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Archive for November, 2009

My stepsons are fighting in the back seat.  Jack is six, Michael 11.  Their mom is at Northwest baggage claim.  We’re picking her up.

This gives me an opportunity, as stepdad-in-charge, to apply my theory that any misbehavior by children can be modified by 1) clear commands and 2) certain consequences.    Because I’m rarely alone with the boys, my theory has not yet been tested on my stepsons.

Jack threatens to beat Michael up.  When Michael sneers at this threat, Jack says he’ll get his friend Ben to help him.  Michael can barely contain his contempt at the notion of two first-graders beating up him, a sixth-grader. 

“That’s ridiculous,” he tells Jack.  “One sixth grader is worth . . .” Michael pauses to calculate.   “. . . six first graders.”

Jack, bested verbally, leans out of his car seat and hits his brother. 

It’s my moment. 

“ALL RIGHT,” I say, in a commanding tone,   “Don’t talk to each other anymore, or else . . .” 

I hesitate here, since I hadn’t figured out the “or else” yet.  I improvise, telling them there will be an unspecified “consequence” when they get home.

The boys quiet immediately. 

See?  Not complicated.  Clear instructions, certain consequence.  That’s how you handle children.  I look forward to explaining this to Rachel.

Seven seconds later, Michael picks up Jack’s dragon book, which lay on the seat between the boys.  He opens it and turns in his seat so that Jack can’t see the pages.

“Wow,” Michael murmurs, pretending to be fascinated by what he sees.  “Cool!”

I check Jack’s reaction in the rear view mirror.  He’s looking across the seat at his brother, frowning. 

Michael turns a page.

“Look at that!” he says.

“Stop it!” Jack says.

Michael, aglow with innocence, says, “What?  I’m not even talking to you.”

He turns another page.  “Ooh!” he marvels.

“Stop it!” Jack yells.  “STOP READING MY BOOK!”

I have no indictable offense.  Technically, Michael is not talking to his brother, so he has not violated my order.  (As a stepfather, my paperwork has to be completely in order before I take any prosecutorial action.)  And I can’t blame Jack, since he was provoked.

I close this loophole by asking Michael stop talking entirely.  Please.  He shrugs and puts the dragon book down.

There.  Sometimes it takes a follow-up.

A full ten seconds of silence ensues.  Then I hear the slightest whisper from the backseat, faint as a hummingbird’s breath.

Jack immediately erupts, claiming that Michael taunted him. 

“What are you talking about?” Michael says, in a tone of earnest puzzlement.  “I didn’t say anything.”

“You did TO!” Jack shouts.   He swivels in his car seat, flings his legs across the seat, and rains kicks on his brother.  Michael turns away, absorbing the blows stoically.

I’m stymied.  Michael’s whisper – his alleged whisper – was so soft I couldn’t make out what he said.  Jack’s the only witness.  It’s he said, he said.

I call Rachel.

“Are your bags in yet?”

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Controlling Husband

“Don’t have any coffee till I get back,” I order Rachel Sunday morning. 

I meant it.  

I’d just brewed coffee for Rachel.  I don’t like her Trader Joes roast, though, so I was driving to Caribou to pick up a Pike’s Place for myself.

I only have one cup of coffee a day.   I like to have that cup with Rachel, in bed.  It’s often our lone moment of relaxed togetherness before the day explodes. 

As I drive to Caribou I realize how Sleeping With the Enemy my coffee directive to Rachel was.  (Sleeping is the movie in which Julia Roberts’ controlling, abusive husband leads her into the bathroom to show her that she didn’t arrange the monogrammed towels exactly as he likes.  Julia trembles like a deer, fearing a beating.  Her husband gently forgives her – this time – and says, “That’s what reminding is for.”)

Rachel’s a grown woman, a mother, a successful professional.  I’d  just told her she’s not allowed to have coffee till I get back.

I make no apologies.

Rachel can’t be trusted around fresh-brewed coffee, and I will fight to the death for our simultaneous coffee-in-bed time.  With jobs, kids, chores, and errands, there are days when that moment is all that’s left of our marriage.  If she drinks hers before I get back, the moment’s lost.

