Copyright © Dorian Scott Cole 1997
"I wish I could have a pencil," I grumbled to my wife, the usual recipient of my complaints. She either ignores me or takes it personally - I suffer for it either way. I was working in my study and quickly needed to write something down. As usual three automatic pencils, a couple of lead pencils and two pens were nowhere to be found. And my kids are raised now - technically I am no longer supporting them. Ha!
From the day the kids arrived in this world I have noticed a steadily growing number of things that parents can't have. It's as if kids were given this mission at birth: "Make sure your parents don't have these items." As babies they would pull pens from my shirt pocket and drop them on the floor when I wasn't looking.
Engineers, writers - some people must have a writing implement. Ideas strike in restaurants and get written on napkins. No pen - the idea of a lifetime might get forgotten in the flurry of raising children. But with a pen in your pocket you can write it down, take it home and save it forever in a drawer, to be taken out and admired years later. People ask me, "Got a pen?" I smile and pull one from my pants pocket, saying, "Sure, I'm a writer, I always have a pen." I learned years ago to put them in my pants pocket so the babies didn't get them, and so I didn't look like a nerd.
Occasionally one ruptures and my slacks turn black - I always use black ink - but what's a couple pairs of slacks compared to the drawer of engineering and story ideas I have saved. If I ever have the time, I can create a computer storage device with 100 times the memory capacity of current disks, or a vehicle with completely internal propulsion (despite laws of physics to the contrary), and I have enough story ideas to keep me busy for fifty years. Kids just don't realize (or care) how important it is to have a pencil.
To children, pencils are just one more item in a long list of items that have no value, are totally expendable and infinitely replaceable. They just lay them down when they are done with them and immediately forget where they are. Who has all the world's pencils? The janitors at the schools.
I have long marveled at the stories of other people who as children were not allowed into their Father's study. They viewed his desk and the items on it with reverence. They didn't dare touch anything or leave an item out of place. If they ever were so bold as to enter his sanctum and climb into his chair, they surveyed the desk-top in awe, and froze in fear when his shadow loomed through the door.
My three animaniacs held nothing sacred. If Daddy stormed around the house wailing that he couldn't find anything to write with and couldn't get his work done, and it was all their fault because they never put anything back, and they were going to forever lose the privilege of even entering his study, they just looked at him as if to say, "Are you mentally impaired? Just go buy some more, you idiot." Then they would disappear so they could giggle in private and devise their next plan to irritate some fool who thought the world should be peaceful and orderly.
When I was a child - here we go again - a comb, a pen, nail clippers - these were things you held onto. I had them for years, and was very upset when my nail clippers managed to escape my pocket, or my comb broke. I purchased combs made of soft plastic instead of brittle plastic so they wouldn't break. I knew if I lost any of these, the family fortune would have to be spent to buy another. I tried to instill this same sense of conservatism and value in my children. I failed miserably - after they viewed their friends way of life, they were dead set against learning anything that nonsensical.
I have used the same hair brush for twenty-seven years. It will never wear out - it loses bristles at the same rate I lose hair. If it lasts as long as I do, I may have it put in my casket. I certainly won't will it to my son - he won't even remember to take it home with him. I can't remember the last time I had to buy a comb for myself - it has been at least a couple of years.
Combs were the ultimate frustration with children in my home. I made certain regularly that each of my children had a comb and brush. They were to stay in the bathroom, or on a dressing table, near where they would be used. The recesses of the couch, the toy box, under the car seat - these were not appropriate places to leave combs.
I usually bought them a spare to take to school, and placed a sack of spare combs in a closet. Usually a week after buying everyone a comb and brush set, I would open my drawer in the master bath and reach for my comb. Gone! I couldn't comb my hair, or even part my hair so I could brush it and go to work. I certainly didn't have time to search the house for my comb. First I yelled at my wife - she needed to know I was upset - then I would indignantly stomp out to the children's rooms where they were getting ready for school, yelling incredulously, "Who took my comb?"
Confronting each child, I soon learned that not one of them had sneaked into my bathroom and taken my comb. I don't know why I bothered to ask - this was commonplace in our home. Combs and other items were spirited away never to be seen again, by a poltergeist. Asking children "who" did something was akin to asking "why" they did something. No one ever knew "why" they did anything. It was a question without merit, a moot point - "why" wasn't the done thing. Such questions as "who" did it, and "why" did someone do it, would have lead to that ultimate no-no, actually taking responsibility for their actions. No way.
So I tried to borrow a comb from my kids. I knew I would have to clean it first. But I was also spared from that chore - all the combs were gone. My comb was gone, my wife's comb was gone, the comb in my wife's purse was gone, my spare comb in my dresser drawer was gone, and all three children's combs were gone. I checked the closet for the spares. Yep, vanished without a trace, except for the empty sack. Empty sacks never vanish, they just sit there to disguise the fact that the contents are gone.
I suspected one of the children might have done it. I questioned them each in turn. Where is your comb, M? "I loaned it to J." M was never responsible for anything. "Where is your comb, J? "I don't know." J never admitted to knowing anything - it was much safer. Where is your comb, K? "J took it to school." K could be brutally honest when someone else could be blamed.
So J was taking combs to school. I had forbidden that. J had no pockets and refused to carry a purse, which probably saved us a lot of expense replacing lost purses and all that they could hold. She sometimes remembered to take her back-pack, but she could never find her homework in it, so I knew she would not be able to locate a comb. So what was the kid going to do with a comb - hold it in her hand all day? Nah, she would lay the comb down and the janitor would sweep it up.
