STOP LICKING THE WALL
“I am completely serious, take the trash can off your head now.”
We were staying in an ornate suite in the New York Palace Hotel, which contained a glass-shelved bar and lots of fussy, fragile knick-knacks. My eight year old daughter had decided it would be fun to put a wastebasket on her head – a wastebasket that God-knows-how-many strangers had dropped, blown, spat, or otherwise expelled God-knows-what into – and walk around, a veritable bowling ball in a $900/night-plus-damages bowling alley.
It wasn’t the first time I’d been amazed at the things I’d said in the interest of educating and protecting my children.
“Don’t run with scissors”? “Don’t play with matches”? Those ordinary gems were for other moms.
Moms with normal children.
For me, it was, “Stop wiping your nose on the dog!”
“When I say get out of the pool to pee, I don’t mean on the sidewalk!”
“Changing your name to Superman does not give you the ability to fly, don’t ever try that again!”
“Don’t put the wheels from your Hot Wheels cars in your ears.”
Did you ever wonder who the idiot was that Petula Clark had to instruct not to sleep in the Subway? Not to stand in the pouring rain?
I’m guessing he was a Harbison.
Once upon a time – and, believe me, it is a fairy tale remembrance for me – I used to talk to other grown people about grown-up things. I could converse about politics, art, almost anything without looking out the corner of my eye for sparks, fire, blood, or accidental drownings in toilet bowls.
Then I had children. Two of them, a girl and a boy, born ten years – and two miscarriages - apart. I have been at this for a long time. With the first one I was young and feeling my way through an unexpected pregnancy – raising a baby at twenty-two was a bit like being a finger-wagging bossy older sister. In retrospect - back in the quaint days when the counter clerk at the airport would simply ask you if a swarthy-looking man with a bomb and an agenda had packed your suitcase – the world was a lot safer. But watching my baby cross my living room - strewn with Duran Duran cd’s, John Hughes Betamax tapes, and baby clothes -- felt like watching her swim a length of shark-infested ocean. “Watch out!” “Be careful!” “Slow down!”
The world changed a lot during the decade that passed before the next baby was born; the internet became easy and accessible, cell phones became the norm, Tivo made life wonderful. We entered and new millennium and the world got smaller, more intimate. And briefly – this was 2000 – it felt a little safer.
With information on almost anything just a few clicks away, and cell phones cheap enough to give to my children and sophisticated enough to contain locators, I foolishly thought having the second child would be easier. I certainly thought that I’d be more relaxed, that I’d worry less, that everything would fall more naturally into place. Because micro-management and constant instruction – and the accompanying constant worry - tend to be the domain of the new parent, right?
Not in my case. If I’d kept my mouth shut and let my son put tiny rubber wheels in his ears unchecked, I’d probably be giving him these directives in sign language.
With both children it was the same. Those first few tentative, failed baby steps were precious. We gloried in them. Encouraged them. Pulled the children along with sheer will, clapping and shouting encouragement like we were cheering on a Superbowl win.
They were brilliant. The smartest children ever. Raising them would be like having the most witty, entertaining houseguests in the world.
Then we spent the next two years chasing around what amounted to a two-foot drunk issuing instructions that only someone very drunk, very stupid, or completely inexperienced with life could need.
“Stop licking the wall.”
“That’s a birdbath, not a toilet. Apologize to Mr. Palmer and get a bag.”
“It’s pronounced pumkin, honey, not fuckin. Please don’t tell Mrs. Clemens you saw her fuckin in the window of her front room last night.”
I used to use this mouth to discuss global warming, the “Francis Bacon was really Shakespeare” theory, the works of Hemingway, and, okay I’ll admit it, Big Brother and Survivor.
Now I say things that would make no sense to a foreigner, trying to learn English.
“Stop putting green beans in your brother’s nose.”
My parting instructions when I leave my kids at their friends houses have become embarrassing. “Play nicely. Share. Don’t pull the dog’s whiskers out. Knock before entering the bathroom. Don’t put a ping pong ball in your mouth to see if you can whistle with a ping pong ball in your mouth. Look both ways before crossing the street, and that means side to side not up and down. Please don’t talk to Mrs. X about the president again. In the unlikely event that it seems like a good idea for you to stick your peanut butter and jelly sandwich to the underside of the kitchen table, please don’t.”
