Parenting rules

Sawyer, my oldest son, was born 12 years ago this week.

And when Sawyer was one, my nephew Matthew, who was 11, moved in and became our adopted kid until he left for the Navy at 17. So, though I only have 12 years of motherhood under my bra, I have raised kids from birth through 17. Nice trick, huh?

And a fact that I realized tonight that stopped me cold: In one year, Sawyer turns 13. And I will then have a teenager in the house until June 6, 2030. Clearly, this was not well-planned...

I have no more insight on parenthood than anyone else who's gone before me, and don't have any answers as to how to do it right.

However, there are certain things I wish I'd been warned about, and there are rules I've come up with to make sure I'm on the right path. I'm sure in ten years, when I have another twelve year old, this will seem quaint, and I'll have a new list of rules.

But for now, this is what I know and what I've learned, half-way through this parenting gig:

The bodily fluids. Oh, God, the sheer volume of it all! Who knew? I knew there were diapers. I knew there was potty training. But oh, the amount of things I was't ready for!

There will be poop. Yours, when you're pushing the kids out, just to get you used to the concept of public defecation. And then, of course, the baby starts in on it. But after the first baby, the poop won't even make you blink. Not most of the time, anyway. 

There will be pee, and this is the least of your problems. You don't even notice pee by baby number two. It's not nearly gross enough, compared to everything else.

There will be boogers. More than you ever thought about. And you'll clean them up with your hands when you're desperate. Even if you swear you never will. You will.

There will be vomit, and just when you've cleaned up and changed the sheets and you're sound asleep again, there will be more vomit.

There will be blood. Hopefully, not much, but more than, say, your husband or your best friend bleeds.

Remember the thing about pee not being a big deal? It becomes a big deal again. When they're ten, or twelve, and they pee on the front lawn. Or off the back porch. Or anywhere, really, all the time. In fact, it's possible that ten-year-old boys pee everywhere except into the toilet. They're very, very good about hitting around the toilet, behind the seat in the little cracks that are impossible to clean, and in the screws under the toilet that will fester and stink. But never, ever, actually in the toilet.

There will also, of course, be laundry, tears, spilled drinks and messes, but we're talking about parenthood here -- that's just part of the deal.

There will be pain. Parenthood will hurt more than you ever thought possible.

Remember the first time you fell in love and you thought you'd never get over the feeling that you were flying and how amazing it was? Someone wanted you and loved you! And then, the first time you were dumped and nothing has ever hurt that much? Yeah, parenthood's like that.

Only about ten million times more intense, and you can't dump them no matter how much of an ass they are. Even if they do the equivalent of cheat on you and humiliate you and insult you and tell you that "you're a bitch and they don't have to take that shit from you" in public.
And they will. 

And it gets worse: You have all of the pain of loving someone desperately and not having control over how they behave -- and that, of course, is incredibly painful -- but they will be in pain, and it will hurt you. They will cry when a friend says they're annoying, and you hurt worse than they do, because you can see that it was true, even as you swear to them that they're not annoying.

Someone will break their heart, and yours in the process. How fair is that? It used to be that you had a say in having your heart broken -- you could choose "not to play the game, to be cool."

Nope. That's all gone. You're in the game for good, now.

Nature vs. Nurture? That's gone, too. It's all nature. All nurture does is protect the good stuff and keep the bad from taking over. Your family's the garden. Your kids are seeds. You can help the plants thrive, and you can provide it with moisture and food and keep it from turning into one giant weed bed, but if you end up with turnips and you wanted tomatoes? Too bad. You're probably a turnip yourself, you know. Or your husband is. Why did you expect tomatoes in the first place, if you're from a family of turnips? And it's a sad day when a banana is grown up in a watermelon family, so to speak. Because that banana knows he's not what they expected. The sooner he goes off to find other bananas, the better.

Your funny little introvert who loves to read and play computer games and who hates sports? He's not going to play football for UT. He just isn't.  Move along, now. And my little kid who wants to be a veterinarian so badly he can taste it, and he always has, and he has his whole life planned out? He's probably never going to be into history and art. I'll make sure he learns the basics, but I'm fooling myself if I expect him to change what his passions are.

Stick to the rules. They're a clear path through the minefields. When you can't find your car keys, you're covered in maple syrup and you needed to leave the house 14 minutes ago and someone can't find their shoes, remember the rules -- they'll help keep you sane.

Rule number one: Never, ever, ever share a drink with your kids. I know I said boogers don't bother me and I can do poop and vomit with no issues. But drinking after a two-year-old is like French-kissing someone with a mouthful of peanut butter, half-chewed paper and cold cereal. Their backwash is legendary. Don't do it.

