Posted by jdg | Monday, March 15, 2010

I was sitting with my son at the dining room table a few days ago and I heard myself say, "Just eat two bites of your pizza and I'll give you a gummi bear." Then I punched myself in the jaw.

Really I just sat there while those words echoed, batted back and forth by my conscience. Did I really just promise a gummi bear as a reward for eating pizza? That's like congratulating a kid for drinking chocolate milk or telling him he'd better finish those potato chips (two things I am quite certain I have done, now that I think about it). I could hear pre-parent know-it-all Jim clucking at me from the nth-dimension. Please tell me there are hippies out there who feel guilty when they have to say, Just eat two more spoonfuls of kaleloaf and I'll let you have one carob-sunflower-seed square? What kind of brainwashed little hippiespawn would eat kaleloaf without the mildly-disappointing promise of a carob confection?  As much as I admire parents who have never allowed refined sugar to pass their children's lips, I seethe with too much insecurity and shame to not hate such motherfuckers a bit too. Without gummi bears nothing would get done in our house. Gummi bears are the very mortar that keep our walls from tumbling down.

After my overly-generous promise, my sugarloving son looked at me and defiantly stated in his Wookiee language that he wanted a gummi bear but would not touch the pizza. Then he crossed his arms over his chest. I had a moment of panic.

A few months ago I went through a phase where I'd cook a meal from scratch every day using high-quality, local, nutritious ingredients, only to watch both of my children scowl at their plates and go hungry rather than consume homemade butternut-squash soup or authentic ratatouille. My children have more insufferable self-imposed dietary restrictions than a typical sophomore at Oberlin College, subsisting entirely on a diet of crackers, black beans, Colby cheese and high-fructose corn syrup. It had come to this: now they won't even eat pizza.

In the end, I ate his pizza and did not give him a gummi bear. The stubbornness, it runs strong in my family.

* * * * *

That noontime interaction was positively quaint compared to what I had to endure in the afternoon.

My daughter, charmed by the previous day's warmth, had decided she would wear a sleeveless dress before we went out to the playground to finally see all the other neighborhood children (who've been cooped up in their glass, modernist houses with unhappy hipster parents since October). While I honestly didn't care what she wore, her bare arms always vex a certain neighbor who must endure questions from her daughters about why they have to wear their winter coats until the summer solstice while my daughter gets to run around all spring like a trollop. I'd offer the truth: Sorry girls, it's just that she's the ward of a sloppy, borderline-negligent stay-at-home father. But on this occasion I just put my foot down and insisted on sleeves until the mercury hits sixty degrees.

This created quite the brouhaha.

The tantrum lasted about an hour. Every effort to soothe or proffer compromises was rebuffed. Every step forward brought us two steps back. It was as if any concession meant Spring had not come after all, that she possessed some sort of sartorial control over the seasons. Once I did manage to cajole her into a sweater and leggings, but she went into histrionics over a hole in her sock. We're talking Linda-Blair-Level-Five-Max-von-Sydow's-in-the-room histrionics. I stood there, brimming with frustration---and let's be honest, rage---trying to explain the logic of how simple it would be to exchange the damaged sock for an intact one. But apparently we're not all born reasonable. When you're five nothing boils down to the Aristotelian syllogisms you'll one day learn in some painfully dull college deductive reasoning course.  The new sock won't make things better because the old one will still have a hole in it, and no matter what your father says, that totally matters. In one dark moment I admit I understood how some parents think it makes sense to throw a misbehaving, disrespectful little kid over a lap and whack her until she stops, hoping, I guess, in a momentary lapse of reason to install a simple logic: if you want something, and scream because you aren't getting it, you will get whacked. A consequence. A catharsis.

I'm not in the business of passing judgment, but I'm still hippie enough to believe I shouldn't hurt someone I love just to solve a problem of words. Instead, I reached over and whipped the sock from her foot, stuck both forefingers in the hole and ripped the entire thing apart with one swift separation of my fists.

There was a moment of silent awe at this unexpected development. Then the waterworks started anew as she clutched the severed sock to her chest like a newly-beheaded puppy. I almost felt guilty. Between tears she communicated something about how she wouldn't stop crying until her mother sewed her beloved holey sock back together, and I left the room and closed the door until she worked through all this on her own.

* * * * *

At the dinner table that evening, she sat listening in silence while I related the tale of the day's epic tantrum to my wife. An hour later, I sat away from their din in my bedroom, staring at the computer when she came to the doorway, and without words crossed the room and climbed up into my lap, saying nothing as she rested her forehead on my shoulder for a long while that night.