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Kids are like tax attorneys:  give them a rule, and they’ll find a loophole.

My rule:  My teenage daughter is not allowed to have electronics in her bedroom.  No cell phone, no I-Touch, no internet, no cable t.v., no D.V.R. Not even a digital camera.  Why?  Because if she has that stuff in her room, she’ll never come out. 

Also, because of a 2008 study, from Stanford University, on the effect of cable t.v. and internet in teenage girls’ bedrooms. They studied 1,345 teenage girls, ages 13-17, and found that girls with cable and/or internet in their bedrooms were:

1) Likely to have significantly lower grades than girls with electronic-free bedrooms,

2) Twice as likely to use drugs and have discipline problems at school

3) Three times as likely to get pregnant during high school.

Alani has grumbled about the no electronics rule, but she accepts it.  Sort of.  Last Sunday I came upstairs and found her laying in the hallway, tucked in a blanket, just outside her bedroom door.  She’d propped pillows against the wall and was reading a book.

“What are you doing?” I asked.

“It’s my bed-in-the-hall,” she said. 

Her trusty I-Touch and cell phone sat on the floor next to her.  Her hallway spot  – inches from her bedroom door – was the equivalent of those retail fireworks places that sprout up in Indiana just across the Michigan border, to evade the Michigan anti-firecracker laws. 

Well done, Alani. 

Oh, and that Stanford University study?  It doesn’t exist.  I made it up. 

Still, you know it’s true.

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I took Jack to the zoo Sunday.  I told him he’s only allowed to see four animals. 

Sound mean?

Too bad. 

The zoo is Jack’s great passion in life, but I hate it.  Please, all adults, join with me in admitting that the zoo is boring:  the lions doze; the bears, made autistic by captivity, pace the same figure-eight over and over; and the chimps and apes, who actually are interesting, hide.  

Jack’s lucky to have a stepdad nice enough to take him to the zoo at all.  Four animals, I tell him: in and out. 

He accepts the rules.

He invites his friend Patrick to come with us. 

I know his game, and head him off quickly:  “That means you both get to pick only two animals” I tell him. 

Jack accepts this grim math without complaint. 

As we walk toward the zoo entrance, three pigeons scuttle in front of us.  The boys run at them, scattering the birds.

“That counts as one animal,” I say.

“Wha…..!”  Jack is shocked. 

Just kidding, I tell him. 

Inside, after we get the zoo map, I ask him what two animals he chooses. 

“Rhinoceros,” he says, “. . . . .and . . . the wild hogs.”

The wild hogs?   Wild hogs over baboons, or asian horses?  It seems a poor use of his two picks.  I lose some respect for Jack as a zoo connoisseur.  

When I crouch down and open the map to plot our route, I realize that I’ve been outwitted by a six year old.   The zoo is laid out on a long, straight, half-mile boulevard, with animal exhibits stretched on either side.   The wild hogs are at the furthest end of the zoo – we have to walk past every other animal to get there and back. 

Jack is a worthy adversary.

I fold up the map.

“Mike,” Jack asks casually as we begin our stroll,  “Does it count as one of my animals if I look at another animal?”

“Nope” I say –  he’s beaten me fair and square.  “Unless you stop.  If you stop, it counts.”

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My wife will not say my name.  The entire time I’ve know her.  Even before we got married. 

There are two exceptions – when she’s 1) irritated, or 2) exasperated.

For example:

(Irritated) After I’ve been badgering her about why she’s checking her Blackberry when she should be devoting her full attention to me: 

“Because, Mike,” she says, “I have a job”. 

(Exasperated)  At a restaurant, when I am showing her boys how to make spitwads and shoot them at each other with drinking straws:

“Michael!”

She calls me “Babe”, and occasionally “Honey”.  I have a faint recollection of her once calling me “Mikey-poo”.  But not Mike.  Is this unusual?

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delinquent 001I’m in the Target parking lot.  My daughter’s disappeared.  I’m not panicked.  I’m irritated.

Alani and her two eighth-grade girlfriends were right behind me at the cashier’s. I paid, looked up, and they were gone.  I scanned the nearby aisles, the front entrance. No girls.

I walked to the car.  Not there, either. 

