Wednesday, January 21, 2015

All manner of manners

Greg just informed me he had one for the parenting "win" column this morning.

He said June made a derogatory comment to him, not aware of its meaning. Greg calmly explained that it wasn't a nice thing to say and why, and that people who are what she said Greg was often are hurt or struggling and need our sympathy and kindness. June was genuinely contrite and listened to Greg's sensitive explanation with intent and interest. They walked away from the moment stronger and better informed.

I, on the other hand, just presented our 1-year-old with a pile of newspapers and a crock of sharpened pencils to play with while I met a deadline.

We can't all be winners.

But my point is, we're reaching that era in our parenting where we have to teach our eldest that she needs to know when to put a cork in it — this after four years of encouraged free expression. Now we're backpedalling, putting contradictory footnotes on all the rules we once set, telling her, "Weeeeeellll... maybe farting at the dinner table isn't that funny after all."

In fact, just the other day, I said the following to June whilst biting the inside of my cheek:

"Bug, there's a difference between a good toot and a bad toot. And we have to understand there's a time and place for good toots and a time and place for bad toots. We have to toot where we can toot, but not toot where we can't toot."

I'm the Thomas Kuhn of gas.

June's a sweet and sensitive kid. She took to the manners thing early and easily, and now you can't exhale in here without her thanking you for giving the plants carbon dioxide. She's appreciative, and she's acutely aware of others' feelings.

And she's also observant. One recent grocery store trip had her pointing to a uniformed employee doling out Home Run Inn pizza samples and saying, "Whoa, mom, look at her butt." This was minutes after she said, pointing to a customer, "Check out that man's crazy hair!"

It was a woman.

That's easy enough to correct, right? You say, June, we don't make comments about the way people look. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all. Done and done.

There's always a caveat, though.

The same trip she spied a very stylishly dressed college-aged girl. As she passed, June said, "Wow, that's a fancy, pretty lady."

There's a compliment any person would love to hear. But to June, there's no distinction between being a fancy lady and having a noteworthy butt. We see one as being better than the other, but she doesn't. For all she knows, that pizza peddler's butt is fantastic and we should all long to have it. Is telling her she can't say that the invitation to a lifetime of butt paranoia and body issues? Is the blanket "Don't talk about other people, period" an adequate message? Because who doesn't love a random act of kindness?

And if you've got a butt of distinction, I've got a gal who'll tell you all about it.

Luckily she's now four, and these sorts of psycho/social nuances are, believe it or not, starting to make sense. Not because of anything we did, in fact more likely it was her wonderful schoolteachers, but because the confetti gun that controls her neuro impulses has been holstered, and all the little particulate is starting to fall into followable form. That mess of words and meanings and interpretations now is becoming linear, like a solved Soul Train Word Scramble.

It's fascinating to watch it settle, and then look at Tess and see it storm. At 15 months, the baby sign language thing has proved beneficial, and while no self-respecting sign expert would recognize one command she gives, we do, and that's the point right now. She knows how to ask for food and drink, tell us she's through, and can sometimes specify her needs further. She's also a pretty verbal kid, so the gestures coordinate with a decent number of words and sounds. Once we moved from the basics, it was time to teach her "help," "please" and "thank you." The latter came pretty easily, with her saying "dee doo!" each time she takes or gives something to someone. "Help" and "please," though, are tougher since they're also trying to unseat a longstanding habit of hers where she belches out this staccato grunt when she wants something. The louder and angrier it is, the faster you better move.

The best way I can think to describe it is the throat-clearing sound an ornery old woman with hearing loss would make if she's trying to get a bus boy's attention.

"Young man! AH-HA! Young Man! AH-HA! Come back here — I wasn't through with my muesli!"

Tess is so heartbreakingly sweet and funny and affectionate, and is as fantastic a kid as I could have envisioned, but this sound makes me want to peer over my glasses at her and say, "You need to fucking shut up with that."

I've actually said close.

So lately she's been getting a little wordless taste of that from me — a "not gonna fly" sternness from mom heretofore unseen. It was jarring, initially, and she returned my gaze with a slow curling of her lower lip, a large Demi-Moore-in-"Ghost"-style tear tumbling from her eye, and the slow-build bleat of Wookie cry (truly, I have proof). After more hard-hearted stonewalling, she will now scratch at her chest and say "cheese" – the Tess Trotter interpretation of the ASL's circular palm-over-collarbone sign for "please."


Now, this is all well and good and self-aggrandizing, but it brings us right back to the farting.

When she cuts one she looks right at me and laughs. As much as the defense of "cavemen thought it was funny!" (ahem, Mike Leonard) may be invoked here, nurture's got nature on the ropes. Without a certain mother's roar of approval, a toot falling in the forest might not make a sound. Or get a laugh track. So we're right on pace to be having these same relativist manners conversations with Tess in roughly three years.

But come on. Are there any parents out there that can behold a flatulent baby and NOT laugh? It's where my dad's laissez-faire approach to manners has some merits. Gas is humankind's oldest, and arguably best, joke. Before we had language, fire, wheels, and thumbs made nimble from sexting, some brazen hominid ripped one in a dark cave and discovered laughter. Where is this on the evolutionary timelines? Should't it be highlighted somewhere between the knuckle-dragging hairy man and the slightly more upright knuckle-dragging hairy man? A red arrow pointing to a notch on the line denoting some icy epoch in which a finger was first pulled?

Manners might be what separates us from animals, but so is humor.

Our kids growing up polite and respectful is very important to us. As is an appreciation of the finer things. It's evolution.

And butts are pretty damn funny.

1 comment:

  1. I mean, sometimes, you just have to comment on a person's butt.