Tag Archives: telling it like it is

Six very short stories

Very short story one:

The baby is seven days old and it is lying on some towels on the table on the deck and everyone is leaning over and peering at it. My nephew who is three asks: “ Whose baby is it? Who is her mother?” I think this is a very pertinent question and look around to see who claims the baby and then tears jump into my eyes and I can’t answer because I realize it is me.

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Very short story two:

The baby has been admitted to the hospital and his clothes have been taken off and put back on several times. They come to the room and give me flannel pajamas for him and hospital-issue diapers and baby wipes that are dry and you have to wet them under the tap before you clean him. The pajamas are too big. They will weigh the diapers so I am supposed to leave them at the end of the bed and not throw them out. That’s when I realize that the transformation is complete. When I brought him in here he was my baby but now he is their patient and it only took about an hour.

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Very short story three:

She is nine and her birthday was yesterday and she took the bus all by herself and she knew where to get off to catch the subway train and she knows which platform to stand on. I am on the train. I am scanning the platform. She should be getting on at this stop and I don’t see her and I don’t see her and I don’t see her. Then she is standing there and she is smaller than she was at breakfast and she glances at me and she smiles. She gets on the train and she wanted to go all by herself and she didn’t want me to help or even talk to her but she climbs up on my lap and we ride like that the rest of the way to school.

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Very short story four:

The kids are pretending. One says “pretend I was teaching you” and the other one says “Yeah. And pretend I was really good.” One says “pretend I was the best one and I got ten points and the other kids said ‘wow, ten points’.” And the other one says “yeah you were really good and I was your teacher.” So they don’t really pretend; they just write elaborate scripts of themselves winning.

Very short story five:

He doesn’t want to go to school because he knows that his teacher is away and there will be a supply teacher. He likes all the supply teachers except one and he is afraid it might be her. Even if it isn’t her he is afraid because his friends will not behave for a supply teacher. He will be good but his friends might not be good and if they get in trouble he will be upset and this is why he can’t sleep. He is not comforted when I say that his friends’ behaviour is up to them, not up to him. He looks at me as though I don’t understand a thing.

Very short story six:

They won’t go to sleep because they are arguing about how old they are. She is ten but he says she is only nine because she hasn’t finished her tenth year. They ask me and I say she has finished her tenth year and now she is in her eleventh year but she has not yet turned eleven. He says he doesn’t get it and now he is mad.

 

 

playing with fire

My kids have found something new to play with. It’s cheap and accessible. It helps them develop their fine motor skills and their communication skills. It allows them to explore changing states of matter. It fosters cooperation and a sense of community and looking out for one’s peers. It promotes role-playing, imaginative play and self control. It is fire. My kids are playing with fire.

I asked them to light the candles at the table one evening and showed them how to strike the match. Later, when I saw them tentatively playing with the candle –  feeling the heat around it, poking it with the burnt matchstick – I offered to put the candle in the empty sink where they could play with it without sending our napkins up in flames. They pulled two chairs over to the sink and set to work. They burned all the matches. Then they burned the empty matchbox. They were careful. Like, extremely careful. No one got burned. No one got even close to getting burned. They squeaked and gasped and winced each time they lit a match. K and I stood behind them and held in giggles. We looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Are our kids boring? What’s wrong with them? Why aren’t they better at doing bad stuff?

When I was 6 and my sister was 8 we bought cigarettes, telling the shopkeeper they were for our parents. We took them to the gulley and smoked them all (I didn’t inhale!). We then returned to the shop for caramels to soothe our raw throats. I’m not advocating this. I don’t wish my kids would smoke a pack. I share the story simply to convey that I’m pretty sure that striking the matches was not the biggest challenge that day. Getting money and hiding smokes was. We thought nothing of making a little flame.

We all know what happens when you play with fire: you get burned. And what happens when you get burned by a match? It hurts; maybe a small blister. That’s it. Is it unpleasant? Yes. Is it preventable? Also yes. Is it so terrible that it must be avoided at any cost and therefore a wall of caution and fear must be erected around fire so that children never, ever try to investigate and control its allure and may forever doubt their own ability to approach and manage risk? No. No it isn’t.

