Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It's What's For Dinner

Every father fears for his child’s future. It’s easy to lose sleep at night worrying if your little boy will do well in school, make friends, or ask if he can join ballet.

But for me, one of my worst fears was almost realized before my son turned two.  He quit eating meat.  Not that there’s anything wrong with being a vegetarian.  There are plenty of actors, university professors, and even real people who don’t eat meat.  I am just not one of them.

For me a balanced meal is one that includes beef, pork, and chicken.  So I was understandably dismayed when my son turned up his nose at his meat one afternoon. I grew concerned when he did it again the next day. I was severely alarmed the day after that. On day four of his self-imposed meat strike I considered calling the nurse hotline.

Surely a child whose father grills ribs in the garage in December just because he misses the charcoal taste should be more inclined to be a meat eater, shouldn’t he? It didn’t matter what kind of meat it was. Hamburgers, chicken strips, fish sticks, even hot dogs, barely identifiable as meat, were rejected.

With a two-year-old, one’s options are limited when it comes to convincing him to eat. You can pretend the spoon is an airplane, a rocket ship, maybe even a helicopter, but if the toddler isn’t into winged modes of transportation, you’ll get nowhere.

I don’t know why parents think that forks resemble airplanes. And I don’t know why we expect children to respond to this. Maybe it is a holdover from prehistoric days, when food was brought to hungry cave babies by pterodactyls. Maybe it's supposed to appeal to the inner risk-taker in a child. Certainly any kid who thinks diving headfirst off a toddler bed into a pile of freshly folded clothes can see the inherent risk in eating food delivered by a flying fork, and he should respond in excitement.

Just when I was seriously considering thinking about calling the doctor, even though my son's next checkup wasn't scheduled for six months, he returned from the dark side. After I put on a veritable air show with meat on a fork one day, my son ended his meat refusal policy.  Maybe he finally saw the error of his ways. Maybe it was the pterodactyl noises. Or maybe he just pitied me making a fool of myself.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Road Trip

People who keep track of such things tell us that the most accident-prone drivers are teenagers. But I’m not so sure. I get that it is difficult to concentrate on driving when one is simultaneously texting, changing songs on an MP3 player, fixing make-up, and checking a Facebook feed. I don’t see, however, that this level of distraction is any different than what the average parent of a toddler faces on any car trip longer than the driveway.

I try to prepare for long car tips by making my toddler as comfortable as possible. I give him a small bag of cheesy goldfish, and I present him with a pile of his favorite books. Alert and experienced parents are already shaking their heads, knowing that such efforts are in vain.

I learned this the hard way once on a trip across the Midwest with my toddler. Before leaving, I made sure he was properly nestled among Bernstein Bear books, with a full sippy cup and a bowl of raisins at his side. He even had his favorite blanket. My plan was virtually flawless. We were leaving just before nightfall, giving him a short amount of time to brush up on the virtues of familial love taught by the Bernstein Bears before drifting to sleep with a full belly and a comfortable blanket while I drove four hours through the peaceful darkness.

It was three minutes before the first raisin ricocheted off the windshield. Not wanting to disrupt the calm that was surely forthcoming, I turned briefly and gave him a mild frown. Turning my attention back to driving, I had just enough time to nudge the car back across the center line before The Bernstein Bears Love Their Neighbors plopped beside me, knocking over my Mountain Dew and spilling my bag of skittles.

Unfazed, I turned again, this time to deliver a threat. I stopped short of promising to take his books and food away, thinking this would only guarantee that he would not drop into a dreamy slumber quite as quickly.

As I refocused on the road, planting my feet firmly on the brakes to avoid developing a short-term relationship with the driver ahead, I realized almost immediately that I should have considered disarmament. A brief barrage of paperback children’s books was followed by an invasion of Croc-wielding feet slamming into the back of my seat.

With one hand replacing the lid on my soda and the other hand plucking a grape skittle off the floor, I carefully navigated a lane change with my knees while admonishing my son in the rear view mirror.

I eased into my new lane, only to be cut off by a teenage girl lost in conversation on her cell phone. Watch the road, kid, I muttered under my breath. 

Friday, October 7, 2011

He's Touching Me!

At some point when I was not paying attention, child safety laws must have changed.  Otherwise I can’t imagine how my family, with three boys in the backseat, was able to make even a routine trip to the grocery store, let alone a cross-country trek to see Mount Rushmore.

My parents did not spring for luxury cars while my brothers and I lived at home.  This may have had something to do with the odd reaction that leather has to chocolate milkshakes. Or it may have been related to the repeated experiments we attempted involving crayons left in the back window on sunny days.

So we spent our childhood in Honda Civics and Buick Regals, all with enough miles on them to put Magellan to shame. The back seat was not the idyllic realm of learning and entertainment that we often see in cars today. No, it was a wrestling mat, baseball field, and dining room, sometimes simultaneously. Countless times, the backseat was also a bedroom. It was genius really. The boy in the middle moved to the floor, where he could watch the road whiz by through holes in the floorboards, while the other two unbuckled their seatbelts in order to sprawl across the newly opened middle seat. 

Now that I have children of my own, things are a bit different. The use of car seats by children older than three has become something of a law. Now, I’m sure the world is safer because of it, (Or at least the car seat makers are richer) but I think we have lost something in the process. And when I say “we” I mean we the parents who have to purchase a new car seat for each year of our child’s life until 8th grade graduation. And when I say “lost something” I am referring to the $90 price tag on each of these new car seats. And when I say “process” I mean the endless dumbfounded stares in the car seat aisle as we try to distinguish between the level four and level five child safety seat.

A typical exchange between two normally rational adults might go something like this:
“Are you sure we need another car seat?”
“Yes, it’s the law in our state.”
“But our son is six years old.” 
“Yep, I’m pretty sure next year he can be in a booster seat instead.”
“Did you sit in a car seat when you were six years old?”
“No, I slept on the floor in the back seat, but times have changed.”
“This one has cup holders.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for safety.  I just don’t think when I pull up to school to drop my son off for the first day of second grade that I should have to get out of the car to unclip his safety seat. I don’t think I should need to use a chisel to clean my car because of fruit snacks dropped under a car seat in April that are discovered in November.

How are children supposed to learn about property rights, trespassing, and summary justice if they are unable to draw lines in the seats that siblings can’t cross? Being perched in a car seat makes such rites of passage impossible. The very fabric of our democracy may be at stake!  We have lost something here. Adventure, dignity, and another $90.