Every time I think I’ve covered every possible scenario, no matter how illogical, they find a previously-undiscovered loophole and I have to add something like “Don’t wipe snot on the wall while you’re sitting on the toilet” to the list.
It’s not always entirely their fault. Sometimes I forget my children take everything literally, so a metaphor gets me into trouble. When my grandfather died just before my daughter’s eighth birthday, I assured her that, even though he was gone, he would always be with her.
She didn’t sleep for days.
Finally I had to backtrack and say something that made more sense to her, even though it felt less true to me.
“He’s gone and we’ll miss him.”
It fell short of the spiritual lesson I wanted to take the opportunity to impart, but ultimately I believe it spared her the nightmarish imaginings of her great-grandfather standing by in the dark, unmoving, unspeaking, uncomprehending. Not quite himself, not quite gone.
We’d taken our cue from an earlier problem, when my husband had tried to explain the importance of hand washing in order to remove potentially dangerous germs. Now, I will say I think he probably overstated the case. He tends to lose patience when forced to argue over simple instructions and I’m fairly sure that argument ended with something like, “Because if you don’t wash your hands, you might eat germs that will make you get sick and die!”
I didn’t actually hear him say it, but, given the fact that she turned into Lady Macbeth, washing her hands into a cracked and bleeding mess for the next several months until she finally got enough therapy to stop makes me think his argument was pretty compelling.
That’s why when my son had to be told not to lick the wall, I explained, simply, that he might get a bad stomach ache. Children get too obsessed with more dramatic ideas. No one gets obsessed with the idea of puking or diarrhea.
The other day, it was like the third day of summer vacation and my son was getting bored, I heard my daughter say, “Oh, my God, Jack, take the trash can off your head!” I swear to God, it’s true. And I took a moment to appreciate the sweet irony of her incredulity, but, of course, it wasn’t her kid who was grinding the remnants of bathroom waste into his hair, it was mine.
So the sweet irony dissolved like smoke and I had to Handle the Situation while she walked out of the room, rolling her eyes at his stupidity.
This could have been a good place to point out that they outgrow the need for this sort of obvious instruction; that as children grow older they also grow wiser and the advice turns to a more poignant, more meaningful “neither a borrower nor a lender be” kind of thing. You might imagine – or at least I would have – that by the time my daughter was eighteen, we’d be having deep talks about relationship decisions, career directions, coping with changing friends and deepening responsibilities.
But, no. Two days before she called her brother an idiot for putting a trash can on his head, I’d had to tell her, “It’s not my job to remind you that you’re a vegetarian before you start pulling meat off a rotisserie chicken carcass and scarfing it down” because she “could. Not. Believe.” I had stood by and watched that when yesterday she’d told me meat was gross and she was never eating it again.
I cannot even imagine what I’ll have to say next. Will I be the one responsible for telling my grandchildren an umbrella is not a parachute? Am I the one who will have to call poison control if they pour themselves juice cups full of orange cough medicine, thinking it’s juice as their mother/aunt once did? At this rate, will my children even be capable of having their own kids one day without explicit and inappropriate instruction from me?
I don’t know if the fault is mine. If there was something I could have said very early on that would have blanketed everything from eating Barbie hair to bringing the wading pool into the house. Do Aesop’s Fables cover this kind of thing? Would reading them “The Donkey and the Lap Dog” subconsciously communicate basic common sense to them in a way that real life apparently didn’t?
All I know is that I’m not alone. My friend’s son stuck snausages (dog treats that look like Pigs n’ Blankets made of clay) on the trays at a party one time and she didn’t know it until she found the half-eaten ones all around the house the next day. There’s something you wouldn’t have thought you’d have to say to the kids during party prep beforehand!
Just the other day, I heard a mother at the neighborhood pool say to her toddler, “Just put your shorts on your head and stop whining.” I looked over at them and the reason for needing the shorts on the head wasn’t obvious, but I knew there had to be a good reason.
There always is.
So I’ll just chug along, trying to keep my family alive and healthy, occasionally doling out more of these bizarre words of common sense. "I don't care how it looks, the toilet is NOT filled with blue Kool-Aid. Now pour out this drink you gave me, uncork that bottle in the fridge, and get mommy her happy juice."