Now playing with fire has become one of their favourite things to do. When Akka had a friend over and they were leaving Malli out I tried to occupy him for a while with card games but that quickly got boring (for me). “Hey,” I said. “You want to light some matches?” I set him up at a little table with a tealight candle and a book of matches. He set about burning them; holding them for a long as he could before blowing them out, then waiting for the tip to cool and holding the other end to the flame to turn the whole matchstick black. He was entranced; I was free to get other things done. He had a lot of questions about what things burn. Plastic, I assured him, was a bad idea. But sure, lots of other things burn. Like this wine cork from the other night! No, not the plastic one but the real cork one. First he asked for a cup of water to keep next to him (see? careful!). Then he burned it.

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A few days later both kids were set up for our new game: burning stuff. I gave them a baking tray to hold all their paraphernalia and they burned a whole box of matches, then the box itself, then some cardboard strips. I opened the windows to air out the apartment and wondered about the reliability of our smoke alarms which never objected during any of this. Must check those.

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Look, I’m glad they’re cautious. I’m glad I never glance up to find them walking the roof ridge-line or paddling the canoe out to open water without a life jacket. But I do think it’s fine if they burn small stuff to see what happens. And I don’t think it should be me who shows them; I think they need to figure this out for themselves. So maybe this winter they can make a small fire-pit in the backyard snow. Or maybe next summer at Poppa’s cottage – after a hard rain, when the forest fire advisory is low – I’ll carelessly leave a book of matches and some dry sticks and leaves in the sand while I go take a nap.

Learning from the Sneetches

This is not the first time Dr. Seuss has graced these pages. You may remember that the Cat in the Hat home invader did not survive his trip on the Character Assassination Carousel.

Today, however, I would like to acknowledge some beaked Dr. Seuss characters whose presence has been welcome in my kids’ lives: The Sneetches.

The Sneetches helped me answer this question that came my way from Akka last year: “Mama? When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

This post was first published on Parentdish Canada on November 26, 2014.

Sneetches

“Mama? You know when white people thought they were better?” This from my eight-year-old daughter one morning on our way to school. She had about a quarter of my attention.

“What’s that, babe?”

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

My partner and I knew early on that we were going to talk to the kids about race. We weren’t going to pretend that they wouldn’t notice their own parents are two different colours. I’d read articles suggesting that parents often think their kids are growing up colour blind. They’re not.

Kids develop ideas about race early. We’d do better to name the issues and talk about them openly rather than hope race is no longer an issue just because their class photo shows more diversity than ours did.

So we’d had conversations about skin colour. We had talked about how most people in Europe, and families like mine who had moved from Europe, had white skin. And people in Sri Lanka, as well as people who had moved from Sri Lanka like their dad, had brown skin.

We had also told them that white people used to think that people with darker skin weren’t as good as they were. And that there was a time when people with brown skin had to live separately and also when many of them had to work for no money.

We had talked about racism. They had witnessed the actions of customs officers in airports who told us to approach one at a time; not realizing we were a family. They saw their dad get held back and searched while I was waved through.

I thought we had been doing a pretty good job. I knew we couldn’t cover everything but I had hoped we were giving them the basic vocabulary to talk about racism and the understanding they would need to recognize and hopefully to fight injustices.

But that morning I was reminded of how little we as parents understand what is going on in those little heads. My kids and I had been walking to the train platform and talking about a story that we like: The Sneetches by Dr. Seuss.

In Sneetch society, bearing a star on one’s belly is a mark of privilege, and the star-bellied Sneetches impose all kinds of indignities on the starless ones, like excluding them from their frankfurter parties.

A stranger comes to town and offers to stamp stars on those without and then to remove stars from those so endowed. The Sneetches spend all their money but learn that sporting a star or not is a feeble mark for the worth of a Sneetch. Good lesson.

The kids said the star-bellied Sneetches were silly for leaving the starless ones out; just like when white people thought that brown people weren’t as good as they were. Silly and wrong.

