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It was the kind of call that could give a mother a swollen head. When I picked up the phone my neighbor said, "I just want you to know: Any one of your boys can marry either of my girls, and I'd be thrilled. They're so sweet and so polite -- I'd like to reserve a couple of them right now. Do they have plans for 2029?" (Her daughters are 3 and 5.)
It was the kind of call that could give a mother a swollen head -- if my neighbor had had the whole story. Out in the world, my children are truly agreeable, helpful people who share gladly, play by the rules, root for the underdog. Out in the world, they're (mostly) attentive, well-mannered and kind. Here in the house, however, these same Cub Scouts can morph without warning into a surly gang of liars, cheats, and lazy, back-talking hooligans. It's Dr. Jekyll and Little Boy Hyde.
I don't know why the inner and outer boy are so regularly at odds. Perhaps the effort of being Good Kids wears on them after a whole day and they come home tired and cranky. Maybe it's just not human nature to pull off goodness for long. Whatever the reason, my very good boys have nonetheless been known to litter the floor with their stinking socks, ignore the summons to supper, leave their dirty dishes on the table, check off chore-chart tasks they haven't yet performed, and mouth off to parents who've calmly explained that a party that begins at 10:30 p.m. is one they will not be attending. Sometimes they mouth off to each other -- "Get away from me, you freaking little MAGGOT!" is Henry's current favorite -- despite our insistence on civilized language, and occasionally they skip the uncivilized language and go straight to fisticuffs: Sam will wrestle Joe to the ground and sit on his chest, pinning his skinny arms to the carpet like an insect in biology class and leaning in, nose to nose, to shout, "Stop bugging me or DIE!"
I don't expect them to be perfect. Children are obligated by nature to test parental boundaries, but part of being a parent means accepting the endless task of taming the barbarians. It used to be easier: If someone broke a family rule, he went to the time-out chair in the hall and sat there for one minute per year he'd been alive. A 2-year-old who slapped his brother in the face got two minutes in the time-out chair. A 5-year-old got five minutes if he claimed to have washed his hands when all he'd done was turn on the water and let it run.
It's not so simple now that they've reached an age where the penalty is supposed to match the crime. If Joe and Henry are squabbling, I separate them so they can learn that isolation is lonely and they ought to work a little harder at getting along. But that particular consequence works only halfway: Joe hates being sent to his room, but Henry's a human Briar Rabbit, easily entertained when left alone and happy to be thrown into that particular briar patch. The one fail-safe punishment for Henry is to ground him from Saturday-morning cartoons on the only day of the week our kids are allowed to watch television. But that particular consequence is harder on my husband, Haywood, and me than it is on Henry. If we outlaw cartoons, then we can kiss sleeping late good-bye because Henry gets up at 5:30 in the morning. By 7 he has exhausted his indoor options for untelevised entertainment and has invited the dogs to join him in a barking game outside our bedroom window.
There are days when I think I'm getting it mostly right, but many, many others when I wonder if I'm having any effect at all. As soon as our kids could toddle, we expected them to put their trash in the trash can and their dirty clothes in the laundry basket -- so why does our 15-year-old still open a new CD and let the cellophane wrapping drop to the floor? And why are his brothers, who have been coached since their first "ma-ma" to use kind words, still capable of calling each other "a booger-crusted turd wad"? We're talking years of staying on message here, and it's still going in one ear and out the other?
It doesn't help that the stakes feel so high. I have friends who grew up with uptight, my-way-or-the-highway parents, drill sergeants for whom good behavior was a matter of unvarying conformity to rules. In those families, "because I said so" was an adequate parental explanation for any household law. But Haywood and I come from deeply religious homes, and for our parents discipline was about something much bigger than mere obedience. It was about becoming a good citizen by cleaning up your own messes and taking on your share of responsibility; about being a good steward of God's gifts by working hard to develop your talents; about developing into a good person by heeding the feelings and needs of others. Civilized behavior is hard enough to instill, but when discipline is about nothing less than character formation, the whole issue can seem overwhelmingly huge.
What I secretly long for is a silver bullet, a simple, one-size-fits-all response to defiance and misbehavior that doesn't require hand-wringing or internal debate. But every time I think I have the hang of it, every time I've discovered exactly the right consequence for the wrongdoing du jour, one of my children enters a new phase, and I'm figuring it out all over again. Kids are like flu viruses, constantly mutating to evade vaccines designed to keep them in check.
So I've pretty much given up trying to devise the perfect one-stick-and-it's-done inoculation against bad behavior. My youngest son leaves for college in 2016, and I'm resigned to nine more years of muddling through -- making the expectations as clear as I can, responding to each lapse as fairly as I know how. And I have to admit, I spend a lot of time dreaming of the day when my boys -- by then honorable, lovely men (I hope) -- finally marry the girls across the street and produce some adorable grandchildren I can spoil perfectly rotten.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, August 2007.