Rule number two: Don't do something once unless you want to do it at least a thousand times. This includes everything from singing "Old MacDonald" at bedtime,  letting your kids eat cereal in the playroom "just this once," riding without a car seat while you move the car "just this once", and letting them play Angry Birds on your iPhone when you're desperate for quiet and you're on the phone. The next thing you know, they're experts at Angry Birds, they have a right to ride unbuckled if you're in the driveway and they set the table in front of the TV for breakfast. And you're so sick of singing Old MacDonald that his farm now has robots, caterpillars, scorpions and dinosaurs.

Rule number three: Video games are junk food for the brain. You know it. They know it. Anyone who tries to tell you they improve coordination or that they're good for social skills is rationalizing. Video games are a cheap, easy way to get an endorphin rush without actually working for it. They're bad for kids in anything but tiny amounts. Sure, you can binge once in a while and play a lot. But a steady diet of video games and you'll end up with the brain's equivalent of eating Cheetos and Coke. Every hour spent playing video games is an hour not reading a book, playing a board game or learning how to be bored and working through it. Don't buy into it.

Rule number four: Kids are inherently good. They just don't know what you want. And they're desperate to know that they're needed and that what they do in the family is important. And they don't see the big picture, so no matter how many times you tell them the details, they don't get it. 

You can tell them to put forks on the table every night for three years. They still won't understand that this means that they're supposed to set the table every night, and every night they will be surprised that you're asking them to do it. They're still surprised when they're hungry because you they don't realize that they have to eat every night! But it's critical to them to know they have an important role in the family. Even if they forget every night, make them set the table anyway. Don't do it yourself, just because it's easier.

Rule number five: Choose your battles. Only fight the ones you're really, really willing to sacrifice in order to win. Everything else is just negotiation. I'm not going to fight over food, clothes or haircuts. If they don't eat, so what? If they like weird clothes, so what? I'm willing to go toe-to-toe over schoolwork, character traits and video-game time. Other families might want to fight to the death over bed time, curfews or homework. But don't fight over everything. Life's way too short.

Rule number six: This should be a no-brainer, but in too many families, it isn't. If you don't want someone to treat you that way, don't do it to your kids. If you're at a restaurant and you spill a glass of water, imagine your husband yelling, "That's IT! I told you the last time you spilled that you're not allowed to have a drink unless you're more careful! Waitress, she can't have any more drinks!"

Yeah. Or, when you know annoys him, but you do it anyway, imagine him trying to ground you and keep you home. Or punishing you. I don't think so.

If I wouldn't want Mark to do it to me, I don't do it to my kids. Really, there aren't many exceptions. I don't want someone to tell me to finish my dinner or I don't get dessert. That's just obnoxious. And I can't imagine anyone ever telling me that they really love me, but I broke the rules, so they're going to have to hit me now to show me what I've done wrong. This is a simple one: Don't hit your kids. Don't humiliate them. Don't yell at them, or make fun of them, or embarrass them. It's just mean. 

Rule number seven: Be kind. Always. The world is a hard place. There are people who are mean. There are bullies. There are doors that are too hard to open, math problems that are too hard, girls who don't like them back, machines that steal their money, scary dogs and scarier stories that friends tell them. Kids need a safe place where they know that no one will ever make fun of them.

They need to know that they can go home and tell someone how awful their day was. And honestly, if you don't have your kid's back, who does? If you don't put them first, in front of everything else, who ever will? If they say their teacher was mean, believe them.

Take their side, always. No matter how trivial. Be their biggest cheerleader. Stand up for them when they succeed, yell the loudest in the grandstand, and don't be ashamed of it. You only get one go-round of this. That's your kid, dammit! Yell loudly, cheer proudly, and let everyone know that if they mess with your kid, they're messing with you! Kids need backup. They need to know that there's a safety net.

And the last rule, which seems to contradict rule seven, but doesn't: Be hard on your kids. Expect a lot from them. To those whom much is given, much is expected -- let that be their motto. If you're reading this on a computer screen in a first-world country, your kids are in the category of "to those whom much is given." Don't let them forget that.

Heinlein said, "Don't handicap your children by making their lives easy." They're capable of amazing, wondrous things, if you ask it of them. 

 Don't accept anything less. My favorite saying, one I have on my desk, and the one I use to make decisions about my kids: "Don't prepare the path for the child -- prepare the child for the path."

Other truths: Don't label your kids too early. Easy kids turn into hard kids. Your hard kids become your easy ones. Problems that you thought were huge disappear. Others show up later. Things will change as soon as you've got it under control. Roll with it.

ADD is real. So are peanut allergies. Even if you don't believe it. Until you've lived it, don't judge it.

Sleep when the baby sleeps. It's the only sane thing to do.

Snuggle. Enjoy them. But don't feel like you have to enjoy every minute of it. Sometimes, the minute you're having really sucks. Who wants to enjoy being kicked in the guts by a screaming toddler simply because you were trying to keep her from getting run over? There's enough guilt about parenting.

Enjoy what you can. Do the best you can. And know that your kids will love you, no matter what.