This was the story that had sparked my daughter’s question. What would happen if a star-bellied Sneetch and a starless one got together beyond the reach of the frankfurter party firelight? What sort of Sneetch would result from such a union and how would it be received by the others?

“When white people thought they were better, what was it like for people who were both brown and white, like us?”

We were crossing a busy street. Our train was coming soon. We were rushing to school the way we rush to school every morning. This was one of those conversations that you have with your kids one sentence at a time in between saying “come-on!” and “look-both-ways” and “you-can-fix-your-sock-when-we-get-there.”

So I answered quickly. “It was bad,” I said. “The white people didn’t like the mixed people, either.” Because I’d reasoned that she was thinking of apartheid in South Africa (we had been talking about it after Nelson Mandela’s death). I said, “the mixed people also had to live separate from the whites and couldn’t have all the things that they had.”

My daughter stopped. I glanced down at her just in time to see a look flash across her face. She was surprised. Shocked and hurt. I cast my mind back, wondering what might have upset her, and I suddenly realized that she had not seen that answer coming. She hadn’t known.

When we had talked about the times and places when racist rules prevailed, it had never occurred to her that people like her had suffered. I had just watched her find out that there was no star on her belly.

Perhaps she had thought she was going to hear something different. She knows that she is both Canadian and Sri Lankan, both white and brown.

She and her brother are doted on and adored by families on three continents; families that have little in common besides these two children. Perhaps she had thought that I would tell her that mixed people are loved and accepted by both sides in divided, racist societies. As part of both sides, they are the bridge between them; the proof that the divisions are arbitrary and hurtful and wrong.

Maybe she had thought I might say that the white people loved the mixed people because they were part white and the brown people loved the mixed people because they were part brown. Doubly-loved.

Instead, without pausing long enough to really hear her question, I’d told her that people like her were treated badly. I had inadvertently opened her eyes a little wider than I had realized. She knew now what is both surprising and obvious: being part-white is being non-white.

I regretted my answer. I should have waited until we were having a conversation face-to-face where I could have asked her more about what she was thinking. I wish I could go back and explore the world she had in her mind before I told her that life had been (and therefore could still be) hard for a mixed-race person. I had taken the wind out of her beautiful little sails and longed to blow some air back in.

We caught our train. She changed the subject. She didn’t have any more questions. And she seemed fine.

Growing up, our children will have many moments when reality displaces a firmly held but false belief. First, their childhood fantasies were reasoned away: they cannot fly and the dinosaurs are never coming back to life. Now they have to contend with uglier truths being revealed: life isn’t fair and racism really does hurt people very much like them.

Leah Birnbaum is an urban planning consultant and a parent in Toronto. She blogs at Chapter Four.

What I did all year

“What are you going to do in Germany?” people would ask. We left our Toronto home for a year and moved to Berlin. My partner had a sabbatical year and we wanted to spend it somewhere else. We found an apartment to rent, found a school for the kids for grades one and three and found tenants to live in our Toronto house. “And what are you going to do while you’re there?” my friends would ask. “A whole year off? Wow – you’re so lucky. You’ll have so much time to do whatever you want. Whatever you love.”

Right – that’s what I’ll do during our year away. Whatever I love doing – my real passion! Perfect.

But first I was busy figuring out how to live in a new place. There were bureaucratic tasks involving passports, bank accounts and school fees; our apartment was furnished but we needed more bedding for visitors; the kids needed specific closeable plastic envelopes to carry homework and hausschuhe which are not shoes but slippers. First I had to get all that out of the way and then I’d get down to doing what I loved.

One morning, after we were reasonably settled in, I dropped off the kids and found myself standing on the sidewalk in front of the school with nothing to do. I had nowhere to be. I had no immediate errands to run. So I walked home. It took about 45 minutes. I started to do this regularly and tried lots of different routes. I would sometimes stop on the way for a quarktasche and tea. Or I would sit in a park and answer emails. Or I would take photographs. A few times I hopped on a tram just to see where it went. Soon, when my schedule was truly, actually, completely clear, then I would figure out what to do with my time but for now, I was still exploring.

