By Jody Mace
Lately, my two kids, Charlie and Kyla, have a new way of communicating with each other. They talk with each other via these handheld electronic gadgets called MiniMaxes. For instance, one types in “Hi” and the other one might enter “Hi” back. And so on. This lessens the need, apparently, for conversation. Except when they type at the same time, and then they yell at each other for interrupting.
They can play games on these gadgets as well. Particularly odd is their electronic version of Rock/Paper/Scissors, as if the folding and unfolding of their hands into fists had become so tiresome that they needed a technological workaround. One night they decided to play Tic-Tac-Toe. They sat across the room from each other silently, and in turn entered Xs and Os.
I thought this was a good moment to talk about the old days.
“Back when I was your age,” I told my children, “I played Tic-Tac-Toe as well. We’d get a piece of paper, see, and a pencil. We’d actually draw the lines. On the paper. We’d sit next to each other, and on the same piece of paper, we’d draw the Xs and Os. That’s how I did it in the old days.”
Charlie looked up. “Yeah. That’s how we did it too.” He looked back down at his MiniMax. “Before we got these.”
This struck me as bizarre, so I went to my computer and wrote about it online where I communicate with my friends and family. The gist of my journal entry was: “These crazy kids today and their newfangled electronic gizmos.”
It wasn’t until I was in bed that night that I saw the irony. My first reaction when I saw something interesting wasn’t to call a friend, to ponder it quietly, or to scribble my observations into a notebook, but to go immediately to an electronic journal so that my far-flung friends and people I don’t even know could read it.
The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. The dependence—I won’t say addiction yet; I’m still in the denial stage—on technology is just one of the faults I share with my kids.
Gluttony is another. Imagine this scene a few years ago with a four-year-old Charlie: His impossibly large tears were racing down his screwed-up face, splashing onto his flannel puppy dog pajamas. The cause of his misery was pudding. It was 9:30 in the morning, and he wanted chocolate pudding for breakfast.
When I told him that he had to eat something healthy first, he was devastated. “But-but-but,” he wailed, “I already got out my spoon!” He desperately waved around a huge serving spoon, a forlorn symbol of his dashed optimism.
He was determined. “I’ll have one of those vitamins that say they are for people age three and up!” he announced. “And then I’ll have the pudding!”
My attempts at humor (“How can you have your pudding if you haven’t eaten your meat?”) fell flat, but then Charlie’s viewing preference was more Dragon Tales than The Wall.
During this battle (which, by the way, ended in a draw: he had string cheese before the pudding), what I was really thinking was that if I weren’t his mother, the person responsible for his development into a healthy, responsible adult, I’d be on his side. I’d rather have pudding for breakfast, too. And I have.
I’m every bit as weak as he is in the face of temptation. The only difference is that there isn’t anybody stopping me from indulging. I’m unwisely entrusted to be my own keeper, so I engage in monumental struggles against things like brownies. Once I went to a Weight Watchers meeting where a woman triumphantly told the story of how she resisted temptation by taking a plate of leftover brownies, putting them in the sink, and running water over them. At this last part I emitted an involuntary, audible gasp. I pined for those lost brownies, sitting water-logged in the sink. I can’t fathom standing that strong in the face of leftover brownies. In fact, I’m not sure that I even understand the concept of leftover brownies.
When I discipline my kids, sometimes I feel like I’m just going through the motions. Can I really expect them to overcome things that I can’t? Am I just playing at the role of the grown-up when inside I want to binge on pudding, abuse the Internet, stay in bed until ten a.m.? Is there no hope for them? Or with my training and instruction, no matter how forced it feels to me, might they defeat their demons early in life? I don’t know, but I do the responsible thing and correct them when I should, even if I’m really just as bad as they are.
When it comes to areas that I’ve improved upon, though, I’m not quite as sympathetic. We used to all be equally guilty of leaving messes throughout the house. We were happy-go-lucky comrades in chaos. Cereal bowls and books were left carelessly on tables and couches. This drove my husband nuts, and I dutifully picked things up when the piles of stuff got too high and I admonished the kids to do the same, all the while inwardly sympathizing with them. “Let’s humor him,” I’d think benevolently as I pointed Kyla toward the collection of dirty socks in the family room. Although I made them clean up after themselves and even delivered the standard spiel about how “you don’t have servants to pick up after you” and “if you don’t care about your things maybe we should give them away to people who do,” I felt like a second-rate actress in a poorly scripted television movie. My heart wasn’t in it, and I didn’t expect it to work.
But about a year or so ago I got inspired to improve myself, and I made a concerted effort to become tidier. I started putting things away when I was done with them. Although it seems like crazy talk, I found that it was really not very hard at all, and if I cleaned up right away things didn’t get out of hand. Incidentally, this was what my mother had always told me, but I’d never really believed her. I thought that keeping things neat had to be much more complicated and that I had an inherent character flaw that caused me to be unable to put things away. It was truly a surprise to me when I found out how simple it was.
It was like a dream I used to have in which I learned how to fly. All you had to do was jump up and not come down. It was so simple! So obvious! And all this time I had thought flying was impossible. Keeping things tidy was the same way. You just put them away! Naturally I wanted to spread the word.
I found myself growing furious at the kids for doing exactly what they, and I, had always done—leaving their crap everywhere. See, now I knew that there was a better way, and if everyone would just fall in step behind me we would all be much happier, and, plus, people would know where their damn shoes were. When I saw Kyla holding a small, crumpled piece of paper in her fist, her words became muffled like the teacher’s in Charlie Brown. My eyes and attention fixated on that hand in fatalistic anticipation. What would she do with it? Would she remember about taking it to a trash can? I could feel my jaw tighten, and when, predictably, her fist opened and the paper dropped to the floor, my head started to throb and I felt like I would explode. It doesn’t have to be like this, I insisted to my children. Look at me! Look at how I’ve changed! You can do it too! I was as evangelical as a reformed smoker. I tried to drag them along kicking and screaming into the new regime.
