelter it instead of the opposite: that we lavish it upon others with little regard for the return in yields. Love is most extravagant when we freely and gladly give it away without concern for who might drop it or crack it or carelessly mishandle it.
I would say love is extravagant when we waste it, but truthfully love is only wasted when we protect it.
This Easter season, I am reminded of the connection between love and brokenness. Love seeks out the broken, and the broken allows the magnificent radiance of love to shine through more sharply. Love gives of itself with extravagant wastefulness, without any frugality or shrewdness. Love does not save itself away for a rainy day; love does not perform cost-benefit analysis; love does not seek dividend investment returns. Love is a gift, a handout, a free meal, a carefully dyed Easter egg that won’t even make it to the car.
If I’d chided my mother on wasting an entire carton of eggs on my daughter’s Easter basket – she could have just done a few – I know exactly what she would have said to me. “Honey, they’re just eggs
. I can get more.” But even if she couldn’t
get more, even if those had been the last eggs on earth, I suspect she would still have dyed them and given them away without regret. We will always have that image in our hearts of her skipping down the walkway with her Easter basket, happy and joyful and excited. That is love. Fragile and fleeting, which is exactly why we give it away without second thought. It does nothing waiting pale and cold in the darkness.
My child will have moved on from her Easter eggs before long, I’m sure. That’s fine; there will be new joys awaiting her around the corner. I believe that there will be plenty of love for her in her life, just as I know there will be brokenness and frailty. That is what makes those moments so pure and powerful. We will remember the love we give away and celebrate our willingness to be broken and cracked for others. And in a parking lot somewhere there are tiny shards of bright blue egg shells bringing just a little bit of color to an otherwise drab slab of concrete.
I’ve long ago given up on hopes that this blog will catch fire and that the unfilled niche of parenting reflections with a mash-up of spirituality and developmental psychology from a father of a girl will rejoice at my work. This is why it surprises me that my blog is such a hotspot for spam. The spam, strangely, comes in the form of comments to blog posts that are over a month old. Here is the most recent comment:
“I harmonize with your conclusions and will thirstily look forward to your approaching updates”
This comment was left by “Lipozene Reviews” several days ago on a blog entry I posted this past December. It’s an Advent-themed post. I am sure that Mr. Reviews will be very disappointed that the only person who sees this comment will be me – and that would be true even if I didn’t delete spam comments. Not sure exactly who Lipozene – if he were my friend, I’d surely call him Big Boy Lipo, or maybe just Zeeny – thinks is going to read his comment, and maybe click on his junk link, when it’s buried on an old page of a microscopically unimportant blog attempting to fill a niche so small no one knows it needs filling.
Another person who apparently harmonizes with my conclusions is my good friend Transmission Line Tower, who wrote on a post in January:
“Your blog provided us valuable information.”
This is great news, Ms. Line Tower. By “us,” I assume you mean you and your parenting partner Overhead Power Line as you bring up your darling twins High Voltage AC and High Voltage DC. I applaud your command of the English language and feel particularly gratified that my peculiar musings on my child sleeping through the night without diapers was valuable information for you. I trust you will carry that information to a handful of other people.
Like emails from Nigerian princes desperately seeking to give away millions of dollars, this seems like a phishing scam that is far more work than any conceivable benefit. And, like those Nigerian princes, I guess that the assumption is that 99% of blog-owners will be smart enough to delete the comments without a second thought. But perhaps there is some idiot somewhere who actually buys that there is a real person behind that link who likes their blog, and so the clicking commences and web traffic hits are driven up. I’m honestly kind of jealous. And, truthfully, it’s a tactic I’ve used as well. Perhaps there are a few very famous bloggers on the internets who have comments in their posts from me that have my blog website attached.
I suppose we all try to get what we need. Or what we want; we’re rarely clear on the difference. My child uses equally dubious methods for getting cookies or more screen time or being allowed to wear shorts in an ice storm. She’ll promise things no human being could ever deliver – “I’ll be good for always!” Or she’ll tell me her grandmother lets her; which might very well be true, but doesn’t at all win the point. Or she’ll just throw herself on the floor and wail and scream. This one always amazes me, because this pretty much 100% insures that she doesn’t get the thing she wants or much of anything else. Maybe sometimes she’ll just spam us with all of them all at once, as if a sudden barrage would overwhelm our capacity to see through the façade. You’d think parents would be completely wise, but there is someone somewhere who replies to the Nigerian prince. And there are parents in the world who foolishly give in to those crazy toddler demands in the exasperated hope that the child will peacefully submit and behave without somehow having such terrible patterns reinforced. You know, now that I mention it, I may have replied to that email before...
So this post is for you, spammers. As ridiculous as you seem, you’re no more ridiculous than my three-year-old. All of us adults fall for such simple-minded tactics now and again, purely because we are suckers for promises of easy peace and quick fortune. So I will not delete any spam posts left on this particular post. Let this post be the one that serves as safe haven for spam. Post away, bots. I thirstily look forward to your approaching awkwardly translated generic praise and non sequitur weblinks. If being a parent has taught me anything, it’s that we never completely outgrow the desire to act out childish behavior or our tendencies to respond to it.