I did work – on ongoing contracts for clients in Canada. But there weren’t enough of these to fill the hours and in my line of work landing new contracts from an ocean away wasn’t feasible. So while I had work, I also had a lot of free time.

I began to let small distractions become big ones. I rode the transit system far and wide on the slightest pretense. In search of a new dinner idea, I headed way out of town to pick up frozen Swedish meatballs – having discovered the route during one of my tram rides. When Hanukkah rolled around I spent a whole day scouring the city for candles and dreidels.

Errands that would take 15 minutes of my time in Toronto stretched into half-day projects; not because they had to but because I would enhance the task; deciding to see whether the prices in the suburban mall were the same as those in the central shops when the kids needed winter boots; using a burnt-out light bulb or a spent battery as an excuse to wander through the big home-improvement store that I would otherwise have no reason to visit. Each time I finished a book I went to a new bookstore. I browsed every bookstore in Berlin with an English book section.

I grocery shopped slowly; examining what each shop had to offer; developing preferences for some stores over others. I figured out that the bread the kids like is from one shop while the muesli I prefer comes from another. I bought a used bike, found bike baskets, filled them with the groceries and carried it all up five flights of stairs. With four eaters in the house, plus frequent visitors, buying only what will fit in two bicycle baskets meant that I bought groceries every day. I went sightseeing. I visited tourist landmarks. I found suburban lakes equipped with walking paths from the transit station through the woods to the beer garden.

I hosted. His parents, his sister, my mother, my sister, my father, friends from Toronto and London. One after another, they came. Some for a few days, some for a month or more. I kept a list of places to see. I drew must-sees on to the transit maps and became an expert at advising the best routes.

Some days just formed themselves. Once, while putting away the dishes, I broke a wine glass. I looked up to realize that we were down to three from the original six that came with the apartment and an option for the day became clear. I dropped the kids at school, got my bike and rode through Berlin’s former-airport-turned-park to the store to pick up new wine glasses. Exercise, errands, and sightseeing all in one. I might have started to do what I love that day but I couldn’t because the glass broke. So my passion would have to wait.

Sometimes I would play solitaire on my phone. A few times I even contemplated staying on the u-bahn for a few extra stops just so I wouldn’t have to put a winning game on hold. Then I’d click my phone off and jump out at the right station with a sense of shame and a sharp internal admonishment to stop wasting this opportunity. Stop squandering this year by whiling it away comparison shopping and staring at a smart phone. Do something.

I mended all the ripped knees in my son’s pants by hand. I searched for new eyeglass frames. I worked a bit, and wrote, and read news magazines from cover to cover. I found places for us to stay when we went on trips. I bought gifts for all the kids who invited mine to birthday parties. I tried to ask for gift receipts in German but was offered gift-wrap. I sat and held hysterical children until they calmed down enough to tell me that they hate drama class or they miss their friends back home or their feet no longer fit in their shoes and in fact they never did fit ever. I finally finished knitting a scarf that had been sitting idle for ages. But the kid no longer likes green and I ran out of yarn before it was long enough and now it makes a bulky cowl for a well-dressed doll.

Even when I was busy I always had a nagging sense that I should be doing something more. I would oscillate between relishing the freedom and flexibility of my days and agonizing that I was being foolish, letting this gift of a year slip through my fingers. Sometimes I felt confident that the thing I was supposed to be doing – that thing that I love that I finally had time for – would reveal itself. But as the months wore on doubt crept in. Maybe I don’t love anything. Maybe there isn’t anything I really want to do. Or see. Or accomplish. Or learn. Maybe I don’t have a thing.

Then a child would get sick or a family member would come to visit or we would go on a short trip and I would be busy with everyday life and forget for a while that I wasn’t doing anything.

About six months in things got quiet. All the visitors had left. We were months away from the next planned trip. The weather turned cold and the days were short. The kids had their school routines all figured out. I couldn’t put it off any longer: this was the time. This was the blank slate time that I had; that I had to use. It was now.

