A collection of essays, outdoor adventure stories, ruminations, wordplay, parental angst, and blatant omphaloskepsis, generated in all seasons and for many reasons at 64.8 degrees north latitude

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Grownups Get the Broken Ones

“But I want a WHOLE cookie!”
My kid’s woebegone plea seemed to voice the opinions of all three five-year-olds.  They trio of them were staring in consternation at the package of Raspberry Chocolate Milanos, as if unable to fathom how the bag might have become just a tad squashed in Jay’s backpack during the eleven-mile journey to Tolovana Hot Springs -- over mountains, ice, and imaginary-troll-infested swamps.
“Don’t worry,” I said, “The grownups get the broken ones.”
My friend Ned, father of one of the small people – the child who sometimes makes my twins look like triplets -- smiled wryly.  “Sounds like the title of a book,” he remarked.
He had a point.  I’d made my crumb-eating promise entirely without thinking about it, but now my words rattled around in my tired brain like the over-delicate confections in the bag I was holding. What I’d said was true enough – I do always get the broken ones.  In the same vein, I give the kids the coveted seats, the softer towels and the warmer blankets.  I’ll eat the peach that requires complex anti-fungal vivisection, while offering my children the ones that look like they came from the Sunnydale Farm of Genetically Engineered Fruit-Spheres.  Where vagaries in quality occur, I routinely take whatever is rustier, damper, squishier, browner, or squeakier.   And yet I’d never really questioned why – or whether it was a good idea.
Am I merely trying to avoid the whining that accompanies childish disappointments?  If so, broken-cookie-consumption qualifies as a form of… spoiling.  Horrors!  Whenever I see parents in Fred Meyers caving to high-pitched nagging for Choco-Breakfast-Yumyums or Super Plastic Action Crapola, I feel smug about my own no-rewards-for-whining policies.  But maybe I need to eat a heaping serving of my own self-righteousness along with those pulverized Milanos.
Then again, the kids don’t seem particularly spoiled – especially not on this trip, I thought, as I started handing out the cookies – the whole cookies – to an appreciate audience of small connoisseurs.  Our two families, plus additional grown-up friends Tom and Amy, had hiked in to this remote cabin at the hot springs.  For the five-year-olds, it was the longest jaunt they’d ever done on their own two feet – and we were expecting them to repeat the accomplishment on the way back out.  To the credit of the young adventurers, the amount of whining on the trail was minimal.  They were too busy playing “eye spy,” carving their names on tree-fungus, asking impossible riddles (“How many roots does that tree have, Daddy?”), and eating vast quantities of snacks.   I munched on whatever was left at the bottom of each Ziploc baggie, and I was rarely allotted a chance to declare that, “I spy something beginning with ‘S’”, but that seemed perfectly normal to all of us. 
Why do I set things up this way?  Even if parent-kid inequality doesn’t constitute spoiling, it’s counter-intuitive that I’m teaching my twins to short-change me when I’m so scrupulous about getting them to be fair with one another.  When they were barely three, they protested when I handed them five picture books to look at while riding in their bike trailer.  “That’s not an even number!  If I get two, she gets three!”  My pride in their math skills surged even as my crabbiness mounted.  I went and grabbed another of Sandra Boyton’s semi-indestructible classics off the shelf.  See?  Everything’s even now.  These days, they can tell me that fifty is half of a hundred.  When the Easter Bunny brought marbles (our bunny is peculiarly sugar-averse) they counted every last one of them.  They know what’s fair.  They know when someone’s getting the short end of the cream-cheese-on-celery-stick.  And they know that, often as not, it’s me.
In fact, the imbalance is so blatant that it’s become a joke. 
“Here’s your share, Mama,” one of the kids will chortle, handing me the trimmed-off edges of an art project or the nibbled-down core of an apple.  Grinning expectantly, she waits for me to feign horror at my pathetic portion.
“What?!”  That’s all I get?”
Giggles.  “Yup, that’s Mama’s share.”
Maybe there’s something wrong with my brain, because I actually find it kind of funny to be ceremoniously handed a used-up roll of duct tape.  Is that a bad sign?  Can someone be diagnosed with a martyr complex solely on the basis of their willingness to eat the tough ends of carrots?  I know self-imposed martyrdom tends to be a female problem – and I’d hate to let my daughter think that I’m sending the message, “Moms don’t deserve the unbroken cookies – or, for that matter, a napkin that hasn’t already been used.”
But no, that idea is just plain silly.  For one thing, the twins are not miniature sultans in an archaic patriarchy.  For another, the grownup male in the household suffers his share of martyrdom, as do other handy role models.  Prior to the dessert course of the aforementioned Milanos, I’d seen Ned scarf down the congealing remnants of tuna and noodles from around the edges of his daughter’s plate.  Tom didn’t bat an eye over the cookie proclamation, even though he a) provided half the cookies, b) is not a parent, and c) takes his dessert-eating very seriously.
Ok, so I’m not spoiling my kids out of laziness and conflict-aversion. I’m not some sort of self-flagellating martyr.  All parents – and even child-free people -- are doing this.   But what, exactly, is it that we’re doing?
And then I recalled what had taken place during our seven hours of hiking – and what, so it happened, would occur again on the way out. 
Eight miles into the venture, when my own kids were not-quite-exhausted, their friend hit a wall.  She collapsed into a sad little heap on the trail, unable to take another step.  When Ned heroically hoisted his little girl onto his own tired shoulders, adding forty pounds to the weight of his backpack, I was worried that the twins would rebel and demand equal treatment from me and Jay. 
They didn’t.  Instead, they understood.  In a bumbling-novice sort of way, they tried to make allowances.
“She’s not as old as we are.  She’s not in kindergarten yet,” they consoled each other, eying their three-months-younger compatriot with kindly (if transparently patronizing) good-humor.  “See how tired she is?”  They tromped their weary little legs on down the trail. 
No doubt a month or two from now, their friend will hand down the same high-minded I’m-so-big attitude toward some hapless four-year-old or cranky toddler.  I don’t always remember to give kids credit for all the simultaneous processing their neurons can manage.  Just as toddlers can happily become bilingual if exposed to two native tongues (monolingualism being an abject failing on my part), they can also learn two overlapping yet distinct moral codes:  be fair… but be magnanimous.  An important lesson is buried in there somewhere: no matter how little you are, there’s always someone out there who’s smaller, weaker, or just more in need of a piggyback ride or a whole cookie.
We teach fairness by example, but we teach generosity the same way.  Hopefully, as those of us over the age of five consumed our slightly sub-par dessert, we were helping to bolster the ethos that kept the marginally older kids moving past mileposts nine and ten.  Fairness is good – but sometimes the right choice is to make oneself content with the metaphorical cookie-crumbs of maturity.

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