My Shopping Fantasy

Years ago when I had four small children I used to dream about a time when I could easily take all of them out with me—to the grocery store, the post office, the bank. They would be old enough, I thought, to follow directions, wait patiently for a few minutes while I conducted my business, and not beg constantly to have things bought for them.

My youngest child is now 8, and I’m still waiting for this.

I have heard taking a toddler to the grocery store compared to the experience of taking a herd of goats with you. While taking older children is easier in some ways, in some ways it’s just as challenging. Instead of trying to keep them rounded up, you’re trying to get through the store while they pretend the cart is their Siamese twin. It’s more like taking along a very old, mostly blind dog who refuses to leave your side, while it constantly asks for everything on the shelves.

Older children seem to have an uncanny ability to walk directly in front of your cart as you try to push it along. And like tourists in the Piazza San Marco, they tend to stop every twenty feet in front of something that catches their eye so they can inspect it. You find yourself not only dodging other shoppers, but constantly telling your offspring to “MOVE!” giving a trip to the market the feeling of navigating a carnival midway on demolition derby night, only without the games and funnel cakes.

Once you get to checkout things don’t necessarily improve. They’re still in front of the cart, and don’t seem to realize that in order for the transaction to be completed, you, the holder of the credit card, need to be able to get to the payment station. Not just be able to push the cart all the way through the checkout, although that is necessary, but actually reach the card reader without a four foot tall impediment between you and it. It’s gotten so bad with my kids that I’ve started telling them that if they don’t get out of the way, I’m taking the cost of the groceries out of their savings accounts. Unless you’re paying, move it, kid.

Another phenomenon that baffles me is when it became impossible to run an errand without them acquiring something. There is no destination, no retail or service establishment, at which my children don’t expect to get some kind of thing. The bank, the dry cleaner, the post office—we can’t get out of any of them without some financial transaction, however small, that awards them with a gumball,  or even just a mint. Lord help us if we go to a real store, because then the expectation is something of significance—a toy, a stuffed animal, a cookie.

As a child I can remember getting a lollypop at the bank, but it seems that my children hear the jingle of car keys and start trying to decide which unfulfilled material dream will be realized on this excursion. We can’t set foot out of the house without the expectation that we will return richer in goods than when we left. When they were smaller I could deflect this, telling them we needed to stick to our list, or that I had no change. Now that they’re older, they understand how these processes work, and that most of the time my denial to acquiesce to their wish is because clearly I’m just mean.

I’m still waiting for that magic moment when I can go to the store and have it be easy. In my fantasy I’ll be able to transact my business without anyone whining for a quarter to buy a gumball, or nag me for some four dollar and ninety nine cent wad of synthetic with enormous black plastic doe eyes. I’ll be able to reach the payment terminal without obstruction. I’ll be able to push the grocery cart up and down the aisles without an extra 65 pounds of weight hanging off one side. I guess in my fantasy, my kids all wanted to stay home while I ran errands.

New Year's Resolutions for My Children: An Alphabetical List

Although it’s not quite Christmas, many are already engaged in the annual task of making New Year’s Resolutions with an eye toward improving themselves in the coming months. In the spirit of this, I am providing an alphabetical list of possible resolutions for my children. I would encourage them to choose any and all that sound appealing.

Attitude is something I will attempt to control when interacting with my parents. I will not sigh loudly, roll my eyes, or make flip comments when asked to do simple tasks that I know are my responsibility, such as hanging up my jacket.

Brushing my teeth promotes good oral hygiene and saves the rest of the world from exposure to breath that smells like I’ve been snacking on rotten meat with onion and garlic sauce.

Cupcakes, while delicious, are not the only acceptable treat for me to bring in to my classmates for my birthday. I will think outside the box in this regard.

“Doy is not an acceptable response when my parents tell me something I already know.

“EVER! is a superlative that I will use with restraint, particularly in negative applications, such as, “You are the WORST MOM EVER!”

Fart noises (either real or imitated), while hilarious to me and my friends, are not generally socially acceptable, particularly in settings such as movie theaters, public transportation, and church.

Garbage is something that belongs in the garbage can. The living room end tables are not garbage cans. I will internalize this fact.

Homework is going to be a feature in my life for the next six to ten years. I will accept this and stop arguing with my parents because they insist I do it.

Independence is something I will earn as I get older. I will stop acting like a four year old because I am not being treated like a sixteen year old, because I am a twelve year old.

Kicking anything inside the house--be it a balloon, a ball, or any other object--has the potential to turn out very badly. I will stop at once.

Lollipops are in fact, overrated. I will admit that my mother was right about this, and stop demanding them every time we find ourselves within a quarter of a mile of our bank.

Minecraft, although fascinating to me, may not be equally as fascinating to those around me. Therefore, I will make an effort to confine my conversations about it to 12 hours per day or fewer.

No is a word I will learn to take for an answer.

Odor of the body is something that is eliminated only with regular use of soap and water. I will put this into practice, and realize deodorant can only do so much.

