May 21, 2011

The young and restless

I've just spent a week watching my brother with his 4-year-old daughter, my niece. My mom was along for the whole ride -- and I felt like I were 4 again, being cajoled into being in a good mood or else I would be punished. Or is that how you discipline 4-year-olds?

What is the message we're really giving? That it's not okay to be in a bad mood? That's the part that resonates with me. Oh, the threats of childhood: my mom's "parenting techniques," in current vernacular -- she went in for bribes, whether in cash, opera glasses (how someone got me to believe they were better than sucking my thumb is beyond the adult me), or simple threats, i.e., I'm going to crack your skulls together. Or, my favorite: "I'm going to break every bone in your body,"

"How many bones would that be?" I used to ask. 206, I knew. 211 until the last few bones knit together, at what point I don't remember. How did I know? My mom's favorite suggestion if we asked her a question and she didn't know, "look it up." A little knowledge was a lot of protection, and it was fun to use her mandate against her.

Sometimes being a smart-ass kid pays off. Sometimes it didn't. Must say, though, every chance I got to come back with a clever remark, one that made the grown-ups laugh, I took it. If my parents, my-mom-the-disciplinarian in particular, broke out laughing, chances are I was way ahead of the game.

That is, to my eyes, a lot of what child-raising and disciplining is all about: while parents rule the young and restless, once the restless acquire a good vocabulary and sense of what brings ironic laughter to the parent, it's a whole new ball game.

Between my niece's mother sharing my sense of irony and humor and what she'll pick up from my side of the family, I suspect my niece will be firing back some really funny remarks, sooner rather than later. She's a bright kid, reciting "Madeline" from memory. She already knows about the Eiffel Tower.

So my Auntie Mame-ism, begun at my niece's last birthday, when I picked the book to read her to sleep and try to interest her in Paris -- is already working: five months later, she's drawing pictures of the Eiffel Tower. Show me another child from Tiny Town, Sleepy Southern State who is learning about Paris as fast as she's learning about Wonderland from all her trips here.

I'll bet she makes it to Paris before her mother, my ex-sister-in-law (what is a better description of my niece's mother?) leaves the U.S. Or is that just my projecting the happier part, the not-at-home portion, of my childhood onto her? I can't tell.

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