Now I could see that there wasn’t going to be one, clear project that would define my Berlin year. I wasn’t going to go back home with a confident one-sentence answer to the question ‘what did you do in Berlin?’ I wrote a book! I learned perfect German! I learned how to use that architectural design software. No. No distinct, compelling, relevant-yet-fun project was going to present itself. I thought of throwing myself into several different endeavours but I didn’t. I had the time but I didn’t use it. Not that way. This felt like a major failure. I felt defeated and embarrassed not to have a quick answer when people asked what I did with myself all day.

But as the days started to lengthen again I realized that I was going about this all wrong. What was bothering me was not how I spent my time but what people might think about how I spent my time. If I was honest, I enjoyed my days; most of them. I didn’t really want to sit inside writing a book or staring at a screen finally figuring out AutoCAD. So I didn’t do those things. So, fine.

Answering the question “How was Berlin? What did you do all year?” deserves more than a one-line answer. If I’m not arriving home with quick and easy proof of a year well-spent, is that so bad? Will my friends and colleagues have their own one-line explanations for how they spent their time while I was away? Perhaps I became too pre-occupied by what is only a bit of lazy conversation: “How was Berlin? What did you do?”

I’ll tell you what I did: I lived in Berlin. I lived there. For a very short, very fast year. And it was a good year. I do not wish I’d used it differently. I do wish I had come to the realization earlier that the way I spend my time is not a matter I need to defend. I had a lot of time. It was mine. I spent it mindfully. I remember it fondly.

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hiatus

We have moved to Berlin for a year and I’m putting this blog on hold. I’m doing some writing but I’m not going to post each snippet here as I go. My Berlin reflections may well find their way to this (or another) blog but first I’m going to try out a less immediately gratifying style of writing. We’ll see how it goes. I may find that I don’t like to write without the quick reflections of ‘likes’ and comments and spikes in my readership stats to spur me on. Or I may find that I do.

But before I go, let me not leave you in a thumb-sucking limbo. Akka has totally quit! That time back in January – that was it! And as of about a week ago, it looks like Malli has too. Big changes around here.

thumbsuckers (still)

It has been more than two years since I wrote about my children’s voracious thumbsucking habit. I’m sorry to report that their enthusiasm for their thumbs is no less voracious today. Or am I? Therein lies my latest parenting dilemma.

They tried to quit. Then they stopped trying. The little thumb puppets were thrown from the bed. The sleek thumb-mittens were stretched out of shape after being repeatedly yanked out of the way of a needy mouth. Every few months I’d bring it up again and we’d try a new regime of sticker-rewards or check marks for each recess or dinner hour spent thumbless. Check marks could be collected and exchanged for gum or erasers or a pack of pipe cleaners. They built thumb-sandwiches out of tongue depressors and medical tape. Then they wrapped themselves up only to cry out ten minutes later to be set free.

It was all crap. None of it worked. Not even a little bit. It turns out they didn’t really want to quit – I wanted them to. I loved seeing their little faces without a fist in the way. I hated the idea that they’re making their jaws grow askew or setting themselves up for all sorts of invasive orthodontic treatment. I also hated how disappointed I’d be when each quitting method failed.

So we went to see an orthodontist. And he said it’s no big deal. He did say their jaws are messed up. Cross-bite, open-bite, they’ve got it all. But he didn’t seem to think the thumbs were making these conditions worse or that pushing them to quit would do much good. He also said they’ll quit when we start putting stuff in their mouths to correct those bite problems. The dentist, however, says that stopping the thumbs now while they’re still growing will prevent their bites from getting worse. So which one is right? And whose advice do I follow?

Will we cement bars across the roof of their mouths to prevent the thumb from fitting in? Don’t look shocked – I was this close to doing it. But can I handle the anguish and stress they’ll feel if their source of comfort is so blatantly blocked? Oops – I mean – can they?

I have no idea. Today we went to our regular dentist appointment. Akka has four cavities. Malli has two. We had to book three more appointments to get those fixed. The dentist is cool with not putting the anti-thumbsucking-bars in for now but she says that if I talk to ten different orthodontists I’ll get ten different answers. Upon hearing that my first thought was who has the time for more appointments!?

