Archive for the ‘kids’ Category
You’ll find it in the “Parenting” section of your local bookstore, but I’ve seen it listed as self-help and spiritual, too. Everything has a label, and my book is no different. After all, how do we know how to judge a thing unless we know the context upon which said thing is to be judged? We like to compare our words to our actions and contrast our thoughts against apples, oranges, and the next big thing. We are those that deem things worthy.
That being the case, I fear The Parents’ Phrase Book is on the wrong shelf. It isn’t a parenting book.
Yes, I said it. And yes, technically, it is a parenting book, in that it was created in hopes of helping parents communicate openly and effectively with their children, but I like to think that it is bigger than that. The Parents’ Phrase Book was written as a love letter to empathy and imagination, the comfort of self, the appreciation of others, and the wonder of wonder. It is about striving to be the best person that each of us could ever wish to be, to celebrate the differences between us and to make a difference when a difference is needed. It is an ode to love and ceaseless encouragement for ourselves, our children, and those around us.
Perhaps it aims too high and leans too far toward quixotic attempts and idealistic implementation; but if we are set on being better shouldn’t we reach for those aspirations that are hardest to reach, rather than settle for those already within our grasp? Shouldn’t we search for inspiration while always hoping to inspire?
I like to think so.
Which leads to the question, who am I to offer suggestions on parenting and life? What the hell do I know?
I know what not to do, the things I wish I did, and those I long to achieve. I know hope and regret, and the gray between. I know what I have done wrong, and I trust that sharing it will help people, myself included, avoid such mistakes, or at least provide some assurance that such mishaps may be overcome, learned from, and built upon. I know what makes me happy. That is why I have written this book, and that is why it is as open as only a book can be—let us be better to ourselves and more excellent to each other.
It’s like Wyld Stallyns, but with less Keanu.
The Parents’ Phrase Book is perfect for parents, but it is also great for non-parents and anyone else that has ever talked to another human being. It is for the future in the nicest way possible.
I wrote it for you, specifically.
Every street corner is more or less the same. They are the crossroads between where we are going and where we have been. The paths of others are layered across it. They are decorated in flowers, rocks, and fifty shades of concrete. There may be a light, a newspaper, or a marker-smudged sign with human hands upon it.
The signs are a barrier between those that hold them and those that fiddle with the radio in an attempt to avoid eye contact. Even the best of us find it hard to read every word, every time. It is hard to look into the face of need when we all need something.
The sign is a humble invitation to human contact between those that lack it and those that take it for granted. It is an opportunity for small moments of pity and respect, civility and kindness. A lot can happen at a red light.
We sat in the car with the windows down. It was a beautiful blue-skied day, and the breeze from the hills felt vaguely of the sea. It danced loosely across the salt of our thinly layered sweat, and it lingered soft and cool for a moment as if thinking about home. Then it carried on to woo the next in line, leaving memories and taking parts with it. A blink. A breath. A whisper.
We were leaving a store full of red shirts, value, and everything. Our bags were full and my wallet was empty. I had nothing in my pocket but a collection of plastic cards that owed more than I have and a balance that was anything but.
The breeze danced in my window, spun me around, tickled the nose of one boy, then the other, and flew out toward the man that stood there waiting. He smiled beneath a skin taught with sun and a layer of sweat much heavier than mine. His glance fell down, past the cardboard sign in his hands, to the grass beneath his feet and the child that sat quietly upon it. The breeze rolled from father to son and the smile went with it.
“Why is that boy there?” asked my youngest son from his spot in the backseat. His window was down, too, and his words were loud and carried on the wind.
The man kept his gaze to the ground and the boy looked at something important in the opposite direction. We were at a stop sign and there were no cars behind us.
My reaction in such situations, when a child’s innocence tends to jump from one side of a socially awkward bridge to the other, is usually alarm and quick words of quiet, something that surely embarrasses us both, but instead I took the man’s invitation.
To be clear, this isn’t meant to suggest that I am noble, doing the right thing, or any sort of action that merits acknowledgement beyond those involved, but rather a reminder about how much we all share and to suggest that we shouldn’t need signs that confound our attentions.