P is a letter of the alphabet, the sound of which does in fact mimic the slang term for urination. Even still, I will stop giggling every time I hear it.

Quickly is the manner in which I will endeavor to prepare myself for activities that involve a fixed timeline, such as dressing for school.

Reason and logic will serve me better than whining. However, sometimes my requests will still be denied. If so, I will learn to accept the decision gracefully (see above: No).

Socks are either to be removed completely, or worn with shoes over them when wandering around in the yard. Also, they do not belong on the coffee table. I will remember this.

Tantrums are for children much younger than I.

Umbrellas and flashlights really aren’t toys. I will stop destroying umbrellas, and running down the batteries on flashlights, by playing with them. Then the next time it rains, or there is a power failure, my parents will have the tools they need to deal with the situation.

Video games, while enjoyable, are not the only activity available to me. I will find ways to branch out.

Water is an acceptable beverage to consume when I am thirsty. I will stop insisting that soda is “the only thing” that will quench my thirst.

X marks the spot where my dirty clothes go. There is no “X” on the floor of my room.

“Yellow snowjokes are really only funny the first time they’re made, when one is five. I will stop at once.

Zipping my coat will keep me warmer than not doing so.

Happy Holidays!

Selective Hearing

What I say: “Go get dressed. Be sure to change your underwear, and brush your teeth.”
What they hear: “Run around in your underwear screaming like a lunatic, punching your brother repeatedly.”

What I say: “It’s almost time for dinner.”
What they hear: “It’s time for another four cheese sticks.”

What I say: “Be sure to take all your stuff out of the car into the house.”
What they hear: “The car is a great place for the backpack you’ll need to take with you on the school bus tomorrow morning.”

What I say: “Put the remote back on the shelf so we can find it.”
What they hear: “Shove the remote down in the couch cushions so your father and I can spend half of the little time we have to watch TV after you go to bed hunting for it.”

What I say: “Take this upstairs and put it in your room.”
What they hear: “Go up to the fifth step from the top and toss this on the floor above you.”

What I say: “Stop whining.”
What they hear: “Can you go up an octave?”

What I say: “Put your clothes in the hamper in the laundry room so they can get washed.”
What they hear: “Clean clothes are overrated.”

What I say: “Don’t blow that straw wrapper at your brother”
What they hear: “Bet you can’t nail him in the eye with that.”

What I say: “Time to take a bath.”
What they hear: “Time to take off all your clothes and dance around in the hallway like a stripper in front of a customer waving a hundred dollar bill.”

What I say: “Take those cheese stick wrappers to the trash can.”
What they hear: “Take those cheese stick wrappers into the kitchen and leave them on the counter.”

What I say: “Keep your hands to yourself!”
What they hear: “Humans thrive on physical contact.”

What I say: “Hang up your coat and backpack.”
What they hear: “Those hooks are very fragile—stay away from them.”

What I say: “Pick up your room.”
What they hear: “Shove everything on the floor under the bed and spend 45 minutes screwing around in your room.”

What I say: “Time to do your reading.”
What they hear: “Time to come up with two hundred new names to call your brother, all of which must include the word ‘butt’ in some way.”

What I say: “Stop yelling!”
What they hear: “I’ve been in louder sensory deprivation chambers. You’re going to have to do better than that.”

What I say: “Pick up your socks!”
What they hear: “…”

Traditions of the Present

After Monday’s sad trombone about my childhood non-belief in Santa Claus, I was thinking about other Christmas-related events from my childhood. Prompted by one of those seasonal articles like, “One Hundred Holiday Traditions to Start This Year!” in some magazine I was thinking about traditions I’ve been exposed to in the course of my lifetime. One area that stood out clearly was the variety of rituals that surround present opening.

When I was a kid, my mother always wanted me to “play elf.” That is, she wanted me to go to the tree, find everyone a present, distribute them, then do it again until all the presents were opened. I hated this. I didn’t want to bounce up and down and traipse around the room any more than anyone else did, but I was forced to because I was the youngest (and the only child). I still hate it, but now that I’m a grownup I can refuse to do it. I don’t make my kids do it, either.

When we started going to my in-laws for Christmas, my sister-in-law actually liked playing elf. I don’t care if that’s how people want to open presents, as long as I’m not the one that has to pass them out. If she was happy doing it, I was happy letting her.

One part of the present-opening at my in laws that I was not happy about was the laser focus on the opener. We’d go around one by one and open our presents, with everyone else watching intently as the gift was revealed.

The problem was my mother in law was notorious for both reusing boxes, and for buying a mix of really great gifts and strange junk. You’d remove the gift wrap and think, “She thought I’d want a Norelco electric razor?” only to realize that she’d just used a handy container which happened to fit the set of microplane graters you’d been dying for. It was disconcerting to have half a dozen people keenly watching your facial expressions, particularly when the possibility was very real one of them could be, “What the fuck is this…?

