Friday, February 27, 2009

The Ketchup Bottle As A Parenting Barometer.

Parenting is the only thing you can do in life where you have to learn on the job and you have no hope of ever getting promoted.

Well, parenting and being the president, I suppose. But the presidency, at least, ends. Parenting never ends; it just keeps on keeping on, and keeps on being constantly confounding, while it's at it.

Take as the first example the parenting I engaged in, and then Sweetie engaged in, with The Boy last night and this morning. The Boy should be used as a training course for parents; anyone thinking they've got this parenting thing down should spend a week with The Boy, after which they will realize just how far away from perfection they are, and also they will hug their own kids ferociously and keep repeating things like Thank god you're you.

The Boy seems to make it his mission in life to help develop parenting skills, like he did last night and today. Last night, he was taking out the garbage. He has to do that every Thursday night, and he finds that to be terribly horribly unjust because in his mind it creates a work imbalance between him and everyone else in the house. I would like to actually make The Boy sit down and tote up, on a ledger, what everyone else in the house does, just as I would like to explain to The Boy that watching the Houston versus Cleveland basketball game doesn't, technically, count as a chore, but I have to pick my battles.

So last night, The Boy was getting the garbage ready to go and was complaining about how everyone in the house makes his life so much harder, in this case by putting garbage into boxes and putting those boxes by the garbage can. Sweetie had gotten a package of some sort yesterday and the box for the package was by the garbage can, and had some garbage in it as well, and this was the most irritating thing The Boy had seen in his entire life, more irritating, even, than when people leave soda cans in the sink and he has to throw them away when he does the dishes.

And to give you an idea of how irritating "soda cans in the sink" is to The Boy, I'll just let you know that once, at 9:15 at night, The Boy came home from somewhere and apparently found a can in the sink, which irritated him even though the chores were done and he didn't have to do anything about it. I know it irritated him because I was upstairs in my room reading and The Boy marched in with the soda can and held it up to me and Sweetie and said:

"Who put this in the sink after I asked if people would not do that?"

To which I responded:

"Did you make a special trip upstairs carrying the can just to make a point of how people shouldn't put them in the sink?"

He looked at me and said "I've asked that people don't do that."

And I said:

"Didn't you walk right by the garbage can to come up here and show that to me?"

He left.

The garbage in the cardboard box was, by my estimate, roughly one hundred gajillion times more irritating than soda cans in the sink, if The Boy's demeanor was anything to go by. I tried to respond calmly, because "respond calmly" is my parenting style these days. I've tried lots of other things to parent the kids, all of them having about the degree of success you'd expect, success I measure by how often I find the ketchup bottle lying on its side in the refrigerator.

The ketchup that we buy is the large, generic bottle of ketchup that costs about $1.00 and is too large to fit anywhere in the door of the refrigerator except on the bottom shelf. (Ketchup has to be stored in the door of the refrigerator, by the Unwritten Refrigerator rules. If I go to someone's house, and for some reason am poking around in their refrigerator, and I see that they've stored their ketchup somewhere other than the door of the refrigerator, I think to myself: these people are weird.)

(If you think about it, poking through someone's refrigerator feels like as much of a violation as poking through their bathroom medicine cabinet, something that I actually never do because I don't want to know what people are up to and get all grossed out. But I do want to poke into their refrigerator, always. I just never get a chance to do so. And then when I do get a chance to do so, I chicken out because it feels too violating. When someone says "Oh, that's in the 'fridge, you can go get one," I try not to do it because it creeps me out. It's like they said Oh, the cheese spray is in my underwear drawer. Second from the left. Yeah, just move the thongs.")

(I don't get out a lot.)

I gauge how my parenting is going by, among other barometers, whether the ketchup bottle is in the bottom shelf and standing up, or if instead it has been violently wedged into another, smaller shelf, or even stored in the main cargo bay of the refrigerator. As a parent, I feel like I'm doing a good job if the kids are doing well in school, having good morals, not getting criminal records, and learning how to do things the "right way." The "right way" to do things is, as it applies to ketchup bottles and refrigerators, put things where they belong. The problem arises in that the bottom shelf sometimes has other things in it, things that would fit on other shelves but for some reason have been put in the bottom shelf.

If I am putting away the ketchup, and I see that the bottom shelf is full, I move something from the bottom shelf and put the ketchup where it belongs -- the shelf where it can stand, proud and tall.

However, if I were Middle, or The Boy, or previously Oldest, I would look at that and put the ketchup wherever my hand happened to fall -- cramming it into the butter section, sometimes, or resting it sideways on top of the salad dressing and mayonnaise, or in the produce drawer, whatever sprang into my mind.

To date, I have never seen the ketchup bottle put onto the bottom shelf. Sometimes, the bottom shelf of the door is empty, and the ketchup bottle is precariously balanced on the empty pickle jar that has for some reason been put back into the refrigerator, too. I used to get upset at things like that, but I have since delegated the refrigerator to Sweetie, so I pay it less attention, except to gauge how I'm doing parenting, and since all of my previous parenting efforts have obviously not worked out, now I'm on to "respond calmly," which I tried last night as The Boy went on and on about how people deliberately set out to make his life miserable and hard by putting garbage into the box by the can instead of into the can.

I said, simply "I'll try not to do that, and you should let other people know," even though I hadn't done it, and even though letting other people know meant that he'd likely march up to Middle's room and brandish the garbage box at her and say something sarcastic and dumb, and then she'd get mad and eventually it would devolve into an argument about whose car smelled worse.

Then, to try to divert The Boy, I said "Be careful outside, because it's getting slippery," which I thought was both helpful and might be appreciated, in that it was raining out and the driveway looked a little icy.