So, I remain uncertain. And they remain thumbsucking. And maybe that’s fine. I need to stop thinking about it for a while. I’ve decided to focus instead on the one small triumph I managed today: I found a tube of raspberry cupcake lip balm after it had been through the washing machine but – and this part is crucial – before it went in the dryer.

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a somewhat peaceful winter day

Today I took the kids and one of their friends skating. It was a beautiful, bright day. Cold and crisp. Dusting of snow on the ground. Clear blue sky with a few wisps of clouds. Brisk breeze at our backs. People smiling and birds chirping. Actually, it’s probably too cold for chirping birds. And even if they had been singing beautiful harmonies I wouldn’t have heard them because all I could hear was this:

Wow, it’s windy. The wind is blowing us. Wind can’t pick people up. Well, tornados can. But we don’t have tornados here, right? In Toronto? Is that why you decided to live here? And tornados can kill people. If you get bonked by a car or something in a tornado you can be like a zombie made of blood.

Imagine bug tornados! Mama, what would a bug tornado be? Like a really small tornado? But that couldn’t pick us up. It’s waaaaayyy too small. A bug tornado would be like a leaf twisting around. Hey, I never heard of a cloud that can touch the ground! 

Can hippos kill you? If they bite you? Or stomp on you? Hippos can bring down your boat with their mouth. Are hippos’ mouths really really big? You know how they can go really fast? But almost as fast as a leopard and a lion?

Can they?

Then we went skating. Luckily he can’t really balance and talk at the same time. It was very peaceful.

Hey Cat, NO means NO!

Welcome! We’re on the Character Assassination Carousel and my horse is up next. Organized by Ninja Mom, the Character Asssassination Carousel calls upon various blog writers to submit a children’s book to scrutiny and critique; ultimately reducing it to a cardboard pulp under the heel of a formerly-fashionable and still-comfortable-so-I’m-wearing-them-until-the-style-returns leather boot.

The last assassination credit goes to Vinny C. from As Vinny C’s It who’ll have you thinking twice before trying to put one over on a bear-fox-cow trio should the opportunity ever arise. Once this Carousel ride is over and you’ve regained your balance, James from Hitting the Crossbar will be up next.

Riding the Carousel horse this month is the king of all unwelcome house guests: The Cat in the Hat.

Simple story: Mother is out. Kids are home alone, seemingly left in the care of a goldfish. Then, BUMP! Bigger, unknown creature comes in uninvited, imposes a game, mocks the goldfish, trashes the place, ignores a request to leave, goes to get his friends and trashes the place some more. Then, when the kid finally speaks up to kick him out, the Cat guilt-trips him for not liking his antics, sulks and leaves. Cat returns once again to clean up and leaves the kids wondering whether or not to tell Mother about it when she gets home.

Classic passive aggressive narcissistic behaviour. Let’s break it down:

1) Mother is out:
Go Mama! Have fun! Tell us all about it!

2) Kids are home alone, seemingly left in the care of a goldfish:
I’m totally on board with this. Seriously. Kids are too coddled these days. Back in the Cat’s day (first published 1954) you could leave your kids home alone while you popped out to meet your lover or fill your valium prescription. Everybody did it. Plus, the goldfish has a good head on its shoulders. Or gills, or whatever. Actually, the fish’s lack of shoulders and accompanying arms and hands with which to either pre-emptively lock the door or grab a Cat roughly by the scruff of his neck and toss him out into the rainy afternoon may be the main oversight here in terms of choosing a sitter.

3) BUMP! Bigger, unknown creature comes in uninvited:
Just rude, really.

4) Cat imposes a game and mocks the goldfish:
Here’s where things start to get weird.

“I know some good games we could play,”
Said the cat.

“I know some new tricks,”
Said the Cat in the Hat.

“A lot of good tricks.
I will show them to you.

Your mother will not mind at all if I do.”

Whoa! whoa! Hold the phone. “Your mother will not mind at all if I do?!” Who introduces a game with that line? “Hey – let’s play checkers. Your mama won’t mind.” Or “Let’s go ride bikes. S’ok with your dad!”

More like “Come on into this gingerbread house made of candy, kiddies. Your mom texted to tell me to tell you to follow me down this dark forest path. Let’s go!”

