What I don’t know about parenting

The central paradox of parenting is that by the time you have it figured out, it’s over. Now that I have written that sentence, I immediately see two flaws in it, regardless of how wise it sounds. First, parenting is never over. Well into my late 30s, my father was still giving me an “allowance” and buying my meals whenever we ate out at restaurants, and my mother still fretted over my lack of sleep. You don’t stop being a parent the day your child turns 18. Second, you never figure it out. Never. You’ll figure out Rubik’s Cube before you have the first clue about parenting. You’ll learn two languages and write a novel first. Learn to play the violin. Run the Boston Marathon. Dance with the stars.

As a relatively new father, I take some comfort in the absolute futility of seeking to become the “perfect parent.” I seek instead to be loving and gentle and supportive. I seek to be firm, resolute, and consistent. I seek the cordless phone, which may be buried in the laundry hamper along with half a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, or submerged in the murky waters of the kitchen sink, settled among the silverware at the bottom like a ship lost at sea, waiting on tiny divers to come and explore its mysteries.

I seek the novel I just brought home from the library, foolishly believing I could leave it unattended for just a couple of minutes to fetch a mug of tea. By the time I find it, in the microwave or in the ever-fragrant catbox, I’ll discover that it has been transformed into a canvass, and that various drawings of misshapen turtles — horrible mistakes of evolution — have been sketched on the jacket and even on some of the pages inside. Two minutes, that is all he needs. In less time than it takes for the Beatles to sing “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” an unattended 2-year-old can cut a swath through your house like a tiny tornado, leaving a trail of devastation that you can scarcely imagine. The cat cowers in the bathroom, hoping to blend in unseen among the billowy towels, waiting for the storm to pass.

In a sense, small children are like dangerous criminals — they must be watched at all times. I do understand this much about parenting. But there is so much, so very, very much, that I simply do not understand at all, some basic parental “truisms” that just do not ring very true to me.

For one thing, I do not really understand why children are required to wash their hands before meals. Oh, now I understand this in THEORY all right. Most children, however, are not theoretical, and I would estimate that the average non-theoretical 2-year-old child consumes approximately 12 pounds of dirt, dust, paper, wax, rubber, glue, and unidentifiable compounds best left unidentified, before the arrival of that third birthday party.

My son just got a new Spongebob electric toothbrush, which he sometimes employs to polish the tub, the bathroom walls, the faucet, his toes, or the slumbering cat, who must believe he is awakening from a nightmare in which he was a character in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. My son will go about the house polishing the most disgusting objects — sorry, cat, nothing personal — and then pop the toothbrush back into his mouth to work on those bicuspids, and this is de rigueur for a 2-year-old? I guess it would be OK if he used his toothbrush to scrape the asbestos out of the attic and then brushed his teeth with it, as long as he washes his hands before meals?

People, hear me now. I have seen the child pick up marshmallows off the ground outside and pop them into his mouth. I have forced him to spit out buttons, quarters, and smallish action figures, all retrieved from places one might charitably call “less than sanitary.” I’ve seen him chew on mulch and dandelions and tree bark, and this is deemed as pretty standard fare for a toddler. But those hands better be washed, or it just wouldn’t be sanitary.

Another thing I do not understand is sending children to their rooms as a form of punishment. My sister disappeared into her room when she was about 12 and did not reappear until she was 18. She had a stereo, a television, her own telephone line, books, magazines, games, puzzles, toys, and canned goods (probably) in her room. We couldn’t pry her out of there with a crowbar. And yet, if she got in trouble at school, she was “grounded,” unable to leave her room for a whole weekend! Oh, the horror!

It is just the same now, for our 6-year-old. She does not have her own phone line — or, over my dead body, a cell phone. But she has most of the other accoutrements my sister enjoyed. She loves her room. It is her favorite room in the house, by far, a place where she can seek refuge from the pillaging and pugilism of her younger brother, the design shows favored by her mother, and the noisy jazz music favored by her father. Is it really a serious punishment to force a child to stay in the same room you can never seem to get her out of?

The next time I get in trouble with my wife, maybe she can sentence me to a meal at the all-you-can-eat Chinese Buffet on crab leg night, or buy me tickets to see the Carolina Panthers. On second thought, watching them play IS pretty painful. If the kids don’t behave, maybe I’ll take them with me.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Waynesville. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

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