Life’s Too Hot to Handle Lessons
“Then the door opened and in stepped a nineteen-year-old yoga instructor with impossibly long limbs and the bone structure of Sophia Loren in The Black Orchid.”
Often in the course of family life, a parent must face inconvenient or downright disturbing truths about children that fly in the face of what we believe about our influence as parents and human nature itself.
Before becoming a parent, for instance, I genuinely believed I could convince my offspring that Barney the Dinosaur is in fact evil and does not actually love them.
I was also convinced that my children would be the first toddlers in history to possess, thanks to their kindly father, impeccable table manners and a keen appreciation of historical documentaries, late-90s acoustic mope rock and Alaskan scenery.
On all these counts, I was forced to face facts. News flash: Kids love Barney, do not generally appreciate the genius of Ken Burns or Elliot Smith and will never, ever, even if you shell out many thousands of dollars on a pleasure cruise of Glacier Bay, give a damn about the majesty of the wild when there’s a buffet table piled with cookies behind them.
Still, hope dies hard. Throughout my first years of fatherhood, I clung to some ridiculously starry-eyed and politically correct notions about children.
I believed they are born virtuous and freethinking, that meanness, superficiality, and arbitrary gender norms are learned via reality TV and unlicensed childcare providers. Left to their own devices, I imagined children would establish a just, happy society filled with toys and cake.
I managed to maintain this cheery outlook despite mounting evidence to the contrary. Qualities I’d assumed would come naturally to my kids—fairness, patience, civility—seemed entirely absent in my young charges. Often, they could be just plain mean.
My three-year-old son, for instance, appeared to enjoy nothing more than batting his infant sister on the head with a Lincoln Log Lincoln Logs. Even as I disciplined him, I found a way to justify—or at least reconcile—the occasional outburst of savagery. He was, I mused, simply expressing the innate impulses of his primate forefathers.
Which also helped explain the kids’ stubborn refusal to conform to the carefully constructed gender-neutral world my wife and I had assembled for them, painting their nursery a neutral shade of avocado and providing each with unisex playthings. We cringed when a relative, usually a grandparent, did something so gauche as give our daughter a baby doll or our son a toy steam locomotive.
But wouldn’t you know it: our firstborn son came out of the womb crazy for trains and our daughter instantly gravitated to ballerinas and princesses and to this day gripes about putting on any garment that isn’t sufficiently pink and sparkly.
One militantly gender-neutral friend who had withheld dolls from her daughter says she once walked in on her daughter cooing to a toy truck she’d swaddled in a pink blankie. OK, so children are born barbarians, boys like boy stuff and girls often fall prey to the tyranny of pink.
But none of that quite compared to the hard lesson in human nature I learned from the hot babysitter. Allow me to explain. A few years ago my wife and I took the kids for a weekend to a fancy hotel. We planned to have a grown-up dinner and arranged a babysitter look after the kids. When informed of our plans, the kids expressed terror at the prospect of spending the entire evening with a stranger; they whined and worried the entire day. Then the door opened and in stepped a nineteen-year-old yoga instructor with impossibly long limbs and the bone structure of Sophia Loren in The Black Orchid.
Both kids latched on to the sitter’s pant leg and looked up at her adoringly. For the two of us, they had just one word: “Bye!” All their fears and insecurities had evaporated in an instant. I’ve since heard similar stories from other parents—even naturally nervous and clingy kids, it seems, often display an eerily natural level of comfort and security when left with comely caretakers. None of this should be so surprising. Scientists have proven that aesthetics are hard-wired into the brain, that even infants stare longer at pictures of lovelier faces, that otherwise unconditionally loving parents lavish more attention and praise on prettier kids than goony ones.
In other words, kids are just as superficial and shallow as we adults are. Hard lesson in human nature indeed.