Know all the books aimed at parents? Jon Methven argues that kids need their own book—to deal with crazy parents.
Last October, my wife and I learned we were pregnant, a son due this summer. Like any first-time parents, a bounty of emotions greeted the early weeks: Surprise, excitement, forced courage as we convinced one another we were ready.
Deep down: Anxiety, panic, sleepless episodes in the middle of the night, when we would awaken and inch toward the center of the bed, and just huddle there, incubating our new family. My wife purchased books, I Googled.
My wife trusts the written word more than the anonymous ramblings of an impersonal website. I trust the know-it-alls at Wikipedia and the beloved iMac, my wise and reliable shaman. She on the couch with dozens of books, me at the computer, we set about to master this whole parenthood thing, calling important tidbits across the apartment.
“Did you know it’s the size of a peanut right now?” she would say.
And I would smirk; I was already into second trimester, 2.66 gigahertz of pregnancy illumination. “That’s nice dear. Are you experiencing any absentmindedness, a growing sense of irritability, anxiety regarding the future?”
Silence from the library. “Just you wait. It’s coming.”
Like any research project, we encountered turbulence. I would critique the growing library, she my analytical methods.
“You Googled swollen ankles?” she might ask.
“Of course. What search engine would you use?”
“You can’t use Wikipedia to research parenting. It’s not a reliable source.”
“Nonsense.” With a click of the mouse, I had discovered why her ankles were the size of grapefruits and was on to the Montessori method.
“Anyone can write those articles. Even us.”
That gave me pause—the thought of a parenting book from someone like me. I checked my wife’s intel on Wikipedia’s featured article that day, the Marsh Rice Rat. Sure enough, a disclaimer said the article did not guarantee the rat’s gestation period of twenty-five days. If it wasn’t good enough for rats, it wasn’t good enough for my boy; we went the book route instead.
An elementary search on Amazon shows more than 54,000 childrearing guides for the infatuated first-time parent, a comprehensive and obsessed accruement of how to build the perfect baby. And we were obsessed—books on the coffee table, in the bed, dog-eared and highlighted with little sticky notes protruding. It takes NASA fewer manuals to launch a space shuttle.
Dr. Jason Kanos, an Obstetrics and Gynecology Physician with the St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital Center, said the amount of information available to first-time parents is overwhelming. In nearly fourteen years, he has delivered more than 1,000 babies, with first-time parents making up roughly 70 percent of his clientele.
“First-time parents are looking for the answers of what’s normal, what’s not normal, and just trying to do the right thing,” Dr. Kanos said. “The publishing world realizes that. Sometimes it’s confusing to parents about what to read, and not all of it is based on science.”
His comment—“not all of it is based on science”—could be read in two ways. Well, not really. To most, it would imply the majority of people do not have the background to write responsibly about childrearing.
But to a slightly unhinged, first-time father, “not based on science” was just the encouragement I needed. I would write a manual. About me, the first-time parent. My ignorance would be my muse.
In our research, I had discovered that in all those books and opinions, there existed no manual written from the other perspective: A handbook for the baby on how to handle the neurotic yet well-intentioned parent.
“What do you mean, exactly?” my wife asked, when I proposed the idea.
“All these books are directed at parents—how to do this, how to do that. And we’re clearly confused.” We looked at the propaganda we had amassed; were we attempting to find errors in Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, or planning a nursery? “What about a manual for the baby on what to expect when expecting parents?”
“So a book directed at the 0-2 month demographic?”
“Babies can’t read.”
“That aside, all these guides promote how to be good parents. There’s no guide on what the baby is getting into, or what’s happening on our side of the arrangement.”
Imagine starting a new job, but no one provides a handbook of etiquette. Likewise, imagine you’ve been inducted into this new tribe of large, tired-eyed yet somewhat familiar-looking beings, who although catering to your every sniffle, seem a bit too inexperienced to be taking on something as important as you.
Babies are inherently lazy and confused, the way the new person in any organization appears to those with more tenure. This manual would be a guide for the newborn on the go: Who are these people? Why are they so disorganized? Why do their expressions alternate between goofy happiness and profound terror?
Po Bronson, co-author of NurtureShock: New Thinking About Children, told me that a how-to manual for children about the inner-workings of parents is not that farfetched. One of the unique themes of Nurtureshock is looking at family dynamics from the point of view of children. According to Bronson, any “Parent Manual” would have to address the disingenuousness kids will face.