Naturally they were half hearted about cleaning up and wholeheartedly unimpressed with the new me. So what if I had conquered this one personal demon? What did it have to do with them? They just wanted to be left alone to enter “How R U?” in their MiniMaxes.
I find it interesting how much more tolerant I am of the kids’ doing the wrong things that I do, as opposed to the wrong things that I don’t do anymore or the wrong things that are all their own. Charlie is a spectacularly bad listener. What I mean by this is that if I say, “Charlie, put your socks and shoes on,” ten minutes later, I find him, barefoot, pulling his shirt up to cover his face and talking to himself so that he can hear what it sounds like to talk through his shirt, or putting little rolled-up pieces of masking tape on all his fingertips to see if he can climb the walls.
Then I say the obvious: “Charlie, your shoes and socks are not on!” and he says, “I didn’t hear you say that I should put them on.”
And he sounds quite sincere, even affronted by the suggestion that I had said anything whatsoever about socks and shoes. Bad listener.
I don’t identify with this at all. It’s not like the pudding scenario, where if I were in his place and couldn’t eat whatever I wanted I might cry too. I don’t understand at all how he can be so distracted that he forgets to put on his shoes and socks. I am a good listener. I can follow instructions. I was the attentive child at school who always put the paper in the right colored folder and who brought the signed field-trip permission slip back on time.
So I tend to interpret his poor listening skills as an indictment of his character. Either he is defying me by ignoring me or he really can’t hear and remember what I said. Either way, I sometimes believe that there is nothing but trouble ahead for him.
Back when I had an office job, I worked with this guy named Ed who was a bad listener. He once told the folks in the office an enlightening story about when he was in first grade: His teacher told the class that they would be having a Christmas gift exchange. She would be handing everyone a little slip of paper with the name of a classmate, and they were each to bring in a gift for their assigned child. Ed wasn’t listening while the teacher was talking, and so when she handed him the slip of paper that had a little girl’s name on it, he figured it wasn’t important and threw it away. When the big day came and his classmates started exchanging presents, the magnitude of his faux pas became apparent to him. As he told this story to us, his co-workers, it was clear that he was still traumatized by his blunder (although I imagine that the little girl who didn’t get a present might have been even more traumatized).
I tell this story for one reason: Ed hadn’t changed. Adult Ed was still a terrible listener. He didn’t even read his e-mails. One Christmas, our organization was giving gifts to orphans. The person running this program sent out an e-mail that explained it all: We would buy gifts for orphans from the coffee money collected throughout the year. A few people would take all the money and a list of the children’s ages, and they’d trudge through Wal-Mart, buying sweaters and CDs. And then we’d get together for a big giftwrapping session.
When the gift-wrapping session was revving up, Ed had a blank look on his face.
“What’s all this?”
“This is where we wrap the gifts we bought for the orphans.”
Immediately understanding that Ed had not read the e-mail and sensing weakness, I lied. “Didn’t you get the note? Everyone was assigned an orphan to buy a Christmas present for. This will probably be that child’s only present. There was a list, remember?” I had a moment of evil genius and zeroed in for the kill: “You were supposed to buy a gift for a six-year-old girl.”
He staggered backwards as if he had been shot.
When you are a bad listener, you are an easy mark.
So when I see traits like that in my kids, I worry about them. I project those faults into the future onto their adult selves, and it’s the fear of my kids’ being dogged through life by their flaws that causes me to react the way I do. But when I think about it, it seems like a strange sort of conceit on my part. After all, are Ed’s bad listening skills really worse than my weakness in the face of brownies? Or, for that matter, whatever cruel compulsion inspired me to traumatize Ed? That’s not a very nice trait either.
Maybe what it comes down to is remembering that we are all works in progress. If I didn’t make a dent in my housekeeping challenges until I was in my thirties, and if I still have no self-control when it comes to chocolate, why am I so impatient with my seven year-old for not listening or so annoyed with my ten-year-old for being messy? I’m not saying that I shouldn’t have expectations for them or that I shouldn’t correct them. Just that maybe my inner volcano shouldn’t be erupting when they leave their socks on the floor.
My kids have their own weaknesses, just like I do. Some they will overcome—maybe when they’re children, maybe when they’re thirty. But some weaknesses will just be a part of who they are. I need to accept that, just as I accept my own weaknesses. Parenting isn’t like polishing a table, where if I do it diligently enough I can get a perfect result. It’s like polishing a table, walking away, and coming back to see marks on it that have very little to do with how well I polished. When I’m done parenting, what I’ll have is a human being every bit as complex and flawed as I am but in new and surprising ways. One of the hardest parts of parenting for me isn’t really the frustration of having a kid who doesn’t listen or finding a mess in the living room—it’s accepting the uncertainty of it all, how little control over the result I probably have. And then polishing anyway.
Auhtor’s Note: My latest self-improvement scheme is running (or more accurately, “shuffling”) as a sort of compensation for my chocolate addiction. Now I am just as evangelical with my kids about running as I am about tidying the house. I pull them out the door with me, crowing annoyingly about “fresh air” and “healthy bodies.” They’ve picked up more on the running than the cleaning and run ahead of me and then look back and make fun of me. I guess I’ve had it coming.
Brain, Child (Summer 2005)
Jody Mace is a freelance writer living in North Carolina. Her essays have appeared in O Magazine, Brain, Child, The Washington Post, and many other publications, as well as several anthologies. Her website is jodymace.com. She publishes the website Charlotte on the Cheap in Charlotte, North Carolina.