Here are some things that my three-year-old daughter finds hilarious.
1) The word “poopie.”
2) Calling me by the name of some kind of food; i.e., “Hey there, cucumber!”
3) The word “booty.”
4) Being tickled.
5) The word “doodie.”
6) When she unexpectedly makes us laugh at something cute or strange she says or does.
7) The word “pootie.”
8) Singing a familiar song but substituting words for silly noises; i.e., “The wheels on the bus go pthhh-pthhh-pthhh.”
9) Telling imaginary stories that involve people pooping on things.
10) The word “tootie.”
There are plenty of theories in the world about what makes something funny. The unexpected defiance of expectations, expressions of superiority over others seen as less, relief for expressions of anxiety and fear, and one new theory called the “benign violation theory
.” Like any complex human experience, I doubt there is one single unified explanation for what makes something funny. I do, however, contend that you don’t have to be very old to understand something as funny. Our sense of humor grows and changes as we grow and change, but the basic concept stays the same and it starts early.
For instance, take my daughter’s immense entertainment around words that rhyme with “duty.” I can’t say I find these words quite as hilarious as she does (and she does find them HI
-larious), but they do sound a little silly. She will just string them together and giggle endlessly: “Doodie pootie tootie!” To really drive this joke home, she’ll insert it into an otherwise normal sentence: “Today at school we booty tootied!” It’s so funny because you never saw it coming!
Unless, of course, it’s the fifth time she’s said it in the past three minutes.
I tend to believe in the theory of incongruity. Humor occurs when something does not fit our expectations. This, for me, covers nearly all other theories. It explains why my child loves those “what’s wrong with this picture” puzzles in her Highlights
magazines. A kangaroo at the grocery store? What?
That’s silly. It explains why it’s hilarious to call me a cucumber. It also explains why we most often laugh at her
: she’ll say or do something simultaneously adult and child-like at the same time, repeating things out of context or mispronouncing words. This week, while showing me a scrape she’d acquired on the playground, she blurted out, “Bless my heart!” Which, of course, made me laugh. It was unexpected to hear my child repeat a lovely Southern phrase (already loaded with dense implications of humor) reflexively. But of course, she laughed when I laughed. She had no idea why I was laughing, which is what made it so funny to her: she didn’t know she’d said anything funny, except that she must have because I was laughing.
Humor goes beyond just seeing something out of the ordinary. Plenty of humor is based upon a subversion or violation of social norms. I could name plenty of comedians who traffic heavily in this sort of humor, but the most obvious example in my life is my child’s fascination with poop stories.
For example, I will ask her what she did at school today. She will tell me the name of a friend she played with. I will ask what they did together. She will say, “He pooped in my eye.” Then she will erupt with raucous laughter. Another favorite story she loves to tell is about a cowboy who poops on his horse and then eats the horse. She can tell this story with improvised embellishments worthy of “The Aristocrats.” It never fails to bring the house down (if by “the house” we mean “her”).
Now, this phenomenon is a bit disturbing to me. I suppose that, within the proper comedic context, I could laugh at a story involving someone pooping on something. Triumph the Insult Comic Dog
made this exact joke funny over and over again. So why is it not so funny when it’s my daughter? Well, because it’s my daughter.
Who is three. And is my daughter.
A cheap puppet dog saying this to unsuspecting bystanders? Hysterical. My three-year-old telling this to me while I’m tucking her into bed? Hmm.
Of course, that’s what makes it so funny to her
. She can see my discomfort. Hell, she’s not even allowed to say the word “poopie” at her school. Her teacher tells her it’s a “potty word.” Which it totally is.
Which is why it’s so entertaining. What child doesn’t delight in making adults squirm? I suppose she’d stop finding it so funny if we started genuinely punishing her for it. But we don’t because, well, that would just be harsh. (So it’s a benign violation.) I deeply believe in humor as a beautiful gift from God. And I mean all humor; I love dirty, subversive, offensive humor more than most people. I also subscribe to the belief that humor is a release valve for our fears and anxieties (which was Freud’s theory), and given the kind of work I do and the kind of suffering I see, I rely on dark, black humor to help me face the world. I may not find my daughter’s repetition of potty words terribly funny, but I completely appreciate what my daughter is doing when she makes them. She, too, needs some dark humor to cope with the powerlessness and confusion of being three. What impresses me more than her subversive little poopie humor is that she understands the world she’s subverting.
Young people get their news from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart
not just because it’s so funny, but because that show has such an insightful understanding of the political landscape (which is what makes it so funny). Children everywhere make poopie jokes because they understand the social expectations that make them slightly taboo.
The next time I hear about the cowboy who poops on his horse and then eats it, I will be smiling a little to myself. Not so much because I’m super amused, but because my child is only three and she already understands the sophisticated mechanism of humor. My child is fully living the human experience and it makes me feel doodie tootie.
