If that bitch, World, isn’t open to negotiating with parents and insists on staring down the well-intentioned sleep deprived, hands on its Costco-shopping, NASCAR-jacket-wearing, Miley-Cyrus-twitching hips,
then maybe the compromises have to take place elsewhere.
Like within the well-intentioned sleep deprived.
Certainly, new parents have a few blissful months–even years–in which their personal values dominate, in which they can shape their child’s life into an approximation of an ideal.
For example, after My Unmentionables first squozed out our Girl, we took great care with her diet. Breastfeeding made that job easy (if plugged ducts and mastitis qualify as “easy”), but then, eventually, she needed solids. Naturally, we went naturally. Didn’t she love her organic beets?! Didn’t she reach for her pureed spinach and smooshed-up pears?! Didn’t she smear locally-grown and home-prepared peas all over her rosy cheeks?! And didn’t we assert our desire for her to get the best-possible start in life by keeping all processed sugar away from her for the first 16 months?
On her first birthday, her cake was sugarless, pineapple, and upside down. Diabetics asked for the recipe!
Making careful, informed decisions in the first years would lay down a foundation for lifelong health. Remembering our own childhoods of frozen Zingers in the freezer and “hot dog casserole” for dinner, we vowed to model better eating behaviors.
Our intention, in fact, was to keep processed sugars (and nearly all processed foods) away from her until, well, The Time of Forever…or middle school, whichever came first.
But then there was this road trip from Minnesota to California, during which toddler Girl and Groom drove the first stint by themselves, camping along the way, while I remained behind and finished teaching a summer session. A few days before I was to fly to Denver and meet them midway, Groom called to check in and tell me about their day on the road.
To his credit, he was laughing at himself.
Turns out, western Nebraska gets swelteringly hot in June. If one is camping, there is little relief from the heat, and if one isn’t a fan of air-conditioning in the car, then the hot never abates.
And when the hot never abates, the soul becomes weak. It’s a Hell issue.
When the soul stops at a gas station in a tiny Nebraskan burg where the asphalt is mushy underfoot from the heat, the soul might spot a Very Special Machine of Delights when it goes inside to pay. This machine is the home of a hallowed beverage christened ICEE. The very name cools down a sweating soul at least three degrees.
That day, Groom’s soul marched right up to the ICEE machine and pulled a big ole blue raspberry (a flavor that, um, does TOO exist in nature) slushy for himself. Girl, in his arms, couldn’t believe the magic pouring into the cup. “Me! Me! Me dwink!”
Eyeing her damp hair and flushed cheeks, Groom gave an “it’s only fair” shrug and pulled Girl her own cup of Soul Coolant.
This situation is called “going from 0 to 120”–from having never had a granule of sugar pass her lips to sucking on a blue raspberry ICEE slushy, all in the space of two minutes.
While that moment, that act, opened the door to sugar (“Why, hello, Sugar,” drawled the butler), we did still use restraint and aimed for that elusive thing called “moderation.” However, we were no longer committed to a hasty exit from any situation where a beaming chef carried out a platter of cupcakes. That ability to shrug and say, “What the heck; it’s only a cupcake” allowed us to relax, to enjoy, to remain a part of gatherings.
What we discovered is that it’s not so much denial and avoidance of World’s temptations that leads to good parenting. In fact, I get a little annoyed by the idea of “good” parenting; we’re all just people, doing what we can. At our house, we’ve tried to assuage our hippie instincts by overtly talking about temptations and discussing when they’re worth it and when they’re not. We had ample opportunity to practice our skills at this when Girl began school.
Starting kindergarten, Girl was tremendously excited that every child was invited to the cafeteria for a free breakfast. When you’re five, and only when you’re five, a cafeteria beckons as something sparkly and glamorous. Because Girl is reserved, and because she has to eye glamour for a bit before stroking it, she took awhile before trying the free breakfast. But one day. One day. She did.
The experience proved startling, for the first time she got up the courage to head into the cafeteria instead of the classroom, she had to stand for a few minutes, surveying the options, wondering where the real food was. You see, her only choices, thanks to the crazy corporate machinations that fuel federal sponsorship of school meals, were sugared cereals, which she’d never seen before, and fruit in a heavy-syrup-laden cup; looking for plain Cheerios or even a banana, she was bewildered. She was–and let’s all love her here–disappointed.
So she never again availed herself of the free breakfast buffet offered by Seductive World; mostly, as she’s continued through elementary school, she’s been aware of the poor food choices in the lunches, too, and has opted to bring her lunch from home. Lest we do too much of a happy dance, though, 4th grade is signaling a shift in what guides her choices. Nowadays, she wants to eat the provided lunch about half the time; not only has she decided she likes the cafeteria’s nachos and chicken patties, but she also knows that she can only sit by her friends, who generally choose hot lunch, if she, too, has hot lunch. If she brings a lunch from home, she has to stand in line and sit with the other brown baggers. At any age where friends are everything, she has to decide between eating healthily or hanging out with people who make her feel good.
That’s like me having to decide if I want to meet Jon Stewart at the micro-brewery for gossip and an oatmeal stout, or if I want to meet Pat Robinson on a park bench to share a zucchini.
At some point, it’s hard to quantify what’s “bad for you” and what’s “good for you” because nothing Harpie World trots in front of us is that simple, a fact which, consequently, calls into play entire subsets of values (i.e., I’d rather eat and spew crap with a great person than eat great food with a f***tard, which, apparently, reveals I honor a certain kind of humanity above a strict adherence to purity of eats…and then all that gets stirred up by World even more with her Nasty Stick, and eventually I have to lay down on the couch for awhile and put a dishcloth over my eyes).
Thus, it’s all a continuum that ranges from “ideal” to “compromise” to “trade-off,” and mostly, if the kids are still breathing at the end of the day, if they’ve smiled at some point during it, if they’ve asked even a single question, if they’ve managed to demonstrate a thought of kindness (even if it’s picking up a toddler’s dropped McNugget and setting it back into her french fry-festooned high chair tray),
then we parents have satisfied all that matters.
Hell, yea, there’s more coming.
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