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Water and fire

There was a torrential afternoon downpour yesterday that caught all three of my kids — which includes my one-year-old baby girl — and their Ghanaian babysitter in the rain at the park. They got drenched. And they loved it, especially the toddler. Apparently this is good news, for in Ghana it is said that if a baby gets rained on and does not cry it will live a long life. Who knew?

My three-year-old boy, however, has a problem. A few weeks ago we were out for a stroll and we passed the neighborhood fire department just as the engines were preparing to roll. They laid on the sirens and that really loud, low bellow before they left the station. This noise, compounded by the soundboard of the open garage and the fact that we were approximately 20 feet away, scared the daylights out of my kids. My wife and I were startled too. It was like standing on the deck of an aircraft carrier. (Not that I’d know.)

Now, whenever a fire truck blares by — and this is often as we are on a major route out of the station — my three-year-old freaks out. Runs amok, hands covering his ears, shaking, scared mindless. It has gotten so bad that if he thinks something sounds even remotely like a siren (which in the city is like background radiation) he loses it or if he thinks there’s a likelihood of fire, say, because he sees open flame on the grill, he freaks. Pavlovian, yet heartbreaking. We’ve offered to bake cookies and head to the firehouse tomorrow to have him meet the nice firefighters and confront his fears. He’s less than sure about that.

I don’t believe there is any west African folk wisdom for this problem.

Update: Thelovelywife took Andrew to the local firehouse with a platter of cookies to confront his fears.


The firefighters were totally accommodating, letting he and his brother and cousin play in the engine cab and with the hoses. And yet, Andrew had his hands at his ears the whole time — scared that there’s be a fire emergency in the neighborhood at any time. And in fact there was. Engines rolled. Tears flowed.

My son, Damien

I’m searching for the 666 birthmark on my 3-year-old son’s scalp.

Last week, during a moment of attending to our other kids at our neighborhood park my wife turned to find said son throwing rocks at a homeless man. Let that sink in for a moment. Throwing rocks at an indigent citizen. Now, as she explains it, he was merely throwing rocks that she had previously told him to put down and they were going in the direction of the homeless man. (And the man was not in the park but on the sidewalk.) But I think it is more insidious than that. I think my son merely scouted the terrain and assessed the most high-odds target. A person who was, let’s say, not moving so quickly and was encumbered with the trappings of someone who lives with what he carries. An easy mark. He was scolded for throwing rocks at any person, but this was beyond reproach. Not that he knows homeless from not. But still. He then had the gall to tell the guy that he looked like Santa Claus. On hearing this story, I resisted every urge to tell my son that this is what Santa does when he’s not building toys at the North Pole. Perhaps my dastardly genes have caused this after all.

Then, later in the week, when my sister was over with her son who is potty-training, my son decided to slink off with the plastic training pot and take a crap in it. What the hell, I’m sure he thought. Unknown to anyone, he left his transaction in it (he’s fully trained on a regular toilet, mind you) and then proceeded to hide the pot. My wife smelled dung but could not find it until she uncovered the trainer and lifted the lid. Clearly the work of a closet pooper.

The coup de grace came tonight. The whole family was out to dinner at a local bar/restaurant. Son was “playing” a video game (quarterless) when a waitress walked by. He stuck his hand out and grabbed her butt! She turned to us and said “Did you see that?! He grabbed my ass!” I stifled the urge to laugh before making him apologize. Later I asked her if that was the first time that had happened to her. No, of course not; she works Saturday nights. But I am quite sure she’s never been fondled by a three-year-old.

What the hell is happening? Where is he learning this stuff? I don’t pelt the dispossessed, stash poop, or fondle women who are not my wife. Is it television? If so, Hi-5 has a lot of explaining to do.

Independent Claus

The Santa Claus myth is alive and well in our home. Our five-year-old believes and so do his younger sibs. How long this will last is a mystery. We’ve already identified the schoolmates we think will burst the bubble. (In fact we did this years ago.)

But the real problem may not be an informant friend, we’re coming to realize. There are just too many opportunities to see Santa Claus out and about these days. Any half-witted kid will soon realize it isn’t possible for Santa to be at the mall, on the L, at the neighborhood party, on TV, and at school all within a week and, somehow, never looking quite the same. Now, you may argue that this wouldn’t raise suspicion since children gleefully accept Santa’s trans-global physics-defying* gift delivery trip on Christmas Eve. The difference is that the many encounters of Santas throughout the too-long Christmas season are a much more local, tangible phenomenon than the concept of an unseen Santa flitting through the night sky. And kids are uncanny at pattern recognition with local, tangible things.

Now, I’m not about to throw in with the War on Christmas pundits. In some ways this is the opposite: too much Christmas, not enough room for imagination. My wife actually wanted to talk strategy about how we’d answer if my son asked “Is this the real Santa?” at the local neighborhood festival. I didn’t think we should say that he wasn’t real. Why even plant the seed that there is such a thing as an unreal Santa? We’d just explain that Santa can be in many places quickly, like magic. I’ve polled some of my friends and I seem to be in the minority with this stance. Some friends call Rent-a-Clauses “Santa’s Helpers.” But aren’t his helpers elves? And why would a helper dress up exactly like him? Seems a stretch to me.