First red flag: right there.

Up to this point the children are silent due to, at best, politeness; and at worst, paralyzing fear. Meanwhile the voice of reason (unfortunately housed within a fish whose protective instincts are thwarted by its inability to breathe air) speaks up to protest.

The Cat’s response? Bwaaahahahaa! Shut it fish! I balance you on an umbrella! Your protests invoke not sympathy but a scolding that you do not know how to have fun! Fun for me is entertaining your charges by threatening your life! Into the pot with you!

5) Cat trashes the place, ignores a request to leave, goes to get his friends and trashes the place some more:
Rude, rude, rude, rude.

6) Kid finally speaks up and the Cat lays on the guilt.
The kids are still awfully quiet. First: “Sally and I did not know what to say.” Ok, paralyzed with fear. Then: “Sally and I did not know what to do.” Still paralyzed. But later:

And I said,
“I do NOT like the way that they play
If Mother could see this,
Oh, what would she say!”

Followed by the first real action on No-Name’s part: he fetches his net and catches Thing One and Thing Two and finally finds his voice:

Then I said to the cat,
“Now you do as I say.
You pack up those Things
And you take them away!”

Go No-Name!! For this little outburst he gets a guilt trip from a sulky Cat. What a shame. What a shame. What a shame.

7) Cat cleans up leaves the kids wondering whether or not to tell Mother:
This is the one and only point in the book where the kids crack a smile. It seems that lots of good fun that is funny, not to mention FUN-IN-A-BOX wasn’t such a laugh after all. The only thing that gets a smile (of relief) out of these two is the tidying up bit.

Still, I fear it’s too little too late. Narcissist-Cat (Look at me! Look at me! Look at me NOW!) tidies up the crap on the floor but can he clean up the psychological mess in little No-Name and Sally’s minds as they wrestle with the decision of whether or not to tell their Mother that they’ve just survived a home invasion?

A Cautionary Poem
For Those Who Hear a Bump That Makes Them Jump

The Cat in the Hat
Is a creepy old guy
He comes uninvited,
He doesn’t say why
He breaks all your stuff;
He thinks this is fun
But it’s not; it’s quite rude
And it shouldn’t be done.

Learn from the fish
He’s really quite wise
He wouldn’t allow
A beast twice his size
To bring in his Things
To fly their two kites
And balance your knickknacks
From towering heights.

And so, if you’re faced with a Cat,
so,
     so,
          so…
Here’s how to proceed (and the key word is No!) 

If someone comes in
And upends all your toys
And ignores your protests
And then brings in his boys
Speak up! Tell him no!
You shouldn’t stay quiet
With a Cat who can’t tell
A game from a riot.

The fish knows what’s right;
You must listen to him
You should put that Cat out
And pour Mom a tall gin
With tonic and lime
And some ice on a tray:
A nice treat for Mom
On a wet, wet wet day.

good vs. evil

Malli wants assurances about good and evil. Black and white. Good guys and bad guys. He doesn’t cope well with nuance in this arena. He’s all about binary opposition.

I’ve told him that monsters aren’t real. I’ve also told him that zombies aren’t real. I think he watched Michael Jackson’s Thriller video at his friend’s house which prompted four million questions about zombies. The answer to most of those: not real.

Now he would like to extend those simple answers to his long and growing list of potentially scary things. So, unprompted, he’ll say “Mom, pirates aren’t real, right? Bad guys aren’t real.” Well…. not so fast. I like the idea of comforting my kid but do I have to resort to outright lies to do so? Pirates are real. Pirates are just people but they steal from other people. I’ve never met one. They don’t look like the ones you’re thinking of from cartoons or books. The only ones I’ve heard of live far away from here. Bad guys are just people who do bad things. People aren’t good or bad, but people can do good or bad things.

Well, in Malli’s world that kind of talk just leaves way too much room for doubt, uncertainty, and the potential for unwelcome things to appear from dark corners while his mother is in the basement doing the laundry. So if I’m going to try to offer him a simplified but not entirely delusional view of the world instead of the ‘good vs. evil’ answers he’s seeking, I have to be prepared for a whole lot more conversation and little four-year-old shadow outside the door every time I try to go pee alone.

