May 25, 2006

Phrase book for first-time travelers

New parents, you have plenty to worry about right now. Will your infant be accepted into an Ivy League School? Become a Republican, a decent T-ball player, a crystal meth user? These are legitimate concerns which should preoccupy you for the next few years or so.

I cannot help with your new baby's SAT scores, but I can ease your mind about child communication, which also will be much on your mind for the next twenty-five years or so.

What qualifications do I have to advise you? None. Zip. No university work, no academic credentials, no published studies. I have gone to the parenting school of hard knocks, and I mean it. I have taken more ice skate blades to the forehead than anyone deserves in one lifetime. I have taken a few karate kicks to the chest. I have subdued public tantrums. As you will soon find out, a tantruming toddler in a shopping mall is an inconvenience: a tantruming nine-year-old is a mortification.

As the parent of two children with multiple disabilities, I know a lot of things that do not ever work (not that screaming your head off isn't satisfying in its own way) but it doesn't ever get the desired result. I know some strategies that occasionally work and I know a very few things that consistently work.

Think of yourself as a first-time traveler to a foreign land. Even if the locals speak English, they do so with accents, different cultural references and unfamiliar traditions. The possibilities for miscommunication are legion. I see this all the time: parents who attempt in seventeen different phrases to say no to a two-year-old, desperately hoping the kid will take the hint. It's confusing and unsettling . . . and I am just a bystander. How on earth does the hapless child feel?

"I wanna go to McDonald's." Not now, honey.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." I'd like you to eat a healthy lunch today.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." It's only 9:15 in the morning.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." I don't like that whiny tone.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." Maybe later.
"I wanna go to McDonald's." McDonald’s has run out of Happy Meals.
Memorize the following phrases, use them liberally for the next ten years and go back to more pressing concerns such as university scholarship applications.

I don’t know.
Parents are children’s primary teachers. Yada yada yada. They assume we know everything, which is flattering for a while. But if you don’t know an answer, you have to say you don’t know. Most adults can generally explain how a car works or why the sky is blue. (Internal combustion, light refracted through the atmosphere, in case you didn’t know.) You can tie your neural pathways into knots trying to muster acceptable answers to “Why is Squidward so mean to Sponge-Bob?” “How does red sound?” “Could a dinosaur eat a truck?” Don’t even try.

That’s because of safety.
When I was a child, our household was run by strict and immutable rules. My parents were autocratic, but the rules were often whimsical and capricious. It seemed to me then and now, that parents, teachers, and other adults enforced ridiculous rules, simply because they could. The rules in my house that are absolute and non-negotiable are those concerning safety. Maybe it seems that adults were put on earth to spoil kids’ fun, but even so there is no running at the swimming pool, no playing in the street, handling knives, lighting matches in the house or eating anything that isn’t recognizable as food.

I can help you.
This has two different applications; pro-active and reactive. If a child could articulate his internal emotional state, "I can't find my favorite Hot Wheels model in this basement containing thousands of toy cars, and if I don't find it in the next 10 seconds, the universe as we know it will collapse in a fiery inferno," you would hastily get off the couch to assist. Since small children lack that erudition, you must be pro-active and get off the couch before the world ends. Secondly, first-time parents, you will spend much time directing children to do things that they simply aren't inclined to do, such as putting on shoes before going outside in January, coming when called, eating anything green. Make any request once, pause, then offer to help.

Thank you for telling me. alt. Thank you for letting me know.
This is a handy, all-purpose phrase that indicates that you have heard and understood, but does not require an emotional response. You can hear bad news, tattle-telling and malicious insults if you respond neutrally with this sentence. “I had three time-outs at school today.” Thank you for telling me. “And my driver made me ride home in the trunk.” Thank you for telling me. “You are an evil witch and I hate you!” Thank you for letting me know.

I am not buying that. alt.
I am not buying that today.
For several years after the boys came, I was able to maintain the fiction that shops were museums, with things to admire. The guys were blissfully unaware that one could actually exchange money for items and take these desirable objects home. Alas, they know better now. Hence, I use this handy phrase. Try it, use it liberally, repeat as often as needed.

If all else fails and you must endure a complete meltdown, especially one in public, Say Nothing. Stand with your hands in your pockets and a bemused expression on your face, as if to say, "I am just waiting here as a precaution, until the incompetent parents return." It may be that your child tries to call your bluff by shrieking your name, but don’t give in. In your most pacifying tone of voice, say, “Don’t worry. I’m sure Mom will be right back.”

1 comment:

Roberta said...

I think there is some kind of Unified Field Theory at work here, at least on the "because of safety" rule. Every organization (family or Enron) has some kind of indefensible rule, or at least the only defense is "because we can". These rules are very difficult to put forth with a smile. My boss several levels up is trying to develop the single "Red Rule" that will apply to everything in the building. I.E., we don't allow that because it isn't safe/threatens others/endangers property. So, no hanging upside down from the atrium rail, throwing things, yelling or putting DVDs down your pants.

Actually, I think she hopes to disallow putting anything down your pants.