Being a parent, sometimes I have to actually do some parenting. I rarely feel like parenting. Sometimes children ask for parenting, and sometimes I’m there to deliver. Other times, I’m lying on the couch dreaming of lawnmowers made out of fudge. I’m not speaking of the life-sustaining parenting such as feeding them, housing them, giving a crap about them and providing them air to breathe (not that providing air is such a challenge, but I could just as easily take it away with a plastic bag while they were sleeping) (not that I ever consider doing that). That type of parenting seems innate to me (so far). It’s the getting them to act like reasonable human beings that I don’t enjoy doing. I’m not very good at it because I’m not even sure how to act like a reasonable human being.
Children don’t understand a parent’s plight. The younger ones are oblivious to any motivation we might have, but the teen-agers are aware of it, but they don’t get it. They think a parent’s sole purpose in life is to hassle them, when in reality hassling them is a hassle to us (us meaning me). But I do it at times, just like I pay my bills late, because I’m sort of responsible. They don’t understand that I’m just a person trying to live my own life, trying to enjoy the things I like doing, trying to avoid being hassled and trying to keep them alive until they are eighteen. You would think helping them stay alive for their first eighteen years would be enough incentive for them to follow orders. They probably don’t understand how close they are to death each and every day. Do I need to throw down empty death threats to keep them in line? Because, in the interest of educating them, I will. I may even kill the dog in front of them just to illustrate the finiteness of life. So far I’ve relied on empty-threatening a good pounding and maybe a cheerful spank here and there. Doing anything more than that would be a hassle.
Note about empty threats: I know some parenting books and magazines and nosy neighbors and over-achieving parent-types in the PTA frown upon flinging empty threats at children. They claim that they are ineffective and actually result in promoting the behavior you are attempting to squash with them. But, they do serve a purpose. They allow the child to live to see another day. Empty threats give the threatener a chance to confront the proposed action without actually carrying it out. Generally, this is enough to quell the threatener’s urge to strangle or decapitate or to catapult the threatenee, thereby saving the child’s life. Empty threats are acts of mercy.
I’ve been parenting for several years now. Since the time they were grubs, when I first confiscated their rattle for using it to pry off Aunt Ethel’s dentures, to the time I grounded them last week for spackling the teacher’s ears shut while she napped during a film strip, my rule has always triumphed. How could they ever believe it wouldn’t? You would think that the structure I have established in the past would provide the groundwork for my children to behave in a suitable manner so I would not have to unsheathe my parenting weapons here on out. But it doesn’t work that way. For some reason, they continue to attempt to act independently. I try to reason with them, explaining that independent thinking will lead to rash liberalism causing anarchy and a society of evil foot-loose-and-fancy-freeness. They look at me and say, “huh?” I tell them they should be sheep like the bible says and they don’t want to be sheep because sheep have to poo outside or wherever they happen to be and can’t get their hair cut at Great Clips, even though you would think they should be able to, but it’s probably due to the uncontrolled pooing. I look at them and say, “huh?” So, at least we understand each other. My biggest issue is that I can’t tell them the real reason I want them to behave – because it makes my life easier.
This protest pertains to my son more than to my daughter, who is still a sweetie and actually thinks I know what I’m doing. Sadly, time is running out on that luxury. The son, who is four years older than she is, senses some of my lackluster parenting style and looks to exploit it whenever he can. The other day I was supposed to coach my daughter’s softball game. The son looks forward to game days because I don’t cook dinner and he is free to hang out with his friends and grab something to eat using the hard earned money he took from my pocket when I was drunk. Unfortunately for him, the softball game was rained out, so I called him and told him to be home at six o’clock for dinner. The daughter and I then went to the store to buy food, as all I had in the refrigerator was freeze pops, some of which we ate for dinner the night before. I decided to make veal parmesan, so I bought some breaded veal patties, marinara sauce, Twinkies, cheese, spaghetti and garlic bread. When I got home there was a voice mail message from the son. He decided to stay out with his friends and grab something to eat. He decided. HE decided. I called him to tell him to be home by six. He resorted to his primary weapons of a whining barrage coupled with a battery of insane debate, such as “If I don’t come home for dinner, then starving people in Africa can have my food” or “I may get hit by a car crossing the busy street” or “But, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out……but, Dad, I’m already out”. I’m no match for his tenacity, especially since I didn’t really care if he came home for dinner. But, as usual, it came down to a battle of dim wits. Clearly I had the advantage, having been a dim wit for much longer than he has been. I decided to let him win the battle so I could whale on him later. I ended the conversation with a curt “Don’t bother coming home at all.”