So we talked more. We talked about how pirates take things from other people because they don’t have enough things for themselves. They don’t have enough money to buy the things they need so they take from other people and that’s bad but the pirates aren’t always bad; they’re just people. And maybe their government doesn’t share enough of the money and food that everyone needs so then the pirates go out and take it themselves. He listens attentively. He really wants to make sense of these things and, I’ll admit, I do too. When it seems to overwhelm him I change the subject and we talk about whether or not Mr. Incredible could lift our car (definitely) or our house (not so sure – what about the basement?).

A few days later, out of nowhere, he’ll say: “Pirates steal from other people because they don’t have things themselves…. so if we see a pirate we should just share with them. Then they won’t steal or be bad to us. [long pause] Right?”

That’s as good an idea as any I’ve heard so I give him the answer he wants. “Right.”

boys are not girls, episode 2

I’m being pulled in two different directions. My kids don’t want to do the same things, play with the same toys, visit the same kids or go to the same places. It’s not that they’re suddenly different from one another (I did notice this before), it’s that they’re suddenly so different from one another.

Last year I signed them up for the same dance class. It sort of worked. This year one of them asked for a different dance class: only ballet; and the other one asked for no dance class. Soccer instead. So now we have a girl in ballet and a boy in soccer. Typical.

They’re painting right now. One painted “two rainbows and a pink sky because it’s almost night.” One painted “a robot with a head, a body, a button that flies him in case of an emergency, another button that protects him and he has so many arms and feet that he can walk a lot at one time and he has little skates on his feet and he lets them out when he wants to walk. Inside the skates are tiny bugs and he keeps them in there because he doesn’t want them to get out of his skates. So he can skate at one time without even falling. And the buttons are all for protecting himself and for protecting other people. If there’s a bad guy that’s trying to kill them, he pushes the button to kill. But not the good guys because he faces the way that the bad guy is.” Typical?

Two weeks ago Malli turned four. Right then, something changed: he’s a boy now. Walking up the street, they both made snowballs. Akka patted hers and spoke to it. Malli heaved huge chunks of snow at the telephone poles screaming “fireball!“.

He wants to build Lego. He wants to play with trucks. His blind adoration for his older sister has faded to the point where he does not want to play school and be Akka’s obedient student. He wants to play with guns. That last one sparked the first parenting challenge that Malli has presented to us. Up to now, the parenting questions that I’ve really struggled with have been motivated by Akka: How do we feel about Barbies? How do we want to mark birthdays? What’s with all the rude selfishness? And now, courtesy of Malli: How do we burn off some of this energy and how do we feel about toy guns?

It turns out that the toy gun question and the Barbie doll question are one and the same. This article helped me see that. They’re just toys and they won’t turn him into a violent criminal any more than the Barbie dolls will turn Akka into a busty sportscar-driving doctor with an attentive blond boyfriend. Much like the girly-girl toys, I’ve decided that I’m ok with toy weapons and the imaginative games they inspire but I’m not rushing out to buy them. At the neighbour’s house Malli runs around, bursting with glee, firing sponge bullets and learning how to “hit the dirt!”

Am I parenting sensitively; adjusting to new challenges and taking them in stride? Or am I slowly just caving in to mainstream notions of what boys do and what girls do? Sometimes I feel like I’m letting all my convictions drop away as we steer our kids through year after year of life. Plunk! There goes ‘my babies won’t drink from bottles’ (until I’m three months pregnant with the second one and will do anything to get the first one off me). Whump! There goes ‘my kids won’t watch TV’ (until they start giving up their naps and I can’t last a whole day without some tuned-out time). There goes ‘just a few toys.’ There goes ‘gender-neutral clothes.’ And there goes ‘no playing with weapons.’ What’s next? Are we making too much of all these parenting decisions? Taking the path of most resistance? Are we kidding ourselves about how much influence we really have? Creating little gendered consumers while taking in a little extra reading along the way? Typical? Perhaps.