I’m Sorry.

“I’m not going to get you to school on time. I’m sorry.” I said to #1 this morning on the way to school.
He looked at me and said: “That’s okay.”

#1 didn’t want to know why I was running late, why I wasn’t going to get him to school on time. It didn’t matter. All that mattered at 8:23 was my honest apology.

Children are forgiving. They will accept an honest “sorry.” Unfortunately, they also will endure our adult explanations and excuses and reasons. But all they really want is “I’m sorry.”


Knowing When to Keep My Mouth Shut…

A couple recent exchanges reinforce, at least for me, the importance of knowing when to remain silent or, to put it another way, when to keep my mouth shut.

About a week ago:
“What are you going to do?” The Mother asked as I dragged the vacuum out of the closet.
That must be a trick question, I thought.
“I’m going to vacuum and mop the floors,” I replied, “somebody has to do it—the place is filthy.”
I didn’t need to add my commentary, which was not an innocent remark. The Mother heard my comment as an accusation and schooled me on all the things she does around the house and for the family.[1] Nobody enjoyed the subsequent exchange.[2]

The other night:
“What were you doing outside?” The Mother asked as I closed the door.
“I was bringing in the trashcan ….” I replied.
In the interstices between those dots I thought: “…because nobody else in this family seems to give a shit that the trashcan sits at the curb all day, or maybe you all just assume I’ll do it….” But I said nothing.[3]

In these cases, truth and reality help little in deciding whether or not to remain silent. Instead, civility and generosity seem more important.

It was true, the house was filthy and nobody was willing to clean it. We seemed to be playing that waiting game to see who would blink first. I blinked. So be it. I didn’t need to add any commentary. In reality, we probably weren’t playing any waiting game, except in my imagination. Rather than impute some iniquitous motives, why not assume the best. The Mother has a full life, as do I. We regularly divide domestic chores in a dynamic sort of ad hoc way. Her not having vacuumed was no more malicious than my having not vacuumed.

It was true, nobody seemed to give a shit that the trashcan sat at the curb. But was the can’s continued presence at the curb evidence of some injustice? Probably not. More likely, they simply hadn’t thought about it. Or maybe instead of bringing in the trashcan they did some other menial task around the house, relieving me of that chore. Or maybe they didn’t. I would have gained nothing by my snarky commentary. And in reality, they bear no more responsibility for bringing the trashcan than I do.

In a million little ways we all have these exchanges every day. Stray words tossed into a conversation, words that contribute little to the conversation itself but offer some catharsis usually at the listener’s expense. That’s just not nice. When speaking with The Mother, perhaps I could bring a little more generosity to the conversation. When speaking with #1 or with #2, I as the parent need to model generosity and civility. Maybe we would all be happier if, in general, both speaker and listener were a little more generous and tried a little harder to know when to keep our mouths shut.

  1. While I would argue that my comment was born more of general malaise and frustration and was not intended as an accusation, I totally understand The Mother’s response. I am sure I have reacted similarly.  ↩

  2. There are, I am sure, numerous examples of the mother letting my snarky comment go unchallenged. These have less effect on me so my intellectual blinders prevent me from recalling them.  ↩

  3. I don’t want to imply that I learned anything and am somehow now beyond making snippy comments. I am not so mature, alas.  ↩

It’s all about tone

Once we have distinguished between “I can’t. I don’t have…” and “I won’t. I don’t want to…,” we might also think about how we reply to our progeny’s request for attention, both the words we use and the tone in our voice. Do we sound like we are acquiescing, that we are shouldering some parental burden? Or do we sound like we care and we want to see whatever it is the progeny are trying to show us? Do we respond with an eager (or at least engaged) “show me” or with a beleaguered “okay”? We need not be ebullient, exuberant, or giddy. But if we accept our progeny’s invitation, we should be gracious about it. We should probably be happy that they want to share some little corner of their lives with us.[1] Don’t make them feel put upon.

This morning at breakfast, a mother and daughter were sitting across from each other. The daughter wanted to show the mother something—her doll’s clothing, or shoes, or something. The mother sighed, “Okay, show me.” The daughter sort of deflated into her chair. It was clear the mother didn’t really want to see whatever it was the daughter had wanted to show her. The mother asked: “Were you going to show me something?” “Never mind,” the daughter mumbled.

We can’t simply yield to their requests for attention. We have to care, at least a little. And we have to show that we care both in our words and our tone.