“Parents will tell you that lying is terrible and that kids shouldn’t lie, then they’ll ask you to lie to Grandma about the gift they got that was taken back,” Mr. Bronson said. “But this is all very confusing to the child.”
Exactly why we need a how-to guide for children − to explain these odd, parental rituals:
Chapter 9: Do As I Say, Not As I Do: The Ins and Outs of Unethical Negotiations
Chapter 42: Mom’s Saliva: All Natural Cleaning Agent, or Unhygienic Use of Spittle in the H1N1 Era?
Chapter 197: Broccoli: How Daddy’s Post-Collegiate Dietary Choices Mean You’ll Sit There Until You’re Finished
“You are going to learn to smile and control your cheek muscles, and this pleases your parents immensely. You are going to sit up, you are going to learn to walk,” Bronson said, detailing what a parent guide might outline. “And your parents will feel they deserve a lot of credit for the work you’ve done.”
My wife is probably correct: Such a manual is of little value to the illiterate 0-2 month crowd. But it could be an excellent resource for children throughout their lives to understand parents as they are indoctrinated into the rigors of tribal life.
Like everyone, I made mistakes growing up that provoked heated reactions from my parents. Now that I’m older, wiser, and paying my own car insurance, I understand why they reacted to these mistakes the way they did.
But back then, a parent manual would have been useful, a how-to reference guide to discover what was occurring on their side of our disagreements.
Chapter 89: Mechanical Nincompoopery
Dad will become red-faced and speechless if you attempt to jump the tiny bridge over the pond in the park, the way cars do on television. Those cars have special shocks; the station wagon might be, say, a 1977 Buick, with more 150,000 miles on it, the undercarriage mostly rust.
Assuming you have ignored this advice and, under friends’ counsel, jumped the pond anyway, don’t tell dad you hit a pothole. Half the car is missing, the intact half leaking purple. He knows what happened. He does not want you to lie.
Chapter 4: There Will Be Blood
Parents tend to overreact when you arrive at the front door, screaming, covered in blood. The parent will first ascertain: “Whose blood is it—you or your brother’s?” (Note: We’ll see how you work out first.)
While sled riding, don’t stick your tongue to a metal rail like the kid in “A Christmas Story.” It won’t make for good fun. The fire department won’t come and help you. Instead, your brother will repeatedly jam his mitten between tongue and metal until you fall backward into the snow. There will be blood—all over your face, snowsuit, in your hair. You will give your mother a heart attack.
When your father gets home from work and sees blood smeared all over the front door and in the previously white snow, a second heart attack will commence. Best just to keep your tongue in your mouth until you leave for college.
Chapter 29: Family Vacation
Inexplicably, your parents may decide to drive from New York to Florida, twenty-two hours, a cooler of warm sodas and soggy sandwiches, you and your siblings (again, we’ll play it by ear) in the backseat, 1,200 miles without air-conditioning.
Also inexplicably, your parents will grow cross each time you suggest a McDonald’s stop, or inquire how much longer, or punch a sibling just to break the monotony. This all will cause dad—south of the Georgia border, mind you—to threaten to turn the car around, a 1,000-mile bluff.
Don’t laugh at the old man; at that particular instant, he’s strangely serious. Don’t complain, either. Little do you know, you will relive this trip for the next thirty years, each time you get together for a family occasion. This trip will become the backbone of your family history.
“The main message I would give to baby,” Dr. Kanos said, “is that most of what your parents are doing is the right thing.”
My wife and I have accepted that sometimes we are going to appear irrational, even crazy, to our son. Like the time we’ll irately send him to his room for breaking the lamp, when it was probably an innocent mistake.
Or the time we’ll forbid him from staying out late, because we assume he’s running with a crowd that smokes cigarettes and pierces faces and pays transients to purchase beer, when in fact he and his friends are likely going to the movies.
Truth is, and something I long suspected of my own parents—my wife and I are planning on becoming borderline crazy. But a harmless crazy, a good and peaceful crazy, a crazy that will have our child’s best interests at heart.
It would be nice if we could put this message into a manual—“Parents 101: Who Are These People, and Are They Dangerous?”—and slide it under his door, hoping he understands the main theme:
Chapter 1: We Love You Most of All, But Don’t Push Your Luck.
In the end, like our own parents, we placed those books back on the shelf, and assembled the crib. Then we waited, eager to get busy making our mistakes, the ones that will form our own history.