The Boy didn't respond and took the garbage out and that was largely it for the rest of the night, except for the moment later on when I tried the one of the other two parenting technique I'm currently trying out, which is "sarcasm." I combine "sarcasm" with "respond calmly" and "lectures laden with guilt," and I'm hoping this will result in the ketchup bottle being moved.

I invoked "sarcasm" when, about an hour later, I went downstairs and noted that The Boy, in coming back in, had not replaced the blanket we use to block drafts through the garage door. I looked at it and then looked at him and said

"Man, how come everybody around here just leaves this blanket laying out, making everything all harder for me even though I've told everyone over and over that they shouldn't leave the blanket all the way across the floor but should replace it?"

The Boy just watched his basketball game and shrugged.

So I said

"I mean, it's even worse than if the garbage was put in a box. Man! I wish people would make my life easier and then I might make their life easier."

The Boy shrugged again and said "Sorry" without taking his eyes off the TV. And without getting up to replace the blanket, which I replaced, but which I thought about putting in a box next to the garbage can before I realized that would hurt me, because we wouldn't have the blanket and because I'd have to listen to another of The Boy's lectures.

Then, this morning, I got to see just how my parenting was working in a more unusual manner. No, the ketchup bottle was not taped to a wall outside the house. Instead, I was working on some writing and getting ready to go to work, and Sweetie was eating breakfast when The Boy came downstairs and was going to go outside to get the newspaper (another of his jobs, and another example The Boy frequently cites to show how unbalanced the work load is in the house. I timed it once, when I went to get the paper. It takes less than 30 seconds to get the paper, which means The Boy has spent more time in the past 12 months complaining about getting the paper than he has actually spent getting the paper.)

As he was opening the door, Sweetie, noting that last night we'd had freezing rain and that the world was covered in ice said "Be careful, it's slippery out there."

The Boy responded by saying "That's what someone told me last night only it wasn't slippery at all, so I guess nobody makes any sense."

To which I said: "Fine. Don't be careful."

He was careful, though, or lucky, and got the paper back inside. (Karma, which has The Boy on speed-dial, got him later when he went to leave for school and slipped and had to go set up the garbage cans, which had slid on the ice, too.)

That was all the parenting I did this morning; I let it end with that sarcasm because I have to be careful in how I parent The Boy or he'll turn the tables on me, like he did on Wednesday. That's the second example of parenting I have for today:

Wednesday night, I had decided that I would give Sweetie a break and do the grocery shopping for her -- for reasons that will be explained in the next Rum Punch Review -- and then I decided that it wasn't much of a break if I left her home alone with four kids while I got to go listen to music and wander around. So I then decided that I'd take all the kids with me, and that I would buy them some McDonald's as an incentive to get them to come.

I can't imagine my parents ever deciding to bribe me or my brothers as an incentive to get us to do something. An "incentive" when we were kids was defined as I won't hit you with this electric cord. That was all the incentive we needed to do what we were told to do -- and to do it fast. But I am a modern parent and I rely on modern parenting tools, like hamburgers and guilt. So I told Sweetie to tell the kids what my plans were, and figured that promising a treat would make doing the chore a little less onerous.

Then, later on, Sweetie called me and said The Boy didn't want to grocery shop because he had homework to do and his back hurt.

The Boy's back hurts because he lifts weights for football without stretching. His back started hurting him two weeks ago, and I showed him how to properly stretch it out and make sure it wouldn't get hurt, and he did the stretches for a few days and reported that his back felt better.

"Just keep doing those stretches every day, then, and you'll be fine," I said.

"Why do I have to keep doing them?" he asked.

"Because it'll keep your back from getting hurt," I said.

"But my coach has me do stretches before we lift," he said.

"Were you doing those before your back hurt?" I asked him.

"Yes," he said.

I then tried to point out that obviously his coach's stretches were not helping, but in the grand tradition of our kids choosing to stick with their opinion in the face of controverting facts, he opted to believe that his coach's stretches were helping, and opted not to do my stretches.

So The Boy didn't want to grocery shop. I decided, fine, I'll show him, thereby introducing a fourth parenting technique, that of revenge, which I decided to combine with hamburgers and guilt. Then, on the way home from work, I called to let them know I was heading home and got Middle. I asked if she was ready to go shopping and she said no, she wasn't. I asked why and she said "I don't want to go."

I decided to apply revenge/guilt to her, too, and when I got home, I had them come to the kitchen table, and sit down, and I told them that I didn't want to be interrupted. I then very calmly lectured them for a few minutes on how I do favors for them all the time, and they're always asking me for money or favors or to buy a song on iTunes using my money or to let them watch basketball in my room, and that I always do that for them, and then today I ask them for a favor and wanted them to help me grocery shop so we could give their mom a little break, and I even offered to buy them dinner at McDonald's even though I didn't have to, and I could have simply ordered them to do it, but, no I was trying to be nice and hoping they would be responsible and nice in return, and that if they had just done their homework they wouldn't have any reason not to go, and that I found their excuses flimsy, and then I said that I would remember this in the future, and that in the future, they were going to ask me for a favor, and I was going to tell them no.

"I don't know when it'll be, yet," I said, "But I will tell you, NO, I'm not going to do you a favor, because I'm very very disappointed in you. I was hoping that you would be better and would for once in your lives do the right thing. Instead, you've let me down."

Having then successfully parented them by calmly dumping that whole load of guilt into their laps, I then said "Is there anything you'd like to say, now?"

And The Boy said "Only that I did my homework and was going to help you with the groceries."

After a moment, I said "Why didn't you stop me and tell me that?"

He said: " You said you didn't want to be interrupted."

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