I’m peeved – I just drove forty miles round trip to pick Alani, Laurel, and Ann up from a sleep over – and I want to go home.  Sneaking off into deepest Target while my back was turned was inconsiderate.  I had no idea where they were.  CDs?  Toys?  Clothes?

When I don’t find them at the car, I decide this is a teaching moment – for Alani.  I won’t go back in the store to find her.  Eventually, she’ll look for me by the cashier’s.  She won’t find me.  Perhaps she will experience a moment of panic, and act more responsibly next time. 

I’m so pleased with my plan that I call Rachel and describe it to her.   Rachel seems less enthusiastic, but I wave off her misgivings.  I give her a brief lecture on parenting technique:  

“The most important thing a parent can do,”  I explain to her, “is allow children to experience the consequences of their own actions.”

I sit in the Mariner, watching the front entrance.  As I wait, I remember an incident ten years earlier, when Alani was three and hid behind a rack of clothes at Pennys.  I had turned around and she was gone. Fear and adrenaline punched me in the chest. 

Alani’s thirteen now – what a difference a decade makes.

Or not.

Uneasiness creeps over me as I sit in the parking lot.  I turn the car into a parking space and hurry back into the store. 

I spot them, Alani and her friends, walking toward me through racks of women’s dresses.  I’m relieved, but still steamed.  I stretch my arms wide in a dramatic gesture. 

“I’ve been looking all over for you!” I say to Alani.  “Where have you been?”

Alani seems taken aback, but answers:  “I told you, we were going to the purse aisle.”

Alani doesn’t make stuff up.  If she says she told me, she did. 

I’m momentarily flummoxed, but quickly regain my indignation. Alani”s not off the hook.  If she wants to wander off in a  public place, she can ‘t just murmur something while I’m distracted, and take my lack of reply as permission.

“And did I indicate in any way that I heard you?” I demand.

Alani looks confused.

“Yeah,” she says.  “You said, ‘ok'”.

Oh.  

Damn it.

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I’m standing in the kitchen.  Rachel’s out running errands.  Jack asks me if he can have a piece of candy.  No, I tell him, it’s too close to dinner. 

It is rare but exhilarating, this exercise of stepfather authority.  It does not go unchallenged.

“Can I call my mom?” Jack asks immediately.

When I’m with my stepsons, I’m like a U.N. peacekeeper (the “soldiers” in the decidedly un-intimidating powder blue helmets):  I’m only issued light weapons, and I have to go through proper administrative channels before I can fire them.

But no to a piece of candy before dinner?  I think I’ve got at least that much authority.

“Sure,” I say.  I punch in Rachel’s number and put the cell to my ear.

“No, let me talk to her” Jack says.

“I will,” I say.  “Just a second”  I want to make sure Rachel understands that I’ve already said no.

Rachel answers.  “Hey,” I say.  I tell her that Jack asked if he could have a piece of candy, and that I told him  it was too close to dinner.  “He wanted to call you,” I say.

“Ok, let me talk to him,” Rachel says.  

I start to hand Jack the cell phone, but as I do I hear Rachel add, “I’ll find out how much candy he’s had today.”

Wait.  What? 

My intent in calling was not for Rachel to conduct an investigation and overrule me.  I thought she would tell Jack that when she was gone, his stepdad was in charge.  Plain and simple.  The same authority we might give a thirteen-year-old babysitter.  Named Amber.

I put the cell back to my ear.

“Honey?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t undercut me,” I say.  It doesn’t sound like that, though, because Jack is standing right next to me and I’m talking with my teeth clenched to distort my voice, so he can’t tell what I’m saying to his mom.  It comes out like this:

“Deeent eeeunnercaanht meaaah.”

“What?” Rachel says.

I talk louder, but keep my teeth tight.

“Deeent eeeeunnerceeeaant meaaah!”

What?”

I walk away from Jack.  “Don’t undercut me,” I say into the phone.

“Oh,” Rachel says.  “Ok”.  She delivers the bad news to Jack.

Had it gone otherwise, there would be hell to pay next time I was left “in charge”.  My every directive – “Jack, quit swinging the cat by the tail!” would be met with an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court of Mom.

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