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“The Princess and the Pea,” revisited

by Barry L. Levy

My daughter once shoved a pea up her nose.

She was two. Curious. And well, the rest seems self-evident. Despite our best efforts, she jammed the little sucker right on up there to the point we needed to go to the doctor to have it removed.

The part that sticks with me is the despite our best efforts. I realize some of you may not have kids who have accomplished such feats . . . and it truly is a feat. See, it’s not simply getting it in the nostril that’s impressive, it’s getting it so far up that the object defies gravity and remains stuck inside.

Despite basking in my proud papa glow, it’s worth mentioning that we are a family that routinely stresses not putting things up one’s nose. We don’t offer up knives to our kids. We encourage them to use their mouths for toothbrushes and food. Nothing else.

The problem, then, is not in the message, but how that message is communicated. Or received . . . or ignored, as the case may be.

That happens a fair amount in our house. The ignoring of the message. Just last night, after their bedtime, I told our girls to stop standing on their beds and go to sleep. Five minutes later, my wife discovered both girls were, once again, standing on their beds and reaching for the chandelier.

When my wife relayed the news, I didn’t immediately explode with the sense of being ignored . . . why would I? I’m a writer in Hollywood. That just means it’s a work day.

In this particular instance though, I was perplexed. When I was six, the boys in my class created an obstacle course in the school bathroom that involved climbing atop the urinals, swinging over the stalls on the metal pipes that doubled as monkey bars and jumping from sink to sink. A brilliant idea, so long as you didn’t slip on the urine-soaked porcelain.

Were my girls just engaging in the same youthful creativity? I imagined them trying to swing from the chandelier a la Tarzan. Perhaps it was the little boy in me. Were they competing to see who could jump higher? Did I have future basketball stars in my house?

However, this morning, I again discovered just how little I understood about my girls. There was no competition going on. No, see despite years of getting snookered into coaching their soccer teams and myriad attempts at bonding over sport, my girls are, at least for now, girlie girls. The chandelier wasn’t seen as something to climb upon . . . it was seen as a jewelry store, replete with shiny crystals that each desired to collect.

And did.

They tore the crystals from the electric fixture and displayed them on the nightstand between their beds . . . as though there was absolutely nothing wrong with this.

To suggest we were not happy would be an understatement. My wife morphed into that cartoon whose face turns bright red, steam shooting from her ears.

She did what our parents would have done. She did what most parents do when their kids defy rules . . . and create hundreds of dollars of damage. She yelled.

I have tremendous sympathy for her in this respect. Between the Writers Strike of five years ago and the subsequent decimation of our industry thereafter, we’ve slowly but surely begun to furnish our house (much to my wife’s chagrin, there has been an emphasis on slowly). I feel for her. With one exception: our dining room.

Like most couples, we have that discussion that never gets resolved. The one we keep revisiting to see if the other party has been worn down enough to give up their position. It’s like how cavemen must have been bewildered when the sun would indeed rise again the next day . . . only to check again the following the day . . . and again the day after that.

But with my daughters’ dismantling of their room, my wife knew the scales had shifted. My point was made for me . . . why would we invest in a dining room set when our kids are so frequently proving to be a destructive force?

To be clear, as if these columns don’t already suggest as much, I love my kids. Dearly. But frequently and consistently, they are a mystery to me. And perhaps that’s why my attempts at discipline so often fall upon deaf ears.

Just as I had misread their usage of the chandelier, so too do I often misread where the boundaries of their behavior will take them. The easy laughs and memorable stories come from sharing the moments when they don’t behave, when they do absurd things like putting peas up their noses.

But without context, I’m not sure what that moment really suggests. Let me be crystal clear: my kids, our kids, are extraordinarily capable of behaving. I’ve sat at restaurants where they will voluntarily put napkins on their lap, use their forks, chew with their mouths closed, use please and thank you liberally . . . and I’ve also been at restaurants (see last week’s post about my wife’s birthday dinner) where I haven’t sat . . . at all.

The parent in all of us (or at least in me) goes immediately to the problem-solving place; were they overtired? Hungry? Did we feed them too much sugar? Is there a food allergy? Was there a planet in retrograde?