Last Friday night, as soon as Curly Fries got home from school, she threw up all over the kitchen floor.
Diagnosis: too much corn.
Parentally, there is a process one goes through immediately after your child pukes. First of all, there is a knee-jerk reaction to get out of the way. This isn’t parental, really; I think this is pretty universal. No normal person enjoys getting puked on. After that initial normal-human jump-back, there’s another reflexive parental reaction, which I consider much like a first responder’s reaction: moving toward
the distress. This is, I think, less
reflexive than the jumping away. But parents love their kids and tend to move towards them when in distress. Of course, when I heard the retch and saw that there was a good bit of fluid leaving her mouth, I wanted to run. But then I understood what was happening, saw the same revulsion and surprise on her face, and I rushed into the kitchen to rub her back.
Then comes the damage assessment. What was thrown up on and how easily can it be cleaned? Are there any ways to mitigate the damage while it occurs? Is there a trash can nearby? How much vomit will get trailed if I just swoop her up and haul her away to a toilet right now? Decisions are made while stomach contents are still being expelled, usually involving lots of towels. My first thought was, “Man, am I glad she didn’t do this in the car.” It was much easier for me to stay empathetic and present with her since the kitchen floor is linoleum and easy to clean.
Next is the diagnostic phase. What is making my child sick? This involves some basic sleuthing – noting the time, the onset of symptoms, the contents of the vomit. Once your child is old enough to communicate verbally, there is the possibility of getting a report directly from them. This phase might last a while. In this instance, I had data prior to the event. Her teacher told me when I picked her up that she was complaining about her stomach hurting; she told me again in the car. “Are you hungry?” I’d asked her. “Do you think you could eat?”
“I’ll eat when we get home,” she said. “All I had for lunch was corn.”
“You only ate corn? You didn’t eat anything else?”
“I didn’t want anything else,” she said.
This account was confirmed by the contents on the kitchen floor.
Afterwards, I asked her more questions. When had she started feeling sick? The afternoon. Did she feel sick at lunch time while she was eating? No. Did the corn taste funny when she was eating it? No. “It was yummy,” she said with a shrug. And then, somewhat bashfully, “I ate a lot
I see. This information, coupled with the lack of fever and the apparent good health of all the other kids in her class, helped to rule out a stomach bug.
The diagnostic phase doesn’t end right away. By its nature, it lasts a while. She might develop a fever or diarrhea in the night, or be unable to hold down foods twenty-four hours later. So as this phase develops, the clean-up phase continues. Laundry was started, a bath was run, hair was washed. The kitchen was mopped, bedsheets were stripped (she threw up again in her bed), Lysol was liberally applied to everything within three feet of anything vomit had touched.
The last phase is, of course, the worry and heartbreak. I can still hear her pitiful voice asking in between heaves, “When will it stop?” What do you say to that question while you child is puking on herself? “I don’t know, baby. Soon, I hope.” After throwing up on her bedsheets, she said, “I’m sorry.”
Can you believe that? She apologized
for getting sick. When she throws a fit and scratches me for redirecting her, she refuses to apologize. But she’ll apologize when she involuntarily gets sick on herself?
Well, sure. When we're sick, we need others.
We need someone to take care of us. Sudden physical illness provokes shame and fear with a visceral impact, and what else can we do when we feel that kind of shame and fear with other people around? You don’t have to be very old to try reaching out with apologies and mea culpas
when we’re sick and desperate for help.
And it works, oh my God. I barely slept that night. And at three o’clock in the morning, when I heard her calling out, “Daddy! Daddy!” I was awake as fast as if there were a fire in the house, bounding through the darkness to the side of her bed.
“Are you sick?” I asked.
“No. I want you to rock me to sleep.”
There is something sacred in frailty and illness, something of the divine in brokenness and weakness. What is love other than washing vomit out of your child’s hair or scooping pieces of corn out of the debris trap in the washing machine? (The skin of a corn kernel is unbelievably resilient.) Laundry and baths, wet rags and trash bags, sleepless nights: these are the things that love is made of. Nothing brings us closer to the ones we love like sickness, helplessness, and fear. Facing these very things is what love is for. Love is rushing towards distress and weakness; love is never hesitating to touch and clean dirt and mess; love embraces brokenness, not to fix it, but to cherish the beauty of that which is fragile.
She was back to her normal self on Saturday. She ate cereal for breakfast, she ran circles around us, she played with her buddy at the museum. I still worried about her, the intensity decreasing ever so slightly as the day progressed. I also grieved her frailty, her susceptibility to the simplest of things – too much corn! – and the tiny little moments when our weaknesses bring us closer together. I hate it when she is sick. But I love that I have the privilege of caring for her.
Last night, Curly Fries started doing a peculiar thing. We were reading a book before bed, and on every page she saw one of the child characters, she’d point to the kid and shout something. It didn’t make sense to me and I let it go at first, but she did it on every page. Halfway through the book I asked her what she was saying. I had to repeat it back several times, and what I think she was saying was “Rallywave.”
