A Child's Pointers on Parenting
MOST of my really good ideas about parenting have come from my nine-year-old daughter, Hallie. A keen negotiator, she has a way of suggesting things. ''Mom,'' she'll begin, ''now don't say no, Mom, don't even roll your eyes.'' Then she'll lay out some new way of living that is sure to improve our own family as a group and individually and occasionally also to make the world a better place.
After a proposal, I usually excuse myself to the kitchen where I lean on the counter and roll my eyes. Sometimes I count to 10.
Recently, she began writing a book entitled ''The Kids' Book on How to Be a Better Parent.'' The manuscript is still rough, but the basic ideas are down in Chapters 1 and 2.
''I can't remember the first part,'' she says about her first three years, ''so that stuff is sketchy.''
She does remember to say a mother or father should bring extra diapers, something I never remembered to do. She's pretty clear on snacks. Avoid sugar, she says -- this from the child who has told me more than once that things are going to be ''more fun'' for her kids.
The detail comes in as the text approaches the age of memory. She is clear on allowances: Give them. She even lists a amount, the first being 10 cents a week then raising gradually to $1 a week over a period of a few years. I find when I read what she has written that she is more conservative than I remember being, than I think I am now. I experience a yearning so profound to be here when my daughter has a family that I go way beyond planning for what is right in front of me.
''Have your child clean up his or her own mess.'' I do remember implementing this rule early on. But she has no circumstantial revisions. For example, this morning at 5 a.m., I stepped in two fairly large spills of toothpaste on the bathroom floor. Now toothpaste isn't like stepping on a Lego with its sharp edges, not like orange juice that has dried and can actually trip a person wearing only socks. Nor is toothpaste like milk that dries white so you can recognize it, or like getting a toe caught in a small sandal left in the middle of the floor.
Toothpaste is a completely new sensation, even to me, a veteran mopper-of-spills. Do I go get Hallie out of bed to clean the toothpaste? According to her, yes. But, I reason, there are so many opportunities for her to clean up after herself: daily, hourly, on a bad day, nearly every moment.
And if I don't clean it up, I will, no matter my best intentions, step in the toothpaste again, and probably again. These are the things no one ever told me about parenting. Not one book I remember reading lists toothpaste spills in the index, though most have suggestions on removing unusual dried liquids from clothing.
With Hallie and my son, Dylan, there have been many things that happen outside the perimeter of clearly defined rules. I suspect this is true for any adult who chooses to have a child come into his or her life.
My children are the two who blasted apart the rule concerning giving choices. ''When do you want your bath,'' I would say, ''after dinner or before?''
''I don't want a bath,'' my son would say. Hallie varied her answer a bit, ''I don't want a bath, ever.''
Hallie isn't finished with her book yet. She has actually put it aside for a while and has a hard time finding it when I ask to read it again. She's on to other things.
This morning, after I change my socks, I clean up the toothpaste. If Hallie hadn't written her book, it would have been an automatic call. I wouldn't have hesitated. When it comes to cleaning, I mop up whatever I step in.
I've also been known to continue to cut up pancakes for the person sitting next to me in a restaurant. Once, in the old days, I cut up a banana for a visiting friend.
''I think it's been years,'' she said, ''since someone cut a banana for me into so many pieces.''
I'm on automatic pilot with a lot of things. I'm trying to save my thinking now for the big items, like a son who ''can't wait to drive.'' Though my response to that was automatic, too. ''Yes, you can,'' I told him. ''You would be amazed at how long you can wait to drive.''
My book on parenting would be, of necessity, brief. I have lost any desire to advise others. It would be one page, easy to read between spills, accidents, and appointments:
A Brief Guide to Parenting
What to do with spills? Clean them.
What to do with dirty clothes? Wash them.
What do you do when a job doesn't get done? Suffer the consequences.
Love your children.
Love your mother.