I was determined I was going to win this battle. We would have combs. I ordered a semi-truck load of combs. The truck parked in the street and we wheeled in fifty giant boxes of combs - a 500 year supply. They were all gone in a week. I realized then that I was actually a good parent - I wasn't depriving my children of combs. The school teachers couldn't look at me like I abused my children by not sending them to school with combs and turn me over to the social services people to take my children away because I had failed my parental responsibility of providing combs.
Sound in the knowledge that I was right and righteous, I continued the battle. I reread all the books on child psychology. I would motivate my children to keep their combs. I tried loving patience and support. I gave them a comb every morning, smiled at them, and reminded them to keep track of their combs. The janitors swept up a lot of combs. I tried explaining the value of combs and the rewards of responsibility, gave them object lessons, and tried to help them with their experiences of losing them. The janitor smiled and started a very profitable comb outlet. I tried going over each detail of their day, analyzing how they lost their combs, and found counter practices that would help them not lose their combs. The second semi-truck load was almost gone. The comb manufacturer was smiling.
I tried the practical approach - "Just do it!" I shouted in their ears. Of course that didn't work either. I tried threats - "If you don't bring home that comb tonight, you'll stand in the corner for an hour… you'll spend the evening in your room… you can't go anywhere for a week…. No candy… no TV… I'm going to kill…. "
The only thing that grew was the animaniacs amusement over Daddy's frustration. They had reviewed the books on child psychology. They didn't have to actually read them, their friends and teachers in school told them all about psychology so they would be programmed to react appropriately - especially if ever in the presence of a counselor or psychologist. If necessary they were prepared to push this all the way to family counseling where they could assert their bargaining rights as children who were unfairly treated, as evidenced by their acting out behavior of losing millions of combs. They were finally getting back at Daddy for not taking them on trips to Europe, not spending endless hours with them instead of earning money for food and house, not buying them $600.00 jeans, not buying them 56" TVs for their rooms… like everyone (at least… one… of their friends) had. The comb battle had become a power struggle.
I would win this battle. I threw the books on childhood away. I knew about motivation. I had studied it in depth in college. I fancied myself a good marketing person. I used motivation effectively in public relations. I successfully motivated people in remote areas to take responsibility for their territories and manage them well. I motivated people to sell who didn't want to sell. I used it in counseling. I knew how to get cooperation. If there was anything I knew, I knew motivation. And I knew this battle only had one solution. I took the last three combs in the semi-truck shipment, drilled holes in each one, looped a nice looking wire through the ends, soldered the loops closed, and bolted them to the bathroom wall.
The animaniacs looked at me like I was crazy. "Daddy, do you realize how embarrassing it is when our friends come in here and see our combs wired to the wall?" I just smiled. A month later two of the combs were still there. I had finally won a battle with the kids. Probably the only battle. Take it from me, it's the only thing that comes close to working.
My children visit me occasionally. When they do, the pencils still disappear. Any time I bring a pencil into the house, I feel the tension rise in the cosmos. I know my daughter in St. Louis is whispering to her husband, "We've got to go visit Dad, he has a pencil again. We'll have to stay there until we find it." But I've learned a new trick. I have hidden my pencils in the one place they never visit. The waste basket. But that's another story.
I understand now that it is all in the universal scheme of things. Children do have their mission. People need jobs, and children are a key ingredient to full employment. I never break anything, or lose anything, or wear anything out, so if people depended on me for jobs the unemployment rate would be at 75%. So children keep us all employed. Children are responsible for at least two thirds of the world's economy. They either break it, lose it, wear it out, or outgrow it, so that everything they touch has to be replaced within a few days to a few months.
Raising children can be amusing, or it can turn into a nightmarish battle. Parenting isn't a battle, it's a joint project where parents often sacrifice 150%. I learned from my parenting experience that many things just don't have answers. I entered parenting thinking everything had an answer - you could talk with kids - reason with them - work with them - love them enough, and everything would fall into place. Nothing is further from the truth. There are no right answers. Children are like mops with the handle missing, cars with the steering wheel missing, a riddle that is still being composed, a computer program half finished, a house with no doors - they are not complete pieces of work so nothing will work properly with them. They're an unfinished story that doesn't necessarily go well and you may never see the end. That's another thing parents can't have is the end of the story.
Why does Johnny do… ? Because he isn't a whole person yet. We're too eager to see a child's behavior as a reflection of the parent. We are brainwashed to think that way. Parenting is seen as a process of cloning morally perfect beings so children don't ever have to struggle through difficulties to become… Reaching for the impossible, we turn it into a struggle for control between parent and child. Battles go to extremes with bad endings - they end up with people so polarized they can no longer function in a relationship, or even end up in court. It isn't possible to understand an effective relationship in terms of who wins and who loses. Everyone has to win.
I think the most frustrating part of being a parent (and I suppose of being a teacher), is thinking that you are failing because you can't get children to respond the way you think they should, and everyone thinks they have the right answer - if you would just do things their way…. No matter what you do, children are not capable of responding in the way you think they should. They aren't little adults (and the more I work with adults the more I see how unfinished we all are). We had a plaque hanging on the wall with our children's pictures that said, "Please be patient, God isn't finished with me yet."
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