“What does ‘rallywave’ mean?” I asked her.
“It’s when you push a button in the elevator and it spins around really fast.”
“So, rallywave means pushing a button in an elevator so it spins around really fast?”
“Yeah. And then there’s lots of grass on the ground.”
“That makes no sense.”
It still doesn’t make any sense, and if any of you have any clues to help me understand this, I’m all ears. She didn’t care that it didn’t make sense to me, though; she continued to shout “Rallywave!” at the kids in the book, happily unconcerned with my assessment of her new word.
Toddlers are funny creatures, and they do funny things. My initial response to her invention of a nonsense word was not, however, amusement. It was annoyance. I was annoyed at this silly word she’d made up. It seemed stupid and ridiculous. I’m all for my kid doing funny, random, silly things. Earlier this week she went to our closed pantry door and sang, “Elsa? Do you wanna build a snowman?” Now, that is adorable. I’ll share that one all over Facebook. But shouting a made up word at characters in a storybook? That’s just weird.
If I learn anything from watching my little girl, it’s that she is courageous. It takes no small amount of courage to fully live in your own world. But it takes even more courage to let other people into your world without fear of judgment or correction. I love that she hasn’t yet learned to be ashamed or preoccupied with what other people think about her universe. (I do sometimes wish she cared more about what I thought, but I guess you can only have so much.) I am reminded by her casual confidence in her own experience that there is something powerful and freeing to not only embrace the life you live within your truest self, but to let other people see it. Maybe I can learn to live my own life, but I’m not sure that I have the courage to let others see it for fear that they would think the very thing I thought: that’s silly and weird.
Curly Fries does not know that she is silly and weird, and - so far - she doesn’t seem to care. I hope that she can hold on to that for as long as possible. I hope that I can find a little taste of that for myself. May we all rallywave a little more.
This has been a remarkably good week. Measured by how well-behaved my child has been, that is. Work has kind of sucked and the weather has gone from a beautiful spring weekend to windy, wintry mix. Lent has also begun, that bleak season of repentance and reflection marked my ashes and talk of sin.
All that gloom beside, my child has been unbelievably sweet and cooperative this week. Bedtime was off to a tough start at the beginning of the week. Perhaps one night of being up late refusing to go to sleep wore out her defiant resolve, reducing her to a wearied compliance. She’s eaten well, she’s been polite, and after that first night went to bed easily and quietly all week. There have been few tantrums, and they’ve all been short-lived and quickly redirected. She’s been good to say “thank you,” and effortlessly entertain herself and there have been no accidents in her panties or thrown food or time-outs and on several occasions I’ve heard her sing “Let It Go.” So I’ve had a pretty wonderful week with my daughter.
Maybe it’s just me, but it makes me feel like there is penitence in the air.
I know my daughter is not old enough to understand what it means to repent, to “turn away” from her sin, to ponder the ways she fails to live up to her best self. Honestly, I’m not convinced that a three-year-old is really capable of sin in any kind of personal responsibility kind of way. She knows what our rules are and that there are consequences if she breaks them, but she can’t grasp the inherent moral rightness or wrongness of her actions. But it sure has seemed as if she’s made a concerted effort this week to turn from her obstinate ways and live more fully into her better nature.
I don’t know that I can really say the same for myself. Not that I’ve been any worse a human being this week. I can say I’ve been a more mellow father, but only because that’s easy when your kid is well-behaved. But at work, and driving through town, and negotiating my usual adult responsibilities, I’ve made little to no effort to reflect and prepare. Lent is forty days, so I’ve still got time, but I’m off to a slow start. I spent Ash Wednesday running from one thing to the next like I always do. I had ashes on my head the whole time, but that’s about the only thing that was any different about me.
In the Southern Baptist church I grew up in, we didn’t do Lent. We skipped right victory and Easter. Stopping and spending forty days – forty days! – reflecting on our weaknesses and failings? Yuck. I heard some colleagues tell me yesterday that there was a Catholic church in town that did drive-through ashes. Literally, people drove through the parking lot and the priest put the ashes on their foreheads through the window. That’s a little more our pace, isn’t it? Quick, convenient, as little disruption as possible.
Then again, I’m not one for dramatic self-flagellation, either. Doesn’t seem much purpose to it, nor does it carry much grace. Like many of us post-modern Christians trying to recover from a strict conservative evangelical upbringing, I squirm at the mention of sin as if this is a slippery slope into Calvinist discussions of depravity and sinners in the hands of an angry God. And yet this resistance to self-loathing might close me off to the very real ways that I fail to be better at, well, being. For me, the challenge of Lent is finding the balance between self-hatred and letting ourselves off the hook for the ways our brokenness perpetuates needless suffering in the world.
Perhaps my daughter really is teaching me most clearly about the opportunity that Lent provides: to slow down and do better at being ourselves. Maybe penitence means to give thanks for small gifts and celebrate small victories and let our tantrums pass as quickly as they come. Maybe penitence means we can find some measure of contentment in where we are so that we need less time-outs. Maybe penitence means we can sing “Let It Go” and sleep easier at night. Maybe there’s still time this Lent for me to be penitent and have a little more grace in my life.
