Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Winging It

The lessons parents never learn.

By Margaret Renkl

APRIL 6, 1998:  There are, no doubt, obsessive experts who spend every waking minute of their lives in the study of a given topic--people who know all there is to know about tea roses or the Civil War or the Bloomsbury Group or suspension bridges--experts who know all about asteroids and sexual-harassment law and the behavior of subatomic particles. But no matter how intensely one studies the subject of childhood, nor how perfectly confident one might feel in one's expert status as a parent (or even as a trained pediatrician or child psychologist), inevitably it is impossible for a mere adult to account for the inclinations and behavior of children. This is one subject that thoroughly eludes predictability.

Parents who have only one child may be unaware of this truth, since it actually is possible for the diligent observers of a specific child (i.e., the child's parents) to feel they know that child absolutely. Then they extrapolate from that particular child to all children everywhere. Thus it is that one hears first-time parents, even very new parents, offering advice to other parents "If you go in there the first time she whimpers," the mother of a six-month-old will say sagely to the mother of a three-month-old, "I'm telling you, she'll never sleep through the night. Kids just need to cry for a few minutes before they're tired enough to sleep."

Sometimes, even the parents of two or more children assume, on the basis of the nonscientific sample group known as their own family, that they've got the parenthood thing licked. Observing that their own kids demonstrate occasional similarities of habit or inclination, they grow ever more confident of their expert status as Seers of Children. "My children will eat anything that's flavored with cinnamon," they reason, "so if Mary's kids won't eat broccoli, all she has to do is douse it with a little cinnamon, and the problem's solved."

As a rule, no real harm comes from parental self-confidence at this level, and new parents may even welcome many of the resulting suggestions. This plethora of advice only creates a problem when parents refuse--or appear to refuse--to follow it. Then the advising parent tends to get a little huffy, to cast a little blame: "Well, I told her to break out the cinnamon, but you can't tell Mary anything."

In truth, no two children are very much alike--at least not enough alike to give most parents the right to criticize other parents. They're not even enough alike to offer a predictable template for what is going to come next in the psychic or intellectual development of their own subsequent children. In the ongoing education my husband and I are receiving at the hands of our children, the single most important thing we've learned is that what we figured out about our first child almost never applies to our second.

For one thing, except for being the same gender, they're physical opposites--one tall and the other short, one blue-eyed and the other brown-eyed, one a blond baby and the other auburn-haired. And their physical differences are nothing compared to their differences in temperament, interest, and ability.

The toy barn our first son played with obsessively warrants barely a glance from our second son, who, instead, pulls out of the closet the Legos his brother never touched. The Look--a frown coupled with one raised eyebrow--was pretty much all it took to straighten out our first son when he misbehaved, but The Look now causes his brother, the thrower-of-tantrums, not even a pause for breath. When he was angry, our first son could be always be distracted by a hug and a smile, while our second son can hold a grudge for hours. Our first son still can't carry a tune in a bucket, though his baby brother can already hum along perfectly, right on pitch.

You'd think that my husband and I would have learned by now to expect absolutely nothing predictable as our younger son's life unfolds before us. You'd think we'd just be sitting back, relaxed, watching the show.

But no. Instead of routinely recognizing the independent little individual for what he is, we first must go through the usual puzzlement all formerly confident parents experience when a kid won't stick to the script. "What's going on?" we ask each other in the dark of a crying-baby night. "At this age his brother was sleeping 12 hours at a stretch. Do you think he's sick?"

What we ought to admit is that we don't always know either of our children very well. Especially now that the older one is capable of telling a mammoth lie, it ought to occur to us on occasion that much of our children's thinking is simply beyond our ken. When a neighbor called last summer to inform me that my older son had joined her daughter and another neighborhood child in writing with colored markers all over the neighbor's driveway, fence, and family car, I was sure my son had, at most, merely witnessed the other kids' destruction without stopping it. My own child, I firmly attested, had never once in his entire five years of life shown any inclination to write on anything other than a blank sheet of paper.

"Well," my neighbor reasoned, "his name is written in several places on my driveway and fence, and since none of them can read, I feel pretty certain the other children didn't write it for him."

I went straight outside to where my son was sitting quietly on the swingset. "Son," I asked, "did you draw on Miss Lynn's car?"

He looked me straight in the eye. "No," he answered. "The others did, but I didn't."

I was relieved--extraordinarily relieved. All was right with the world once again. I knew my child, and my child was not a vandal.

Then another thought dawned. "Son," I asked, "did you draw on Miss Lynn's driveway?"

This time he did not look at me. He kept his eyes on the toe of his tennis shoe, busily gouging out the dirt beneath his swing.

I repeated the question. Again no answer.

"Look, honey," I said, "I'd rather know the truth, whatever the truth turns out to be, than for you to tell me a lie."

"Well," he finally sighed, "I did draw on the driveway and the fence, but I only did it because everyone else was, and I didn't want them to feel lonely."

A vandal and a politician, for God's sake. In a million years, I never would have thought it of my son, the son I believed I knew as thoroughly as I know my own heart.

Maybe the real lesson here is one I haven't yet had time to learn so well that it's really sunk in--that family life is not a college psychology course. Maybe, instead, life is more fun than that, more unpredictable and more amazing--like a kind of Flying Wallendas performance art, a high-wire act that requires immense reserves of imagination and daring and responsiveness and split-second timing. A daredevil act for which there is neither net, nor understudies to take anyone else's place.

Without a director or a single rehearsal, without even a script, we climb up onto the trapeze, grasp each other's hands, clinch our eyes shut, and swing out into the sky. With no advance study and without exactly knowing how, letting go, we've suddenly begun to fly.


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