  1. It is an invitation, sort of a juvenile version of “the pleasure of your company is requested” or “please join me as I share this important part of my life with you.” We should be flattered, at least a little, that they care about us enough to share, as we generally are when invited to an adult function. And we should be generous when we accept that invitation, just as we are when we accept an invitation to an adult function. All too soon our progeny will find other people who are interested in the furniture of their lives. We needn’t hasten the process.  ↩

“I can’t. I don’t have …” vs. “I won’t. I don’t want …”

The progeny regularly ask for attention at inconvenient times—typically when we are all running late for something or when I have just started a project. I am convinced they have devised a game in which they earn points proportional to some inconvenience factor. I imagine a rule in this game explains:

Earn extra points:
+1 for asking as dad is heading out the door for any reason.
+3 for asking as dad heads into the garage to get tools to work on something.
+5 for asking as dad returns from garage with hands full of tools.
+7 for asking just after dad has stuck his head in some hard-to-reach spot, e.g., climbed under the sink to repair it.
+100 for asking when dad has finally got a wrench or other mission-critical tool in just the right spot and is with his other hand holding some piece above his head while holding the flashlight in his mouth so he can see what he is doing, and he seems, if he’s lucky, to be on the verge of finishing the job that should have taken 30 minutes but has consumed the entire afternoon and has required two trips to the hardware store for parts.

Maybe I’m projecting, but I suspect (or perhaps just hope) that my experience is not unique, that #1 and #2 aren’t punishing me for some past-life crime I committed. In any case, The Mother and I say with some regularity: “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.”

How often when we say “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.” do we really mean “I won’t right now. I don’t want to take the time.”? We (or at least I) could do a better job distinguishing between “can’t/don’t have” and “won’t/don’t want to”?

I was reminded of this at 7:45 AM the other morning when #1 was excited about the sprawling network of tunnels the ants in his ant farm had dug (it was really neat, as was the inexplicably bisected ant whose head and trunk lay discarded on the surface while his fellow ants climbed over his metasoma at the bottom of a tunnel). His “Mommy. Mommy. Come look at the ants’ tunnels.” was answered with the standard “I can’t. I don’t have the time.”

The Mother’s response was justified and understandable. Mornings are hectic. Getting everybody ready and out the door takes concentration and focus. Equally justified, however, was #1’s comment: “You always say that.”

Arguments for not dropping everything to fawn over progeny are easy to construct. We are not being selfish if we want the occasional time to ourselves. We are probably better parents and certainly happier parents if we have some “me time.” They are not neglected if they do not get our undivided attention all the time on their schedule and according to their whim. They might learn to moderate their requests and learn to ask for attention when it’s convenient for everybody. But we might also ask ourselves: Are we really too busy? Could we take a minute and look at some ant tunnels? Is our current task time-sensitive or will it wait? Do we need to finish reading that article or do we just really really want some time to ourselves? Maybe. But either way we should be clear and honest with ourselves and our progeny.

When our instinctive reply is “I can’t right now. I don’t have the time.” we risk obscuring the difference between “can’t/don’t have” and “won’t/don’t want to.” We also risk confusing the progeny.

Bryan Garner on “Parenting”

Bryan A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage guide.

Bryan A. Garner’s Garner’s Modern American Usage guide.

Parenting, a VOGUE WORD meaning “the raising of a child by its parents,” is a fairly recent coinage: W11[1] dates it from 1958. It began as JARGON used by psychologists, sociologists, and self-help practitioners, but spread into the general language during the 1980s. Its relative grandparenting is much rarer—e.g.: “Grandparenting Styles Differ,” Charleston Daily Mail 10 Oct. 1995, at A8.
Of course, the gerund parenting implies a verb, but that form appears less often than the noun. It’s more jarring, and there’s usually a handy and simple substitute—e.g.:

  • “The group says other clients are trying to have babies that will genetically match children they have already parented [read given birth to] and lost.” “Cloning Facts,” Denver Post, 29 Dec. 2002, at A6.
  • “He admits that marriage ins’t the silver bullet for social ills but observes that well-parented [read well-raised] kids often cause less crime or other problems, thus costing society and government less money.” Abraham McLaughlin, Christian Science Monitor, 13 Jan. 2003, USA §, at 1.
  • “This legislation is a slap in the face to them and to hundreds like them across Iowa who are parenting [read raising children] and foster-parenting [read providing foster homes], with all of the challenges and little of the recognition that ‘traditional’ couples receive.” Letter of Heather L. Adams, “No Evidence for Adoption Ban,” Des Moines Register, 17 Feb. 2003, at A10.

parenting in the sense of “child rearing”: Stage 4[2]

From Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage, 3rd ed. (OUP, 2009), 609–610.