We read a lot of books to our daughter. It’s still part of our bedtime routine, and it’s not uncommon for her to want books at other times of the day. She’s getting more interactive and conversant with the books she loves, “reading” them back to us with remarkable accuracy and recall. She is also quick to relate them to her own experiences. One particular relation she often makes is with any of her books featuring sea creatures. “I saw that at the aquarium,” she often says.
This strikes me as memorable for several reasons. First of all, she’s always correct. She has indeed seen these things at the aquarium. Sea turtles, fish of various shapes, sharks, crabs, penguins, even divers. Secondly, she can pronounce “aquarium” correctly. Last of all, what I find most significant is that it’s been nearly a year since she went to the aquarium and she still remembers what she saw there.
There are lots of reasons that the aquarium should be memorable to her. She’s been twice. (There’s a Ripley’s Aquarium in Tennessee that we’ve taken her to the past two springs.) She really has two different experiences of this aquarium to draw on. Of course, the most obvious reason she would remember the aquarium is because it’s awesome. Aquariums are super cool. I don’t care how old you are, watching jellyfish float through a blue tank is a blissful experience. Looking at giant crabs is not something you get to do every day. Getting up close with a hammerhead shark is awe-inspiring and chill-inducing, even if there is a foot of plexiglass in between you. What kid wouldn’t remember these experiences?
It’s not just the aquarium, though. She remembers playgrounds and the equipment she played on. She remembers games she played with friends and activities she did at church. She talks about the pumpkin patch we saw in October and the giraffes she saw at the zoo. She remembers any out-of-the-ordinary sight she sees: a fender bender, a man in a tree trimming branches, a colorful display at the grocery store. It’s quite common for her to relate something she sees or hears to an experience she’s had. Or, for that matter, for her to just bring it up out of nowhere: “I saw kitties at the kitty show with Grandmommy.”
You know what I don’t hear from her very often? How much she loves her toys. Occasionally she may see a doll or figure and say, “I have that toy.” But I don’t really ever hear her say, “I want to go home and play with my dolls.” That’s not to say she doesn’t play with her toys and enjoy doing it. I just don’t hear her remembering her toys with the same fondness as she remembers her experiences.
I’ve heard it said that people who spend their money on experiences – vacations, concerts, family outings, etc. – are happier than people who spend their money on things. This seemed odd to me when I heard it, because I don’t think that way. An experience is over; you spend money on a vacation, but then when the vacation is over, it’s gone. A possession lasts longer. Maybe not forever, but usually longer than an experience. I suppose that’s the appeal of buying souvenirs from vacations: I want to have something to show for it.
I’m clearly being too tangible in my thinking. My daughter is quickly and resoundingly showing me that the memories of life experiences outlast the impact of things. I feel foolish that I have to re-learn this lesson, but what better teacher than a four-year-old who is encountering the world through fresh, curious eyes? A toy will get buried in the back of the closet and she’ll forget she even has it. But seeing zebras at the zoo? She hasn’t forgotten that. Chasing bubbles through the yard with her buddies; sliding down the slide at Plaza Fiesta; seeing the fire truck that one day that the fire department visited her daycare; playing with the water puzzles at the museum; petting the dogs at the park on a Saturday when the dog obedience class met; doing anything at Monkey Joe’s. God help us, we can’t drive by Monkey Joe’s without her shouting, “Monkey Joe!” She never comes home to her room and shouts “My toy train!”
I suppose it could be argued that experiences like these mean more to her than they would to me. After all, I’ve lived thirty more years on this planet than she has. I’ve had a lot more experiences. Seeing a real live zebra is always a pretty cool thing, but it’s not the new experience for me that it is for her. She has much more to learn from experience at this early age in her life than I do. Right…?
When did we in our culture learn to substitute things for experiences? Objects for life? Perhaps it’s an extension of the ways we learn as children to internalize relationships through transitional objects like teddy bears or security blankets. We learn to feel safe about our relationships by transferring positive feelings onto things; this helps us as toddlers learn to be alone. Maybe as we grow older, we confuse these transitional objects for something more than they are. The security we feel in driving the right car or wearing the right clothes becomes such a substitute for the security we feel in our relationships that we mistake those possessions as the ultimate goal. Or maybe we buy things in order to facilitate experiences – camping gear, or hobby supplies, or musical instruments, or whatever – but the pursuit of having the things takes over from the experience itself. I don’t know, exactly. What I do know is that I feel humbled by the enthusiasm and curiosity that my daughter uses to engage the world around her.
Experiences don’t have to be expensive. Going for a walk, watching for birds, dancing and singing; these are all free. A few dollars just exponentially increase the options: playing cards, enjoying a milkshake, drawing with chalk or crayons. Experiences don’t come and then go; they stay with us. Particularly if we are impressionable. Of course, a toddler is impressionable. Maybe I, too, should make myself more impressionable. If there isn’t anything else for me to experience in this world – and that seems unlikely, given that I’ve experienced less than point-oh-one-percent of this planet – then at the least I can be a part of my child’s new experiences of the world.