I finished cooking dinner and set up a nice spread on the family room table for me and the remaining half of my brood who actually cares about me. She took her plate, set it on the coffee table and turned on the TV. Spongebob is considerably more interesting than I am, so I couldn’t blame her. I left my plate, untouched, grabbed the box of Twinkies and went to my room.
The evening progressed in ordinary fashion. The daughter and I did spend some time together building decorative pillows out of Legos, after Spongebob was over, of course. By the time I got around to doing the dishes it was nine o’clock. I began to look out the window for the arrival of the son. It’s not a hard set rule, but I’ve never let him stay out past nine o’clock on a weekday. Since he wasn’t home yet I wondered what he was up to. I thought about our earlier mensa-like phone conversation and then it hit me. He was abiding by “Don’t bother coming home at all.” He decided to pick and choose my commands, as if I were some kind of produce market of nagging.
I waited until about nine-thirty, in case he was just late. He didn’t show up. I called him. “Where are you?” I demanded to know firmly. “I’m at Lindsay’s house”, he replied as if nothing ever happened. “Is that a girl?” I asked. Of course it was a girl, but it threw me off my game. He was at a GIRL’s house! Alright! Way to go, son! I never got to go to a girl’s house until I mistook that sorority for a lecture hall freshman year in college. And I paid dearly for it. I don’t want to get into it now. Let’s just say that me being a man isn’t the only reason I’ll never breastfeed a baby.
So, he was at a girl’s house. What a good boy. I am so proud of him. I’m lucky to be his father. I hope to be like him someday…WAIT A MINUTE, where was I? I regained my composure and asked him why he wasn’t home yet. “You said ‘Don’t bother coming home at all’ so I didn’t.” I KNEW IT! Although I saw it coming, and I was irked that he used that excuse, I was also impressed that he could think in that manner. “Come home now, please.”
When he got home, we had a little chat. I wasn’t angry but I didn’t want him to know that. I had my parenting weapons unsheathed and I didn’t want to put them away until I played with them a little. I don’t remember exactly what he said during our conversation because I was concentrating on my arsenal. He had a dumb look on his face, I remember. After I ardently explained to him that I’m not a nagging bushel of kumquats (you have to keep them confused) and that he is not allowed to decide which of my commandments he needs to heed, I gave him an ultimatum. I told him he can choose his dining experiences whenever and wherever he wants. However, if he opted for that privilege, I would not feed him anymore - EVER. He could have water, and that’s it. And only from the tub in the laundry room. This was not an empty threat. I was prepared to save money on his portions of food I would no longer have to buy. He sat there dumbfounded. I could tell that he could tell I was serious. I told him to give me an answer in the morning. Since he lives at his mom’s house half the time, I knew he wouldn’t starve. That’s called leverage, baby.
After about five minutes of silence, he told me he would like to continue eating at home. “I told you to give me an answer in the morning.” “But, Dad….” “In the morning! I want you to think about what you’ve done.” (I love saying that.) So, I was able to torment him all night while I slept. When he woke up, he repeated his answer to me and asked if he could have breakfast. I said, “I don’t know, can you have breakfast?” “C’mon, Dad, do we have eggs?” “I don’t know, do we have eggs?” Shut up, Dad. Sorry, son, I forgot to put away my parenting ray of confusion.