At Least One of my Children is Mine

Our children take after us in so many ways. Your nose, his ears, grandma’s slender feet. Their personalities do this Frankenstein match-up as well. His sense of humor, your temper, grandpa’s love of music. My kids didn’t use Frankenstein as a model. They just came out like Tim. Luke is a carbon copy. The only thing he may have inherited from me is his temper and total disregard for rules and authority. (Lucky me.) Sally came out looking exactly like Luke. Clearly, I was merely a vessel to create little Tims. I had no genetic input.

Luke’s Timness isn’t limited to his looks. He is incredibly physically adroit. This body awareness, athleticism, and stamina certainly don’t come from me or my side. It’s all Tim. Lately we’ve had the two of them diving into the pool side by side. Not only is Luke crazy good at diving for a 6-year-old, but he does it exactly like his father. The run up, arm swing, timing of the chin tuck, angle they hit the water – it’s uncanny. I dove beside him to see if it was just a matter of two people diving together, and it’s not. Our bodies took different shapes as we ran up, sprung into the air and hit the water.

Luke’s mind works as differently from mine as his body does. This morning he was playing with his Skip It toy and kept tripping himself up. I suggested he try to say the alphabet while doing it. Having his mind on something else, his feet easily maneuvered the toy, spinning and hopping to the rhythm of the ABCs. Next I asked him to sing Twinkle, Twinkle.

“OK! Twinkle, twinkle ….” He tripped. “Um, twinkle, twinkle…” Tripped again. “How does it go?”

“You don’t remember the words to Twinkle, Twinkle?”

“No. I really don’t.”

“Twinkle, twinkle little star…”

“Oh yeah!” He begins skipping again. “Twinkle, twinkle little star…” He stops. “What’s next?”

We sang the entire song this way. My son doesn’t remember the words to Twinkle, Twinkle, a song he’s heard a bajillion times! I asked if he could sing Happy Birthday. He couldn’t. I’m not kidding. WTF? The kid is just like his father.

While Tim probably does know Happy Birthday, (I’ll have to ask him,) he can’t remember Twinkle, Twinkle. Or Row, Row, Row Your Boat, or Baa, Baa Black Sheep, or ANY other song in the universe. This is insane to me. I can hear a song and remember it. (Especially a children’s song full of repetition, rhyme, and glaring obviousness.) Words are my thing. It’s hard for me to understand not being able to remember the words. They both can’t even repeat a line of a song back to you the instant after you sing it to them.

As Luke learns to read, we practice the same simple books over and over. Each time he reads a book, he has to really read it. He doesn’t have the books memorized, or even remembered well enough to guess and predict. It surprises me that he needs to sound out the same word with every reading. Doesn’t he remember? Can’t he see the picture of the goat? It’s a GOAT for goodness’ sake! He finds reading extremely frustrating, and I don’t blame him. I find his reading extremely frustrating too. But there’s something that’s making it worse: Sally memorizes the books after one reading. Turns out words are Sally’s thing too.

She can speed “read” all of his books. While he’s stumbling, slowly pronouncing the letters, she’s filling in the blanks. Even in books she’s never read before she correctly guesses the words before he struggles to read them. She uses the pictures and rhymes (and basic common sense) as clues to finish the sentences. When she “reads” a book it’s easy to follow the story because she speaks fluently with regular intonations. When Luke reads a book it’s impossible to follow because he reads it in stops and starts, robotically, ignoring normal pauses and intonations. The disparity between them is not lost on him.

I feel for Luke and worry that he will be forever turned off of reading, falling behind his peers, causing lifelong scholastic under-achievement and misconceptions about his own abilities. I mean, if he can’t freaking guess “house” after reading “mouse” in text that is immediately beneath a picture of a mouse and a house, how can he not get frustrated and want to quit? Especially with his baby sister shouting out “house! house!”

I’m a reader, always have been. Tim reads just about never. I can count on one hand the number of books he’s read since we met fourteen years ago. He read each of those books at my prodding. I know I can’t change Tim’s reading, but it saddens me to think of Luke not loving books.

When Luke was born I read him Goodnight, Moon every night. Every night for about two years. He never once sat down to listen. Had I juggled or bounced a soccer ball on my knees instead, he would have sat there, mesmerized, learning. Of course I can’t do either thing to save my life, and they’re not important to me. But reading?

Turns out I can’t control anything about my kids. (Surprise!) Luke will probably be a just fine person, who happens to not love books or reading. Afterall, I think Tim is a just fine person despite this horrible character flaw. Likewise, he thinks I’m just fine even though my soccer skills allowed our child to outplay me when he was just four. To him, this trite inability might seem important. Even though that’s silly.