So we’re going to start spending more money on adventures than toys. This Saturday, if anyone is interested, we’re going to the aquarium.
There is a drug that we are giving our children that is turning them into uncontrollable monsters. It destroys their capacity to pay attention, to play freely, to respond compassionately, to harness their own worst instincts. Its effects are dramatic and rapid; the drug hits the bloodstream and in less than a minute, it transforms them from sweet, thoughtful, creative, curious creatures into raging clouds of unmitigated id. This drug is unbelievably powerful and addictive, and yet it is not regulated or controlled by any government agency. Parents everywhere readily and thoughtlessly give it to their children, and up until now, I have been one of those parents.
But no more.
I’m on to you, sugar.
Last night, I witnessed the transmogrification in my own child. She was in a sweet and playful mood all evening. I picked her up from school and she was excited to see me, talkative in the car on the ride home, eager to do something fun with us. She went for a walk with her mother; they had an adventure and she met a new friend who shared her ball and they played together on the tennis courts. When we told her we were taking her to our favorite local Mexican restaurant, she got excited and announced her desire for quesadillas. We took a coloring book and she cheerfully announced to us which page she was going to color for each of her friends. She let us help her color them while we waited for our food. She was friendly with our server; every time he came and brought us something, she declared without prompting, “Thank you, sir!” She ate her chicken quesadilla and eagerly copied her daddy in using a tortilla chip to help scoop rice onto her spoon. But when they brought us a complimentary dessert, she announced that she’d like a piece of Valentine’s candy instead. And we, being the corner boy slingers we’ve become for cheap refined sugar, we agreed. Because, you know, who wouldn’t rather pass up a freshly made sweet tortilla sundae for a heart-shaped Ring Pop?
That damn Ring Pop hadn’t been in her mouth thirty seconds before the sweet, amusingly polite and engaging child turned into a fiendish monstrosity of opposition and defiance. She tore through the house like a four-foot tornado. Her clothes nearly fell off her body in shreds as the hulking beast of her unadulterated obstinacy ripped through her adorable exterior. Bath time became a hurricane of shrieks and tangled hair. Everything we said to her was repeated back to us through an echo chamber of sarcasm and sass: “No, you behave! No, you stop squirming! I will too get to read books!” She spit on me and hit her mother. The sugar demon had possessed my child and turned her into a Linda-Blair-in-The-Exorcist abomination.
We feel like we do a pretty decent job of limiting her candy intake. At Halloween, Christmas, Valentine’s Day, and Easter we limit her intake to no more than one piece a day and try to “disappear” as many pieces as possible when she’s not looking. But it’s easy to use candy as a carrot for our child: for eating a good dinner, for going to bed without a fuss, for cleaning up her room. During the early days of potty training we used M&Ms and jelly beans as positive rewards for successes. We are the ones who introduced her to sugar. It’s our fault she keeps asking for candy.
You remember that early-nineties PSA where the dad comes into the teenager’s room with a crack pipe and demands, “Where did you learn this?” and the kid shouts in earnest confusion and pain, “From you! I learned it from you!” Yeah, that’s us. We eat three times as much candy as she does, and I wouldn’t even say we eat a lot of candy. What’s worse is that we know she shouldn’t see us doing it, so we eat candy behind her back. That’s how we “disappear” her candy – we eat it ourselves. We are bad examples. We are her enablers, and dealers, and junkie peers.
Sugar, of course, is everywhere. It’s in all kinds of foods, many of which I have no problems feeding her. Fruits and starches, yogurt, even the healthier cereals. We don’t even let her drink juice because it’s basically nothing but sugar water. I think it’s probably fine to let her have desserts now and then. Cookies, cake, and ice cream all have plenty of sugar in them, but they’re homemade and their intake is limited by how their fat content tends to fill her up quickly. But candy is just mainlining sugar, and the worst kind of sugar. God help us, candy is tearing our family apart. Our household is just so unpredictable and scary when she’s using.
Obviously, I’m being a little overdramatic. But I do believe this is a significant problem. Remember the fuss about how Joe Camel made cigarettes appealing to children? Why is no one complaining about how the worst kinds of candy appeal only to children? It’s safe to say that the sugar content of a Ring Pop probably wouldn’t set a grown adult on edge like it does a four-year-old. But no reasonable adult would find a Ring Pop appealing. (I mean, come on – who would eat a Ring Pop in a world where sweet tortilla sundaes exist? Complimentary!)
I remember one year as a kid I went trick-or-treating and a woman on our block handed out apples. This didn’t just seem merely lame; it felt personally offensive. What is this world coming to when a well-meaning adult’s attempts to inject a tiny bit of health in a holiday that promotes juvenile diabetes seems like an affront to traditional American values? This is the result of some insidious marketing, people, and we have bought into it without a second thought.
