Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Parenting: Harder Once You Actually Do It

I was a much quirkier parent before I had kids. The Wife and I had all sorts of schemes and plans for the kids we thought we'd eventually have, and none of them actually happened. It turns out that when you're chasing around an actual screaming toddler, all of the amusing plans you made five years before aren't as funny.

Our big punishment was going to be making the kids Amish. Bad behavior? "You're Amish for the week, kid! No electricity, and no rides in the car." We never quite committed to actually buying a full set of shaming clothes for the prospective children -- though we vacationed in Lancaster, Pennsylvania pretty much every year, so it would have been easy to pick up a bonnet and calico dress -- but we were sure that we'd be turning off their electricity and sending them to school on one of those '30s-style apple-carton scooters whenever necessary.

That never happened, of course. And we never bought the house we really wanted, the one with a flyspeck island attached to the back yard, in the lake community where my mother lived. We loved the idea of sending kids to the island when they were bad, though -- "Go to your island!", we'd yell, and, if we were feeling particularly smug at the time, we'd imagine a drawbridge that we could pull up after the little hellions were safely across the water. No matter that the tiny stretch of water was small enough for even a shaky kindergartner to jump; it was the thought that counted: we knew we'd want to be able to exile our children when necessary.

But no: we were stuck with time-outs and stern talkings-to and the full panoply of deadly dull punishments that everyone else uses. The Wife still has Thing One go sit on the stairs when he gets particularly unruly, and he's thirteen now -- I bet we'll never manage to turn either of them Amish, even for a day.

Even their names didn't work out right. Long before we actually really planned to have kids, we planned a huge brood with "fun" names. The girls would be Roberta, Wilhelmina, and Thomasina -- called Rob, Bill, and Tom, of course -- and the boys would be Vivian, Leslie, and Evelyn. Sure, they'd probably get in a lot of fights and come home in tears from school more often than not, but a bad childhood is practically required for success later in life, right? I wanted to be one of those kooky families, like the ones in minor '70s YA novels, where the father is an absent-minded but brilliant something-or-other who smokes a pipe, while the mother is a swirling ball of energy that never quite gets anything done right. But it turned out that living like that was not just a lot of work, it also required being actually fictional.

Eventually, we settled down and started picking real names. And we focused on girls' names, because that's what parents do. We found it a lot easier to pick names for girls than boys -- our first-choice girl name actually fissioned into two names, because we liked the middle name so much. OK, we also had some family names, and those always have to be shoveled into the middle, so they can't do too much damage.

Neither of those names saw the light of day. If I remember right, they're still secret -- only The Wife and I know them. That seems silly now, but I'm certainly not revealing what Thingette 1 and Thingette 2 would have been called without an official sign-off from She Who Must Be Obeyed. We did manage to come up with one boys' name that we really liked -- with the same initials as mine, a touch that still makes me feel smug even now -- and smacked Thing 1 with that when he came along.

Thing 2, on the other hand, was named very late in the process -- we were vaguely fighting between Jack (The Wife's preference) and Graham (mine), when his eventual real name snuck in as a compromise candidate at the last minute. We only really decided on it the moment he was born, when I said "Look! It's <Thing 2>!" and that made it stick. (Making important decisions when your wife is under powerful sedatives, tied down to an operating table, and has several medical personnel elbows-deep in her abdomen is, I discovered, an excellent route to getting your way. Though I probably should have held out for Graham.)

You know, Thing 1 is a teenager now, and he's acting up like one. Maybe Amishness is just what he needs -- now where did I put that straw-hat and suspender catalog?


James Davis Nicoll said...

But no: we were stuck with time-outs and stern talkings-to and the full panoply of deadly dull punishments that everyone else uses.

This is not criticism: having been raised with the usual violent reprisals for misbehavior, real* and imagined, I always find it hard to get my mind around the idea that talking is a tool some people use in this matter.

* Moving into view counts.

The Wife still has Thing One go sit on the stairs when he gets particularly unruly, and he's thirteen now -- I bet we'll never manage to turn either of them Amish, even for a day.

My brother had a trick for turning his kids Mennonite; will that do?

Elf Sternberg said...

I have one social butterfly and one relentless creative, both girls. We did manage some of the quirkies into our parenting: hideously ugly pyjamas as punishment for not going to bed on time the night before (this worked remarkably well), the squirt gun once used to discourage the cat utterly terrifies the younger one (I first wrote "the smaller one," but she's two inches taller than her sister) into taking showers, and taking away all of their electronics, leaving them with books and a bare lightbulb (as close to Amish as I can get) has become a fairly standard consequence for misbehavior.

Oddly, parenting was never all that hard. To me, it was an exciting project that'll take eighteen years (at least!), at the end of which you'll be broke but have built a hopeful, amazing human being.

Sure, we had weirder plans. Only a few of them haven't come to fruition. Many of those involved travel, plans blocked by my ex, the older's inimical mother. But for the most part, we made a plan by consulting with friends who'd also raised quirky kids on the feasibility of them. We were lucky that the kids were healthy and "within acceptable limits"; that let us execute on the bulk of the plan. They're 11 and 14 right now; so far, so good.

James Davis Nicoll said...

I bet we'll never manage to turn either of them Amish, even for a day.

Huh, I just remembered my father actually tried somthing like this on my older brother and it back-fired horribly. My older brother got exiled to a cabin on our farm, one with no electricity or plumbing, heat provided by a wood stove. The flaw in the punishment, a pretty major one, was my father's failure to predict that my brother might prefer such a rustic existance to a more routine one; iirc he didn't move back into a house with all the modcons until his first kid was born about a decade later.

(I don't have kids, just nieces and nephews; the dynamic is very different)

Patty said...

Amish thing is totally new to me. It's interesting and I will give it a try.

Zoe said...

It's very interesting tip and idea, thank you for good information article.

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