Thursday, January 28, 2010

What Would Wilson Do?

For this week's Won't You Be My Neighbor post, I'm excited to introduce you all to Andrea of Remains of the Day. Andrea is a talented writer with her own creative writing 'zine called Gemini. Her entries at her blog are steeped in a profound respect for nature and family and self, and I always come away renewed and encouraged.

You can't be too careful about who you'll take parenting advice from.

Most of the people I work with have kids ranging in age from middle school through young adult and I've had the pleasure of listening to their tales of parenting horror for the last ten years. My sample size is small, I admit, but this results show that the children—particularly the boy children—of educated, professional civil servants undergo a transformation of Jekyll and Hyde proportions beginning in junior high.

'Round about seventh grade, these previously sweet, smart, well-behaved boys morph from boy scouts or little leaguers into sullen know-it-alls who can't be bothered with school or homework or rules or parents. Nothing their parents try—bribing their offspring with ski weekends, taking away all of their electronics, calling the teachers every day to see if they turned in their homework, throwing up their hands and letting them sink or swim—seems to have any effect.

Most of these kids, eventually, outgrow this stage and return to their previous path of becoming decent humans. If they manage to squeak through high school, they go away to college, or at least land decent jobs. But in the meantime, in much the same way a stint in the Oval Office fast-forwards the aging process of our nation's leaders, their parents' heads have turned a shade or two more gray, their posture slumps and the skin around their eyes sags.

I have three young children of my own. Three boy children. The prospect of sharing a house with three such disinterested, self-absorbed and all-around unpleasant creatures strikes terror into my soul, or at least makes me wish I could drop them off at the border of Nunavut when they turn 13 and pick them up—if they've survived—five to seven years later.

There is one person in my office, though, whose kids (a boy and a girl) seemed to sail through those middle years. His high-school-aged son not only gets good grades but is also the star of the sports he plays. This person—whom I will call “Wilson”--complains that his kid does all of his homework on Friday night rather than going out, and, when he and his friends get bored with playing video games or basketball, they will all sit around reading books. He even shovels snow for his grandparents.

One day, imagining my future with three teenage boys, I asked Wilson what his secret is. How could he be the only one among a dozen or more with a teenage son who wasn't a walking headache? His secret, he told me, is that his kids are scared of him. Now, while this man is big, and as bald as Mr. Clean, he is a giant goofball. I find it hard to imagine anyone being scared of him. Also, most of what he says is total BS, and one must keep the salt shaker handy, but still I was the acolyte, there to learn from the master, and I begged him to elaborate.

He keeps his kids off balance, he said, with unpredictable acts of rage. For instance, once when one of them slammed a door, he ripped it off its hinges. It was a flimsy door that he was planning on replacing anyway, but the kids didn't know that. Another time, he asked his son to move a lawn chair out of the way of the tractor and, when he wouldn't, Wilson just ran over the chair. It was already broken, and he was planning on throwing it away, but his son didn't know that.

Hmm, I thought. The doors in our house are solid wood, quite nice. And I don't have a tractor. Nevertheless, I filed this information away in the vast and poorly organized (and rarely opened) cabinet in my brain labeled “childrearing advice.”

One evening, not long after this conversation, I was trying to get the two younger boys into the bath. y son E, who was three at the time, refused to take his clothes off. Now, I could have worked through my storehouse of tricks—bribing, cajoling, threatening no stories, ignoring him, doing it myself—but instead I thought, “What Would Wilson Do?” Like a flash, the answer came to me. I hoisted E off the floor and deposited him in the tub, fully clothed.

Only after he was standing, sobbing in the warm water did I realize he was wearing wool slippers, hand-knit by my grandmother who died 15 years ago.

I haven't resorted to the WWWD? technique of parenting again, for fear of destroying any more family heirlooms, but I'm keeping the file drawer in which it's neatly labeled just in case that Nunavut plan doesn't work out.

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This post is linked to Finer Things Friday at Finer Things, because guest posts and getting to know new bloggers is a finer thing!
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