So consider this post my second thought. I’d like to think that we could cut candy out of our lives completely. I’m admitting that we’re powerless, but I don’t know how ready I am for us to make amends. Any suggestions? I’m curious to hear from other parents who have developed strategies for avoiding the cheap refined sugars of candy without turning their children’s lives into funless wastelands of boredom. But I know that the rampaging sugar monster that got loose in our house last night is no longer welcome. It is time for us to make a change for the sake of our family.
My child is remarkably adept at being underfoot. I stumble to keep from tripping on her, or she blocks my access to some task or object, or she peppers me with interrogatives. At least once a week, this scenario takes place in the morning while I am getting ready for work. It does not take much of this to make me late, which only increases the inconvenience. This morning she decided to try on her mommy’s shoes in the closet with me while I attempted to get dressed. She swarmed around my legs like a squirrel while I tried to pull my pants on; she threw the door open while I tried to use its attached mirror to tie my necktie; she peppered me with questions that consisted mostly of repeating “Daddy?” I did all I could do not to lose my temper, but the morning was quickly moving from bad enough (it was morning, after all) to an official classification of a Bad Morning.
I sat down to put on my shoes, trying my best to ignore her intrusions and keep my cool.
“Why you wearing those shoes?” she demanded. “Is it because you want to?”
The logic seemed unbelievably simple – why else would I wear those shoes? Except, of course, that I didn’t really want to wear those shoes; I wore them because I was going to work and had a dress code I was required to meet. This strangely simple yet profound inquiry exhausted me, and it wasn’t even seven o’clock.
“Yes, honey. Because I want to.”
I bent over to tie them and then I felt her arms snake their way around my shoulders and her wet, warm lips mushed against the back of my neck. She kissed me, softly and without too much noise, then whispered in my ear, “I love my Daddy.”
At least as many times a day that she finds her way underfoot, she surprises me with spontaneous kisses. She likes to snuggle, to hang around my neck and nuzzle her nose against my ear. She still likes me to carry her sometimes, or sit in my lap, or climb up my legs. She’s an affectionate kid.
The American psychologist Harry Harlow is known for a series of experiments in the 1950s in which he built two artificial “mothers” for infant Rhesus macaques: one mother was made of wire and wood but provided a bottle for feeding, while the other mother provided no food but was made of warm, soft cloth. The Rhesus monkeys preferred not the cold wire that fed them, but rather the warm cloth they could snuggle and sleep next to. This debunked the school of behaviorism at the time which argued that infants developed bonds with caregivers solely for the purposes of meeting physical needs. What became known as “attachment theory” through the work of Harlow and another researcher, John Bowlby, took seriously the ways that infants and children develop secure, healthy attachments to their caregivers through warmth, touch, and physical affection.
Let me interrupt this psychology lecture to announce that I am not, by and large, a touchy-feely person. I do not seek out physical affection and require very little of it from my friends and family. I’m not big on hugs or standing close to people. (My spouse, who is very much these things, will begrudgingly confirm.) However, despite my reticence for physical touch – or perhaps because of it – I am glad I have a child who is so physically affectionate.
Following the attachment theorists, I could describe how my child is expressing her secure attachment to me in her spontaneous displays of affection. In fact, I could make the case that she senses in those moments when she is irritating me underfoot how important it might be to keep her secure attachments, picking those very moments to kiss me and express her love.
But I’m not interested in talking about that. Instead, I’m curious how this behavior is good for my attachment. I don’t mean to suggest that I might decide to stop being my daughter’s parent if she didn’t hug me and express her love. As I said earlier, I don’t really need that. I love the people I love without needing to touch them all the time. I’m confident that my love for my child would endure regardless of how affectionate she would be towards me. However, I must admit that there is something grounding for me in being affectionate with my child. If there has ever been a human being that I truly want to kiss, hug, and snuggle, it is my daughter. My spouse is a close second, but there is something so affirming and disarming about the spontaneous affection of a child. It’s guileless and sincere; it’s as pure as a human’s behavior can be. Children don’t have the filters and preconceptions that adults have. Of course, as attachment theory shows, a child’s affectionate behavior serves her interests. But it isn’t calculating or even conscious; it’s literally unadulterated.
Some mornings she awakes in this magical time window where she is able to come to our bedroom but still sleepy enough to fall back asleep. She climbs into our bed and I am nearly always the parent she wants to sleep beside. I can feel her warm body curled next to my chest, smell her hair on my pillow, feel her feet as they push between my legs. I suppose she feels safe when she sleeps next to me. But the strange thing is that it makes me feel safe. I don’t understand that beyond what I’m starting to refer to as the “telescopic parenting effect” – that providing for my child the love, affection, affirmation, and safety that I received when I was a child causes me to receive those feelings all over again.
There are moments when I’m at work, away from my family, when I find myself wishing I could give my daughter a hug. It’s not the same as the longing I’ve had for my spouse as a lover. It’s a little like homesickness, but the pull doesn’t feel as sad and desperate. It’s fond and warm and helps me to remember who I am.
