As a parent, one of your chief responsibilities is bringing your children up to be socially responsible citizens who more-or-less follow the rules of polite society.
You need to do this not just for the benefit of society, but also of your kids, since they will end up being miserable if they are so obnoxious that no one wants to be around them, or worse, if they can’t control their impulses enough to avoid jail or drug addiction or all manner of miserable fates.
It’s kind of like bringing up a terrier. Sure, your puppy is cute and you hate having to yell at it because it makes that sad, guilty face that puppies are so good at making, but if you never teach it to sit still and be quiet, it ends up piercing everyone’s eardrums with nonstop yapping.
Eventually, no one can stand your dog because it’s always jumping in people’s faces, nipping at them and whining for their food. People inwardly cringe whenever that obnoxious terrier shows up, and hopefully, the poor thing doesn’t end up tied up in the backyard all day. It’s sad, because it’s not really the terrier’s fault, he just needed to learn how to behave.
Well, being a parent is a more complicated version of the pet dog scenario. It’s hard, because not only are human beings extremely intelligent animals (who can think up infinitely more creative transgressions than terriers), but they are also a part of you.
You love your children and since they came from you, you can recognize echoes of yourself reflected in their behavior. While you don’t understand why your terrier insists on snacking out of the cat box, for example, you can’t help admiring your toddler’s ingenious plan to scoot enough furniture into the kitchen to reach the cookies.
And sometimes, disciplining your children can be rough. It could be because your hyper-energetic toddler has been throwing an epic tantrum when you’re particularly exhausted. Maybe you barely got any sleep and it’s all you can do to summon enough energy to enforce rules, instead of just giving in so your kid will just shut up and leave you alone.
But you know if you give in this time, your job will be that much harder from here on out. You have to head things off at the pass.
And sometimes it’s hard because you don’t like making your kid unhappy. You would much rather just have fun than play Bad Guy. You love seeing your children smile and it hurts to hear that they hate you because you just put the kibosh on another episode of My Little Pony. Being too young right now to grasp why your wishes are in their best interests, your kids are convinced you’re just being mean and you hate having to put on the cop shoes yet again.
But here’s the secret hurdle parents rarely talk about: once upon a time, most parents were cool, rebellious youths themselves. They also had fun getting away with stuff and “sticking it to the man.”
And there is no glittery parenting fairy that swoops down on you upon parenthood, touching you with her magical maturity wand and transforming you into a wise authority figure.
No, we all just figured out we’re going to be parents at some point, which meant we were going to become the rule-enforcers, the providers, the guardians entrusted with transforming feral children into responsible adults. Suddenly, WE were “the man.”
Deep down, many of us still have that sense of humor. A part of us still retains grudging respect for kids with enough backbone to try getting away with something really inspired, but we absolutely can’t let them know it, or else all hell will break loose.
We can’t let those kids see behind that parental authority mask too often, or else the entire hierarchy will flip on its head. Cats will marry dogs, chickens will be elected mayor, and everyone will find out that the Great and Powerful Oz is just a little guy behind a curtain. We have got to keep this ship running tight.
And sometimes that’s tough, because your kid just came up with something so creative that it’s all you can do not to drop your guard and laugh yourself stupid. Like the time I watched a girl torture a screaming boy with the teeter-totter…
Take last night, for example…
Last night, John told our daughter Brontë that it was bedtime.
Brontë doesn’t care for bedtime, and that’s too bad because Brontë is three years old and therefore can’t be making many of her own decisions. Because if Brontë were left to her own devices, then she would spend every night eating giant bags of chocolate and playing with My Little Ponies, growing increasingly overtired until she started flipping everywhere, accidentally smacking into walls like a drunken bluejay until she finally passed out around 3 AM in a pile of her own destruction then spend the next day throwing crabby fits because she’s exhausted and delirious.
That’s why we don’t let little kids make their own decisions about these things.
So, Brontë told her father that she didn’t want to go to bed. John again insisted that it was, in fact, bedtime.
“No,” Brontë said shortly, as she grew increasingly irritated.
“It’s bedtime, Brontë,” John said with conviction, “NOW.”
Brontë fixed her eyes squarely on her father’s and wrenched her eyebrows into the most impressive angry “V” she could manage before saying, “I NOT go to bed!”
John had had it. He stood up with all the dominant posturing he could, squaring his shoulders and deepening his voice: “It is… BEDTIME. I am NOT going to tell you again!”
Brontë stood up, outraged, and squeezed her tiny hands into angry fists until her face was bright red.
She paused for a moment, trying to come up with the swiftest, best, most terrifying response she could muster…
Then she threw her head back like a muppet and shouted, as loudly as she could, “DADDY…
And it was all I could do to not roll on the floor, hysterically laughing, because watching a 2-foot princess fairy scream that your husband smells like bacon farts is insanely hilarious. I don’t care who you are.
But you just can’t… you just can’t encourage that type of disrespect, so I had to quietly move into the next room so I could explode into a laughing fit, shaking until tears ran down my face, as John put on his best stern daddy voice and marched that uppity little lady straight to bed.