I could be that man. Any of us could. As it is I have been barely getting by for years—I went from making a very good living to making nothing, and now, thanks to a writing degree and access to the internet, I am making just enough to supplement my wife’s income so that we don’t go under. In fact, a few years ago we found ourselves having serious talks about what we feared was inevitable. We didn’t have many options, and we started to prepare for the worst. It scared the hell out of us.
The man on the street corner, the man that could have been me, was equal parts proud and humiliated as he leaned in the window that I am lucky to have, and answered:
“No, of course not. Change is very much appreciated.”
It was all I had and I gave him all of it.
“Why did you give that man money?” asked my oldest son from his spot in the backseat.
“Because he’s a daddy,” replied his brother.
The man’s eyes met mine, and one of us nodded and then the other. There was nothing left to say.
As we pulled away I watched the rear-view mirror and a fading street corner looking more or less like any other: a slab of concrete, a slice of shade, and a small, smiling boy held in the hands of a man where a sign used to be.
I was pulling the wet clothes out of the washing machine, cursing each garment that fell to the floor and wondering if the three second rule applied to freshly laundered t-shirts, when I saw an older woman approach my boys and speak to them for a moment. They were a couple of rows away in the laundromat, having found an unoccupied table and two unused carts, then fashioning the lot into a fortress of sorts, and they seemed content in that space. There they sat, inside their fort, one doing homework and the other keeping watch. Their level of quiet was relative.
I watched the woman speak to my boys and strained to hear what she was saying, but the distance and spin cycles between us made my eavesdropping impossible. However, the boys could hear her clearly, and they were listening with eyes glazed over by shyness and the sudden realization that their bubble did not, in fact, make them invisible to the world around them. Their lips were still, their eyes slightly lowered, and the occasional nod was given by one and then the other. The woman turned and walked away. I pulled the last pair of pants from the washer and pushed my cart slowly toward the dryers.
“Is that your son?” asked the woman as we passed each other.
“They both are,” I said.
The boys were still sitting in their fort, and they were watching me.
“But that one,” she said as she nodded at my oldest. “That is the one that took my cart.”
I felt myself grow equal parts defensive and apologetic. My wife and I have raised our boys to be courteous and respectful, but it is a constant battle, and when they are lost in their world of imagination they tend to tune out the realm of reality, including those of us that live within it. His being unaware and helping himself to an empty cart did not seem all that shocking.
On the other hand, there are a lot of fucking carts, lady.
“He took my cart,” she continued. “He came up to me and asked in the sweetest voice if I was using it, and I told him that I wasn’t.”
“Oh,” I said.
“Then he asked if he could use it. He was so polite.”
“Thank you,” I said.
“Such nice manners. You don’t see that enough these days.”
“That’s kind of you to say. We try.”
“You’re doing a great job,” she said, and then she continued on her way.
I looked at the boys. They were still sitting in their fort, staring at me beneath lowered eyes and shell-shocked silence.
“Did you hear what that lady said?” I asked.
“She told me, too,” said the boy in question.
“It feels good, doesn’t it?”
“I’m proud of you for using your manners,” I told him. He nodded and glanced at his brother.
“He has good manners, too,” he said.
I put the clothes in the dryer and waved them over to me.
“Here,” I said as I handed them each a bunch of quarters. “Those clothes need 24 minutes of heat or they’ll escape and shrink us all.”
They looked at their quarters and the quiet, giant dryers, napping in the afternoon heat—their eyes sparkling as they stepped up to the challenge and paid the machines to wake, to spin, to dance.
No one said a word as the strangers took their fort away, and no one asked them anything.
“I think,” I said into the air between us, “that it is time to plant the grass heads.”
“What do you mean?” asked my youngest son. “Plant them in the ground?”
“Exactly that,” I answered. “They are growing large and unruly. They are too big for their cups and need to be placed somewhere that allows them to grow.”
“But I don’t want to bury them,” he said.
“Not bury. Plant.”