But while I worry for Luke, I am so proud of Sally. Finally, a child that takes after me in some way! She remembers songs and sings along. I remember songs and sing along! She stays up at night in her room “reading” books. I stay up at night reading books! She plays back her arguments with Luke accurately, despite Luke’s protests and completely wrong versions. I play back my arguments with Tim accurately, despite his protests and completely wrong versions! She’s a mini me! At last, a child I can understand.

While I’m determined to teach Luke to work through his frustrations with reading, and I hope to keep him on par with is peers, I need to accept that he might always struggle with wordy things. I write. Tim doesn’t. If a letter needs composing I do it. (If a lawn needs mowing he does it.) If Luke struggles with writing the way he does with reading it might break my heart, but I should prepare myself. We already know he can’t make up a story to save his life.

Recently, Sally told this story:

Did you know the microwave is running away? It’s true. It’s going to Target to meet a girl microwave. They’re going to get married and have babies. Their babies will be toasters. Then he’ll come back so we can still cook in it. Is that a good story?

Impressed and not wanting to be outdone, Luke told a story of his own:

The, um, refrigerator and, uh, the microwave, no not microwave, the oven are getting married and they’ll have baby, uh, um, blenders!

His is lacking a certain something, no?

Oh well. At least I know one of them is mine.

Parenting or Biological Warfare?

Few things are as terrifying and foreboding as the ever-growing threat of widespread antibiotic-resistant bacteria. I mean, antibiotics are all we’ve got. It’s our arsenal. And the bacteria are going to resist it? Yikes!

The antibiotics of parenting (bear with me) are discipline, rewards, consequences, etc. It’s our arsenal as parents as we face the confounding daily task of transforming wild, selfish, horrible little creatures into thoughtful, considerate, non-criminal, socially functional adults. Like the scary bacteria, Luke resists my arsenal. Yikes!

I’ve tried it all. My current method is a mix of panic, anger, rash decisions, overreactions, and merit points. Let’s focus on the points, as a post about Parenting by Rash Decisions sounds, well, actually that sounds funny. Makes note for future post.

It’s quite simple. The behavior we’re working on is ‘minding.’ If he follows a direction the first time he’s asked, calmly, then he gets a point. Points aren’t taken away or flaunted. If I ask him to get his shoes on and he throws a fit about it I don’t get to say, “Well I guess you don’t want any points, Motherfucker!” no matter how much I might want to. However, if I ask him to get his shoes on and he just complies I get all happy and pull out the chart and give him a point and talk about how freaking wonderful he is for getting his stupid shoes on without making a federal case over it.

It’s all about focusing on positive behaviors, while praying that our focus means a damn thing and hoping that those positive behaviors will begin to multiply like compliant rabbits.

Points are a currency that can be used to “buy” pre-selected items from a list titled Things Luke Loves. A piece of gum: 5 points. Computer time: 7 points. Going out to a movie: 15 points. Points are easily accrued since it’s really simple to comply with a directive. “Time to go. Let’s get in the car.” Luke gets in the car. Bam. A point. He gets points all day. The kid is rolling in points. He’s filthy with them. So it’s working?

No. He is bacterially minded – behavior-modification-resistant – remember? Just like I have to come up with new and creative ways to shape his behavior, he has to come up with new and creative ways to make all my efforts for naught. This time it turns out that he’s a miserly bastard. He will not spend a point. He wants to. He really really really really really wants gum, chips, ice cream, to play cards with me, etc. But he can’t part with the damn currency.

In other words, he takes after his father. (Rim shot)

Accruing points was exciting at first. It held promises of great rewards. He could cash in at any time for anything on the list (for that week). The possibilities! But they’ve lost their luster. After all, it’s not the piles of cash that are exciting about piles of cash. It’s all we can get with it, right? We might be excited by the piles themselves for a while, but eventually we’d realize that a vacation or a jet boat are more fun than staring at piles. We’d realize that because we are not annoying, frustrating, impossible people. But Luke is. Luke will not spend his points. He hoards them. And his piles of points aren’t fun anymore.

So, two weeks ago might have gone like this:

me: Luke, please go wash your hands; it’s time for lunch.

Luke: OK, Mom!

me: Wow! That was awesome! Great job! You did just what I asked the very first time I asked! Thank you! What a pleasure it is to have you around! Let’s get the chart! WOW! You’ve already gotten 12 points today! Add that to yesterday’s points and you can get a new Mercedes! Wow! Way to go!

Luke: Gee, Mom, I feel really good about myself and I am learning that simply by not being a colossal jerk all the time we all get along and good things happen to me. This is great! You’re a very good parent.*

*What?

Now it goes more like this:

me: Luke, please go wash your hands; it’s time for lunch.

