Part of becoming a parent is making peace with the proposition that virtually everyone in the world except you knows best how to discipline your children. I was once part of that world, casting judgmental “if those were my kids” glances at parents whose children were running amok in restaurants, attacking the salad bar with little balled up fists, or pressing their faces flat against the fish aquarium, alarming the fattened goldfish into a frenzy.
Seven years into my education as a real — rather than a theoretical — parent, what I have learned so far can be summed up in one sentence: Trying to find the “right” discipline for your child is like trying to tie your shoes with a strand of cooked spaghetti for a shoelace. It looks like it might work, but it won’t.
This doesn’t mean you stop trying, of course. You don’t want your shoes to fall off. You don’t want your children to wind up in the principal’s office … or the penitentiary. I know I don’t, which is why when my children act out, I get out the “box of consequences” from my handy parenting tool kit and search for just the right instrument for the job. What will it be? Time out? No television? No electronic games? No ice cream for dessert?
Whatever I choose, I know it will stir dramatic, perhaps Oscar-caliber performances from my children, who are never more prone to histrionics than when they feel falsely accused of a crime they may not have committed, at least not alone, and, hey, it wasn’t their idea anyway! When this happens, I usually get the same response, sort of a forlorn “my daddy hates me” slumping into the chair, as if the meting out of punishment included the literal removal of all bones from their bodies, such that whatever chair they may occupy now contains only a large pool of child … with shoes.
“Why do you hate us, daddy?” they say. “Why oh why?”
Of course I don’t hate them. They’re very expensive, and they often look cute in their school pictures. They make people think I’m younger than I really am, and they give me an excuse to play video games and eat ice cream instead of working in the yard or cleaning the garage. What’s not to love?
I guess I owe them more than that, though, so I decided to give the question a lot of serious thought and not bail out with obvious, easy answers such as, “I’m your daddy, and you’re my world.” This is the kind of drivel parents post on Facebook, but it’s just sentimental parental boilerplate to kids.
So, what’s the answer, then? What IS the best, most compelling evidence, that I actually do love my children? I think the most persuasive evidence by far is that I go to carnivals. You heard me. I go to carnivals.
Let’s be clear about one thing before we go a step further: attending a carnival is a small act of insanity.
Each year, right on the cusp of fall, we draw out a large sack full of cash from our sad little bank accounts and take our kids to the carnival — because we love them — where we must run a gauntlet of hectoring carnival folk, not one of whom you would ever, in your most desperate straits, let your children be around for 20 seconds in any “non carnival” context.
We hand over $20 bills like politicians handing out leaflets on election day to these con people — I mean “carnival workers,” or “barkers,” if you prefer — so that our children can play games that they: a) cannot possibly win, or b) “win” every time, if winning is defined as taking possession of a plastic lizard about the size of your thumb instead of something from the array of stuffed animals hanging above the game like little carnival angels, looking down benignly on the proceedings, almost as if what they are watching is something other than a corrupt rip-off.
We know these games are rigged. The basketballs are inflated to a degree that if you dribble one before shooting you risk fracturing your jaw. The rims are about as big around as the lid of a pickle jar, and fastened so tight and at such an angle that if the ball hits any portion of the rim — which it surely must, given that it will barely fit through in the first place — it will carom so high as to be a threat to birds and small aircraft.
You’ll have better luck with the darts and balloons, perhaps, but you will find that the balloons you do break are ALWAYS the balloons with the thumb-sized plastic prizes, and not the enormous stuffed animals that could pass as friends if your children are lonely. Luckily, you can play again, and trade up for a larger prize. After approximately 17 “trade ups,” you might win one of the biggies. Or you might go home with a pocketful of plastic lizards to mingle with the 37 cents in change you have left from your sack of money.
The rest you will have spent on food you would never eat anyplace else, or on rides that you would never ride anyplace else, contraptions that jerk you around violently, as if the carnival gods will not be appeased until you cough up that corndog you just paid $7 for.
I know you’re upset, children, but don’t ever say that daddy hates you. Daddy goes to carnivals.
(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County.)