“It’s like they’re dead,” he said. “When something dies we put it in the ground, and then it helps other things grow.”
“The grass heads aren’t dead. They are still alive.”
“Right,” I said. “Is this because you put faces on them?”
“They have feelings,” he said.
“Maybe,” I answered. “But I think they will feel better with more soil to live in. If we give them more room they can grow bigger. I bet that would feel nice.”
“We made them,” he said.
“And when they stretch from a headful of grass into a patch of lawn, something you can walk and play on, you will have made that, too.”
“It makes me sad to bury things.”
I watched his mind wander across the hills, up the coast, and through the mountains to the last place we called home, and I met him there beneath the bright falling leaves of the biggest cherry tree.
“I miss Harley,” he said, and I knew that he did.
Harley had been my dog for 16 years and the boys knew nothing but her. She had been their plaything, their playmate, a pillow, a comfort, a friend.
She had been all of that and more to me. Harley had joined me on my journey when I was fresh and ignorant, full of self-importance and mindless drift, and she stayed strong by my side while I found myself, and she was there still, the day she died in my arms on a patch of grass that nobody made.
We buried her beneath that cherry tree full of fruit and deep with roots, and I told the boys about circles, life, and you know the rest.
“The grass heads were meant for this,” I said. “They will give the yard an added meaning, and when they grow it will be from your hands and your stories.
“They won’t just live in your heart,” I added. “They will live right in front of you.”
The sentiment was deeper than the holes we would dig, and he slowly came around to it.
“We need to plant the grass heads,” he said to his older brother.
“Okay,” he replied.
Granted, the oldest boy is fairly lazy with regard to must-dos, and as a result he cares nothing for schoolwork. He would prefer to spend his time and imagination on more frivolous pursuits like creating and thinking rather than learning from rote the pillars of a public school education. He is quite stubborn about it.
The youngest boy was, until recently, eager to complete his assignments, but these days when the window between classroom and bedroom is a scant five hours in which he must balance time outside with dinner and a moment with his family he has had to make sacrifices. It is homework that he has placed upon the pile, and there are matches nearby.
This has made my wife and I into the homework enforcers, and it is not a role that suits me. Sure, I can be bad cop until the cows come home, which not only begs the question as to where the cows went, but also, why does it take such aggressive measures to make the boys do that which they are required to do?
Surely they could complete their homework in a time much shorter than the span they spend arguing about it, after all, it is only elementary school busy work.
And there is the rub. I am not a fan of homework for the sake of homework, and it appears that the majority of assignments brought home are just that. Also, I am a big believer in life being short and severely lacking in tomorrows, so when my first grader would rather spend the lingering minutes of twilight playing catch than copying a word he can easily spell, a skill he mastered pages ago, we are going to play ball. Every time.
However, it is the attitude of the older son that troubles me more than his blatant disregard for paperwork. When given the opportunity to remain calm and carry on, he is choosing to throw tantrums much too elaborate for a child his age, and they are far beyond any emotion he has ever displayed during times of real consequence. Frankly, it is disgusting, and his actions are bringing the world down around him.
We have tried everything: reason, enticement, and fighting with fire—often in one conversation. He understands that he is the one with the power for change. He knows that he doesn’t have to like what he is charged with doing, but that it must be done. He gets that a quick buckling down on schoolwork will reward him with time and opportunities to pursue other activities, but more often than not he will stay in the ring, swinging at commonsense and sobbing on occasion.
To be fair, he gets a lot of homework, and it is the effort demanded by quantity, not the challenge of the work it contains, that pushes his buttons. He is not opposed to learning, in fact, he soaks up knowledge like a dry, thirsty sponge. He is incredibly bright. The point of his contention is the fear of losing an hour to something he finds tedious, and that results in his losing twice the time over something even more so. He is nine, he understands the argument, but the pill is still so hard to swallow.
We have a meeting scheduled with his teacher and principal to find productive ways to hold him accountable and to get his work done. The goal is to bend his attitude, not break his spirit. I only hope that there is some give for the take.