Luke: No! I don’t have to. I don’t even have to listen to you. I have so many points I can have ice cream whenever I want and you can’t do anything. So HA!

me: Luke, I’ve simply asked you to wash your hands for lunch. Let’s try this again. Please go wash your hands.

Luke: You really need to take a good hard look at yourself and your failings. If you were a better mother I wouldn’t be saying any of this. Children of good mothers have clean hands anyway. So, how d’you feel now, Mom? Good? Gimme some freaking ice cream. Nevermind. I can’t spend the points!**

**This is what I hear, so it must be what he’s saying.

Parenting “Experts”: 0

Luke: All the Points. In the world. Ever. 

 

It’s Payback Time

I’m guessing I was about six at the time – old enough to remember it clearly, old enough to know better, young enough to do it anyway.

My parents took my sister, brother and I to a performance of The Nutcracker. Nice, right? It might have been until I spotted some unmemorable Nutcracker trinket in the theater gift shop that I HAD TO HAVE.

I asked for it. My mother said no.

I begged for it. My mother said no.

I asked if I could use my birthday money to buy it. (Genius! There’s no way she could say no to that!) My mother said no.

I lost my shit.

In my crying, screaming fit of righteous brattiness I shouted that my mother had stolen my money from me. 

Imagine this: In a moment of possibly insane parental optimism, you buy expensive tickets to the ballet for your family. Oh the music, the ballet, the magic! My sweet bright-eyed children will love it! Chances are your sanity has returned by the time you cross the theater’s threshold.

And then your child starts screaming, in a crowded theater, in the small community where you and your husband live and work, that you STOLE HER BIRTHDAY MONEY.

Kudos to my mother for not killing me. Kudos to my mother for somehow convincing my father to also not kill me, and to take me back home with them.

I recently recalled this particular scene from my childhood as I dialed Goodwill to see if they accept donations of gently-used children.

My kids’ shockingly obnoxious behavior is completely embarrassing. Behind closed doors, Luke calling me stupid is horrible. It makes me question his character and my shortcomings. But Luke calling me stupid in the supermarket? at the doctor’s office? in the playground? at a family gathering? in front of neighbors? Humiliation. Blood pressure spike. Prickly sweat. All sorts of thoughts that hold no resemblance whatsoever to I love my son so much and am so grateful to be his mother.

He does this to see what I’ll do. Which means that he is fully aware that I will be embarrassed. He just wants to see if I care more about throttling him or about appearing normal in front of other people. (This is where I should say that my reaction is totally consistent regardless of where we are. This is where I should say that as his mother my responsibility is to him alone, my own social standing and happiness be damned. So, let’s just pretend I said those things, m’kay?)

When I loudly accused my mother of stealing my money, over and over again, I knew very well that we were in public. I wanted to embarrass her. Of course she hadn’t stolen my money, but it was the meanest thing I could think of that might make some kindly stranger step in, tell my mother how horrible she is, and save me by buying me the trinket and possibly arresting my mom. To steal her adorable fancy-dressed daughter’s birthday money? For shame! She’d learn her lesson alright and she would never maltreat me again. Of course, at six, these thoughts weren’t quite so well laid out. It was probably more Captain Caveman-ish: Me mad! It her fault! Shame her! She bad!!!! Waaaaaaaa!

My mother did not kill me that day, or any other day for that matter. And she did bring me back home with her, albeit by dragging me unkindly through the parking lot while using her scary-quiet voice through gritted teeth. “You just wait until we get home!” Probably all that happened when we got home was me crying and quaking with fear, and my mother yelling something about something. That part I don’t remember.

Likewise, I have not killed my children and I keep taking them back home with me. I have a mean scary voice that when combined with gritted teeth has the desired effect of scaring the living shit out of them. My kids won’t remember every time they’re sent to their rooms or lose out on a toy or privilege  They won’t recall the words that I scream at them when I’m screaming at them. (Let’s pretend I don’t do that.) But I bet they’ll remember The Look. I’m certain they’ll remember that scary voice. And I look forward to the day when they remember some specific incident from their childhood when they each acted like a tiny raging asshole, because they are dealing with their own tiny raging assholes.

In the end, our vindication does not come the way we imagine it at six. It’s not police at our door telling our parents that they’ll go to jail if they don’t get on board and buy us at least one Cabbage Patch Doll, since every other girl in the universe has, like, a hundred of them. Vindication happens much later. It’s when our own children experience the awful humiliation of having unhappy children in public places, the bitter disappointment of a special treat or surprise turning into a nightmare outing.

My mother will read this and tell me that it’s not about vindication. That she would prefer it if I never had to endure this stuff. But that’s not all true and I know it. No one drags her daughter out of The Nutcracker after that scene without wishing for her to get what’s coming to her one day. So, Mom, rest assured; I’m getting what I deserve. In spades.