I can feel my attachment to my daughter when she is sweet and affectionate with me. I also feel my attachment to everyone else: my spouse, my parents, my friends, myself. The joy of experiencing that kind of genuine connection – through fingers, kisses, giggles – reassures me that attachment is in fact more than a behavioral requirement, but a deeply spiritual phenomenon. Maybe there’s a little bit of divinity in those spontaneous kisses. Maybe all we need to know of God is a sudden affectionate touch and a whisper that says we are loved.
It’s a new day. We are completely done with diapers. The final frontier of potty-training has finally been achieved: sleeping through the night in big-girl panties without an accident. She’s gone nine nights now without a pull-up on, and only one of those nights resulted in an accident. (Night Two, in case you were wondering.)
You may be asking, how did you do it, oh great father? Well, I’ll tell you. First of all, it was mostly her mother. Secondly, there was a good bit of promised positive reinforcement. Or, as it’s more commonly known, “bribing.” And last of all, and most effectively, lots and lots of consistency and structure.
We have trained our child now to have an inordinate amount of faith and reverence towards a mythical entity known as “a big-girl bed.” This as-yet-unseen creation is spoken of in hushed tones of awe and eagerness in our household, not unlike Santa Claus enjoys at Christmas. She has been promised that the Big-Girl Bed will come to live with her in her room when she is able to sleep through the night without incident. It will be soft and big and will wipe away all tears. Well, actually, it would absorb the tears, being a real mattress that has no need for repelling moisture like her current mattress. It has helped for her to have the motivation of working towards a goal that makes her feel a little more grown-up.
The most significant and helpful aspect of this final stage has been the consistency and structure, just like it was with every other stage of potty-training. We’d take her to potty every night before we’d put her pull-up on, telling her she could get up in the night to potty if she wanted. (She never did.) But when we’d be rocking her to sleep and she’d ask, “Am I wearing panties or a pull-up?” the answer was always, “Go to the potty!”
Then we opened our last pack of overnight pull-ups and a decision was made: this is the last pack of pull-ups we are buying. A countdown was started. Each night, it was announced how many pull-ups were left. “After that,” we’d tell her, “you’ll be sleeping in panties!” Then we’d tell her what that would be like: “You’ll have to be sure to go before you lay down, and then when you feel the need to go in your sleep, you’ll have to get up and go to the potty.” That routine lasted every night for the whole 24-count.
Then the night came. We’ve been giving her a little help. We wake her up before we go to bed – usually after she’s been asleep for a few hours – and we take her to potty. We sit her down, mostly still asleep, on the toilet until she pees, then we tuck her back in and go to bed. Most nights she does get up and come wake us up for help, but last night she made it the whole night without needing to get up.
So here are some things I’ve learned as we’ve crossed this new, slightly cheaper threshold of raising a child.
1.) Fellow adults, do not take for granted your bladder’s amazing ability to lock itself up for the night. One day, God willing, we will grow old enough that our bladder is less able to perform this task, and we will no doubt mourn its loss. But I hope we will remember that the bladder is not born with this ability and that it took some wet, sleepless nights to learn. So tonight when you close your eyes to go to sleep, thank your bladder for being reliable in waking you up if you need to go while you sleep.
2.) It doesn’t take long for a child to be motivated by the idea of growing up. This is bittersweet, of course, because we parents often nostalgically long for younger, sweeter, “more innocent” days. That’s foolish and false. Children don’t long for this, and neither did we when we were children. And, truthfully, we don’t really want this for our children either. Human beings just like to project good experiences into the past and pretend that the old days used to be good. From the moment we’ve developed some sort of consciousness, somewhere between our first and second year of life on earth, we recognize that maturation and growth is the goal and is preferable to staying immature. Children know it better than we do: deep down, everyone wants to grow up, if but a little at a time.
3.) It feels nearly magical how well children respond to consistency and structure, particularly when provided with kindness and patience. Everything that our child does well is due purely to structure, consistency, and patience. Setting and holding a structure with consistency and patience is very, very hard to do for our children. They seem to not like it; they fuss and cry and pitch a fit when we do it. But trust me, it’s the only thing that works. Your child might respond with happiness and joy if you give an inch somewhere, but you relax structure at your own peril. If you can divorce consequence from moral judgment and simply hold to your structures, there’s a very good chance children will thrive. You just have to survive the initial resistance.
4.) Along those lines, I’ve come to realize that my child’s usual bedtime shenanigans aren’t due to insecure attachment issues, or insecurity due to transition in her life, or fear of the dark. We’ve been inconsistent and impatient in keeping the structure of her bedtime. Poor thing, her success at nighttime potty-training has betrayed the ways she’s recruited us into creating an unhealthy bedtime routine. Bless her heart, this victory of hers has opened our eyes to our own failings. If she can go right back to bed in the dark without a thousand hugs at 11 PM after being awakened to go potty, then she could do it at 8 PM. So this weekend begins a renewed structure on bedtime routine. A crackdown, in other words. So check back next week…