Kids. Oh, the hopes and dreams we project onto them while awaiting their birth. He’ll be a Nobel Prize-winning scientist who nevertheless inherits his mother’s love of poetry. She’ll be the first female president, with her father’s innate athleticism but hopefully not his cavity-prone teeth. Our kid will be the first child to read Proust before he walks, a veritable prodigy who’ll compose sonatas on her Playskool plastic piano to rival Mozart’s. The “miracle” of birth happens in all of its bloody glory, and even as our bundles of joy inflict countless nights of sleep deprivation torture on us, we somehow hold on to those dreams.
Then they learn to talk. To walk. To do the exact opposite of what we tell them — “No, Johnny. Don’t play in the cat’s litter box; that’s not candy, honey.” For what seems like yearsm the word “no” becomes their favorite:
“C’mon, Janey, eat your green beans. They’re good for you.”
“NO! No, no, no, NO!”
Just as their vocabularies expand beyond that one infuriating word they acquire all sorts of other, non-verbal ways to communicate the very same sentiment: the eye roll, the shoulder shrug, the loud sigh in response to whatever advice, encouragement, or admonishment that just came out of their parents’ mouths.
Somewhere in between we teach them the important stuff. Don’t lie. Don’t cheat. Don’t steal. Don’t wear skirts — or jeans — that show your underwear. Don’t leave your science fair project untouched until 11 the night before it’s due. Don’t leave the gas tank on empty after you’ve borrowed your parents’ car. Don’t drink. And don’t have sex before your married.
Yet even as we teach them these important life lessons and values, we know they’re bound to fail. That’s part of growing up. The toddler who listened wide-eyed as we explained why lying is wrong will, for once, stop saying “no” long enough to reassure us with jam-stained kisses that he would never, ever lie to his parents. But when Mommy finds her favorite vase broken in the room where he was playing ball — something he knows darned well he’s not supposed to do — he’ll claim innocence. “Then who did it?” his mother will ask, and the inevitable lie will be “I don’t know.”
The 14-year-old daughter who has been told a dozen times not to ever, ever wear mommy’s Jimmy Choo shoes will, most likely, be the very one teetering off to 8th grade homeroom wearing those insanely expensive heels at her first opportunity. Then, after spilling spaghetti on them in the cafeteria — and because she remembers the time she broke Mommy’s vase and her claim of ignorance didn’t keep her out of trouble — she’ll throw away said shoes rather than risk being confronted with the evidence of her theft.
This, too, is part of parenthood: knowing in advance that our children will not always follow our instructions and that part of their maturation process involves rebelling against our strictures and learning lessons on their own — and loving them before, during, and after all that happens. Even the best of parents know that, ultimately, their children will break at least once many of the rules they set down, and that it’s unrealistic to expect otherwise.
Janey will swear to us that she has no homework and then spend the evening in her room text-messaging her BFFs on her cell phone while IMing with the cute boy from science class until, just as they sign off shortly before 11, she decides it’s now time to tackle her science fair experiment on the replication of frog DNA, which is due tomorrow morning and OhgoshMomandDadyoujusthavetohelpmefindafrogRIGHTNOW!
Tommy will return from his senior dance smelling faintly of vodka and Hi-C and, despite being utterly incapable of standing upright or speaking without a slur, he’ll swear he didn’t drink right up until the point where he barfs all over the bathroom and keeps barfing, wretchedly and with such force that we no longer have to wonder whether the chewing gum he swallowed in sixth grade will stay in his stomach until his early 20s. As we help him stumble bleary-eyed and green-skinned into his bed, which we assure him is not spinning, we realize with sadness that he not only disregarded our rules about drinking but about lying as well.
No, there’s not a parent alive who looks forward to those times when our children confirm our late night fears, when they become so headstrong and independent that they disregard our teachings, break our rules, and do the very things we wished most they’d never do. But every parent knows it’s possible — indeed some admit in the deepest corners of their hearts that it’s in fact quite likely to happen — and that it is unrealistic to expect otherwise. These little creatures to whom we gave birth do, after all, develop their own personalities and wills. The whole purpose of their childhood is to help them grow up into independent-thinking individuals able to make their own decisions, run their own lives, and eventually raise their own children.