Parents, how are you dealing with this?

[*] There’s a rebuttal to the classic Physics of Santa argument. Of course he uses an ion shield. Duh!

TiVo the Tutor

My oldest son has taught himself to read. He takes every opportunity he can to sound out letters into words. Identifying road signs is a favorite pastime, though not without its hazards. Like yesterday when he sounded out the words “Road Closed” and let rip a bloodcurdling “No!” from his car seat that almost caused me to wreck.

But the best exercise he’s created for himself by far is to search for his favorite TV shows by spelling out their names in TiVo’s “Search by Title” feature. No one showed him how to do this; my wife and I rarely use Search by Title. TiVo is a perfect tutor, actually. He thinks of a show he likes — Hip Hop Harry, for example — then starts typing the letters he thinks make up the title. TiVo of course starts displaying what it thinks are matches which my son visually identifies. If he really screws up the spelling TiVo won’t show any matches and he’ll have to back up. And the reward for a correct spelling is that he gets to record his show. Positive reinforcement!

Gotta figure out how to get the microwave to teach him mathematics and we’ll be all set.

Five-year-old philosophy

My oldest one is a deep thinker. Recently as we passed some strangers on the street he asked “What happens to people when you don’t see them anymore?” He was hovering around asking whether they ceased to exist, though he never actually said so. We explained that they kept on living their own lives and that we’d probably never see them again. This saddened him a bit, though only slightly less that it puzzled him. I think he’s only just realizing that the sum of human experience is a superset of his own. Peg him for an empirical rationalist philosopher when he grows up and for god’s sake no one mention Schrödinger’s cat.

But he’s even more obsessed with names. He simply cannot understand how there can be things that do not have names. He constantly asks about how something can exist if it doesn’t have a name. I explain that there are thousands (millions?) of species of animals, mostly small critters, that we suspect exist but have not been discovered and so have not named. Not to mention undiscovered stars, comets, planets and new concepts, future fashion trends, and dance moves. This might all be prompted by the fact that we have spent the last nine months referring to his unborn sibling without precisely naming it. It would also follow from the fact that he likes to name damn near everything, even the most mundane inanimate speck. Like Adam naming stuff in Eden, the power to name is the power to make real for my boy.

Whatever it is, I think the two obsessions here are related. For my son, reality is directly experienced and labelled. If it is not directly experienced — a story, for example — or explicitly named — a baby in utero, for example — it just isn’t real.

I’ll hold off on introducing him to Second Life for now.

Over spilt milk

My almost-five-year-old son passed a real milestone this week. It wasn’t what you’d consider a typical development milestone. He laughed at himself. That’s all. But not at a stupid joke he told or at an act of preschooler physical comedy. He accidentally tripped over my feet with a full glass of milk and spilled it all over the floor, me, and himself. One look at him sodden with milk made me break out laughing. Usually this sort of thing makes him deeply embarrassed and he usually cries. But this time, despite a touch-and-go moment of upper lip quavering, he actually burst out laughing too. Laughing at himself, at his act. This is huge, I think. Being able to laugh at yourself is critical to self-awareness and coping with life.

Hell, if I couldn’t laugh at my own idiocy half my life would be spent weeping.

Let’s hear it for the [child of unknown gender]

As my wife begins week 35 of her pregnancy with child #3 I have almost perfected the ability to guess the age and/or social upbringing of any person (typically a woman) who says “Oh, you have two boys? You must be trying for a girl.”

Trying for a girl? How about hoping not to have a child with Down’s Syndrome? Or hoping not to deliver a baby with the cord wrapped around its neck? How about getting a clue, people? I know that parents sometimes decide to have another child simply because they want a certain gender, but this is perverse. Unless you’re centrifuging semen, that’s a recipe for disappointment half the time.

Yet, you see this attitude in older people all the time. Have a girl? Oh, you must be trying for a boy. And it is of course worse when you’re having a third child. As if no one in their right minds would attempt three without striving for a specific gender. I really don’t get it. Oh and I am so looking forward to calling people (including family) from the hospital to announce our new son and receiving a dramatic pause and limp “Oh, wonderful. Will you try for a girl next time?”

What not to say to a pregnant, exhausted Mom at the end of a day of wrangling two young children

Son: “Mom, what planet has a hurricane on it?”
Mom: (Oh shit.) “Um, Saturn?”
Son: “No mom (duh), Jupiter.”
Mom: “Who taught you that son?”
Son: “Daddy.”
Mom: “Good thing you have such a smart Daddy.”
Son: “Mommy, why aren’t you smart?”
Mom: […]

Update: Hold the presses, Saturn does have hurricanes. Mommy really is smart!