Yes. Yes. Definitely. Maybe. Dunno.

Bottom line: I don’t get it. I’m at a loss.

My uncle always says kids don’t come with instruction manuals, but at least FAQs would be nice. It would be like trouble-shooting for parents. I realize most FAQs are confusing and unwieldy. At least to me, they are. I feel like in order to get my question answered, I’m confronted with several far more challenging questions.

If someone were to put together a list of FAQs, here’s the question I’d like answered: Why does it often feel like our kids are more behaviorally challenged than anyone else’s? We go out with other parents all the time. What is the deal? Do they just keep their kids’ craziness to themselves? Are we too open, too candid? I don’t actually believe for one second that we’re raising little devils . . . any more than I believe we’re raising little angels.

Not long ago, I read that the area of the brain that keeps track of the consequences of one’s actions doesn’t fully develop until we’re past age twenty. Hearing that doesn’t make me feel so bad about some of what we deal with. Yet it doesn’t explain why we never hear about our friends’ kids experiments with:

-chugging a bottle of baby Motrin (ours did that)

-clogging a toilet with an entire roll of toilet paper (that too)

-shredding books (yep, been there, done that)

-throwing every single book off the shelves as though preparing for a book burning

-using my wife’s lipstick to color their entire face

-throwing toys over a balcony into their sibling’s nose (classic).

My latest theory is that perhaps our disciplinary strategies may not be all that effective. Shocking, right?

Said differently, do we just suck?

We’ve tried positive reinforcement. Sticker charts.

We’ve punished. Taken away toys.

We’ve done time outs. Time ins. We’ve had family meetings. We’ve written family rules.

I have no doubt that those of you reading this have a number of beneficial approaches. I don’t want to speak for my wife, but I, for one, would welcome them.

I’m sort of out of ideas.

Take last night’s jewel heist. We had a talk. My wife had her yell. We took away toys. We discussed why it was dangerous. Expensive. Problematic. Not how we should treat our house.

Our girls got the message. Or so we thought.

This morning, as we herded them into the car for school, we discovered one of our girls had wet the sticker off of an air freshener and decided this sticker belonged in the middle of our bathroom mirror.

C’mon, really?

The only logical explanation at this point is that they are just experiential learners. Perhaps, and unfortunately for all of us, they’re going to have to grow up as I did . . . learning that fire was hot by touching a lit candle, or singeing off the tips of their hair.

Wow, this is going to suck.

Again, I am speaking purely from my own experience. I had to take drivers ed twice (in fairness, my first driving instructor may not have been the best of role models as his three DUIs would indicate). I ran an old lady off the road while driving with an instructor. On my own, I ran out of gas, got into three accidents in the first nine months I had my license; including the oh-so-brilliant crashing into an inanimate object.

This doesn’t include my bouts with locking keys in the car, the parking tickets, traffic tickets . . . you get the idea. It didn’t matter what my parents said. I was destined to learn by screwing up. Over and over again.

And let’s be clear: my parents were all over me. I was grounded. Sent back to drivers ed. Stripped of the car keys . . . blah blah blah. None of it really stuck and I was a great deal older than my kids are now.

Perhaps we will never break this cycle. Perhaps the right thing to do is just accept that no matter what we try, our kids are going to figure it out themselves. Learn by screwing up like I did.

I have an old friend, who back in his single days, certainly sowed his oats . . . sowed them wholeheartedly and with great vigor. When he first shared that he and his wife were having a kid, it seemed like sweet justice it was a girl, a girl he would one day have to steer clear of the likes of boys like him. (Even sweeter justice when his second was also a girl.)

For me, perhaps this is my sweet justice. Perhaps, after putting my own parents through the ringer, I now must suffer through my own children’s need to screw up on their own. And, like Sisyphus, no matter how I tried to steer them clear of trouble, the damn boulder is coming down.

Oh, joy.

Barry L. Levy

About Barry L. Levy

Barry Levy is a husband. A father. A writer. His "credits" include Noa, Jordan, Ben. His writing credits include Vantage Point & Paranoia. Follow him on Twitter @barryllevy

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