I would have much preferred we all open one present at the same time, then go around and admire what everyone else had been given. It would have given me the chance to settle my expression after opening something completely bizarre like a small tabletop statue of a sparrow (a real gift I was given, for no reason I can think of—I had never expressed a particular fondness for sparrows, or table top dust collectors, but about 20% of the gifts my mother in law gave were this sort of random, inexplicable thing).

Now I have my own house and I can do present opening my own way. I prefer to have a pile of all my presents and open them one at a time. At this point my kids are still in the “rip everything open as fast as possible and look around for more” stage, but as they get older, I hope they’ll learn to savor the process. And just because they rip everything open right away doesn’t mean I have to. But I like to have everything in front of me so I know how many things I have left to open. I hate to open the last present only to find that it was the last present. Like eating the last potato chip or M&M when you didn’t realize it was the last one—you feel let down because there aren’t more, and you didn’t fully appreciate the last one for what it was.

I suppose as the kids get older we’ll move more toward the leisurely opening sessions like the ones we had at my in laws house. I hear there may even come a day when I have to actually wake my children up in order to get them to come open presents, instead of having them get up at 4 a.m. and wake us up. But my husband and I have made a pledge never to use weird boxes for gifts. It’s just not fair to a 13 year old to have them spend even half a minute thinking that their mom got them a Salad Shooter, only to have it be a blue tooth speaker. That’s the kind of thing that can lead to therapy.

What present opening traditions do you have? Have you ever been forced to play elf? Does your family give weird gifts, or good gifts in weird packages?

Santa And Me

I don’t remember when it happened, but my mom told me there was no Santa Claus. I don’t mean she broke it to me that all those years I’d believed in something that didn’t really exist. I mean when I was three or four or however old it is kids are when they can get their heads around Santa Claus, she said he wasn’t real, no matter what my friends told me.

Before you condemn her (if you’re inclined to), let me explain her logic.

She told me later she couldn’t bring herself to lie to me. She felt telling me about a man in a red suit who flies around the world in one night and brings you presents and expecting me to believe it was insulting my intelligence. She was sure I’d recognize it for the impossible myth that it is and be disillusioned that she tricked me with this preposterous fiction. I think she overestimated how smart I really was, and how likely I was to view her participation in this almost universal bit of fantasy as deceit, but that’s neither here nor there. (To answer the obvious question, there was also no tooth fairy and no Easter Bunny in my childhood.)

She said that shortly after she told me there was no Santa I came home from school and insisted Santa was real, and she was to shut her pie hole (or whatever the four year old version of that was).

That may be so, but I will tell you I never genuinely believed in Santa.

I wanted to. I tried. I would lie in bed and pretend I was listening for sleigh bells and hooves on the roof.

But I knew it was a lie. Even at age five or six I knew I was listening for something that would never happen.

As ridiculous as it is, all my life I have felt I missed out on something really important by not being invited to participate in Santa Claus. I looked around at all my friends with their “Santa presents” and their carrots for the reindeer, and I was outside looking in. I didn’t even consider myself intellectually superior to them, because I was five and didn’t know what the fuck that meant.

I certainly told my own children about Santa Claus. All four of them have believed for years. The oldest is a bit on the suspicious side, and has always been looking for a way to expose me: an inconsistency in the story, a gift that’s just too perfectly chosen based on a request, a too-similar handwriting on the “thank you” note left beside the plate of cookie crumbs. But the younger three believe with all their hearts, and even at nine and eight still do. I recall when I was a kid that eight or nine was about the time parents were being exposed, and my friends stopped believing. Now the children of my  friends seem to keep the faith through fifth and sixth grades, according to a very scientific, very sophisticated survey I conducted by asking half a dozen of my closest friends about it.

So careful am I to preserve their faith that three or four times I have alt-tabbed to another screen when one of my nine year olds walked over to talk to me while I was writing this, lest he read something like “no Santa” over my shoulder.

I honestly believe that Santa is a good thing, providing a valuable and beneficial lesson: just because you can’t see it, just because it sounds too farfetched to be remotely real, doesn’t mean it might not be true. What harm does it do to let kids believe that the impossible is possible? What’s the harm in promoting fantasy and magic? Kids eventually figure out those things aren’t real (or are they? as one of my nine year olds would say) but to have time to trust in something unseen and almost unbelievable is a worthwhile exercise to me.

I think it teaches them unquestioning faith, which is something that’s in pretty short supply in our cynical, skeptical society. We expect kids to think they can do anything they put their minds to. If they think they can’t, couldn’t we remind them that when they were little they didn’t think twice about their faith in a man who got in a sleigh on December 24th and in one night delivered a present to every kid in the whole world? Wouldn’t that serve as a touchstone for their belief that the impossible is indeed possible, no matter how unrealistic it seems at the time? Let’s teach them that just because it sounds impossible doesn’t mean it is. I’m pretty sure that’s how we ended up with the pyramids, space travel, and Disneyland.