  1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed. 2003)  ↩

  2. Stage 4: “The form becomes virtually universal but is opposed on cogent grounds by a few linguistic stalwarts (die-hard shoots). See the entry for snoot, p. 756.  ↩

You just don’t understand…

At a cafe recently, a mother and her preteen daughter argue about something ultimately inconsequential but in the heat of the moment of great import. At the mothers increasingly terse replies, the daughter carps, “That’s not it.” Frustrated, she finally blurts, “You just don’t understand….” The daughter retreats into silence.

At the dinner table the other night, #2 tries to explain something. She searches for words. As we respond to what we think she means, she grows increasingly upset at our seeming refusal to understand her. “That’s not what I mean,” she objects. As she starts to cry, she complains, “You don’t understand….” #2 finishes dinner in silence.

I was struck and alarmed by the similarity of these two scenes: a child’s inability to make a parent understand what she meant and, in the end, the breakdown of communication between child and parent.

Parents often don’t understand their children, their priorities, their seeming inability to listen and remember (except when you don’t really want them to do either), their music, their preferred pastimes, their dubious-until-they-become-obsessive hygiene practices, etc. As parents, we often place the burden on them to explain those priorities to us. What happens when they can’t, as #2 couldn’t? What responsibility do we as parents have for helping our children express themselves? What if I rephrased my observation:

I was struck and alarmed by the similarity of these two scenes: a parent’s unwillingness to understand a child and, in the end, the breakdown of communication between parent and child.

Perhaps we will get further if we approach encounters with our children with empathy, generosity, and respect. Rather than trying to shoehorn their thoughts and expressions into our molds, give them the space and the resources to articulate their own ideas. Work to understand their world and its priorities. We may not agree with those priorities and may try to disabuse our children of them. But we can’t know that until we understand.

If On a Winter’s Day a Stuffy

The morning begins in a gelid parking lot, a car lurches to a stop, steam from the exhaust pipe obscures the license plate. In the morning’s odor a whiff of diesel from a bus mixes with the smell of partially combusted gasoline. A small girl looks out a befogged window. She opens the door of the car. She climbs out of the back seat and buttons her overcoat, heat from inside envelops her, convection currents distort the air above her head. As she pulls a mitten from her pocket she doesn’t notice me fall. All I can do is watch her and her mother rush through the bitter morning into school.

Ever hopeful, little bunny stuffy waits for his owner to return.

Ever hopeful, little bunny stuffy waits for his owner to return.

You, reader, believed that there, on the cold ground, my gaze was glued to their disappearing backs, their hands interlocked like gears, in a vain attempt to turn them around and to retrace their steps through the cemetery of lost friends lying lifeless in their rocky pantheon. But who can say that I am not fleeing from the mother and daughter as much as they seem to be retreating from me? However, the result would not change much: even if she fetched me from ground and replaced me in her warm pocket, my stitched smile would still express an inner fear. Despite, or perhaps because of, her affection, which at times represented for me an unwelcome and exhausting burden, I inevitably would be lost, dropped or left behind, my absence noticed too late.

As he approaches he notices a stuffy lying next to his car. Although last time he felt sorry for the child who lost a kitten keychain, he did little more than take a photo and try not to back over it as he left. Today, he pauses, feeling once again a sympathetic twinge for the unknown child who lost her stuffy. He bends down and picks it up.

That afternoon, while waiting for her mother, a little girl can’t find her bunny stuffy. She wanted to show her friend. She checks both coat pockets. It’s not there. She rummages through her book bag, double checks her pockets, looks in her desk. She doesn’t know where to look. It’s lost. She starts to weep.

It’s dark in this drawer, dark but warm and cozy with all the other stuffies. I am thankful to the man who found me and brought me in out of the cold. However, the result did not change much: although he fetched me from the ground and turned me in to lost and found, my stitched smile still expresses my inner fear. I know now that despite her affection, I am lost.

Something was bound to go wrong for me.…