We become like zoo-keepers, overlooking our little creatures from the sidelines, hoping to keep the damage at a minimum, and, if (which is a euphemism for “when”) there is damage, hoping it was someone else’s kid rather than our own.
It’s all fun and games until someone loses an iPad. Or a cookie.
Different social scripts invariably arise in different social settings. Parent-powwows are no exception to this rule.
So here I present our catalog of social games, as they manifest in the interesting arena of parenthood…
THE PARENTING EXPERT
Parenting books should come with a disclaimer:
“this book was not intended to help you teach other parents how to parent.”
The self-proclaimed “Parenting Expert” incessantly feels the need to enlighten us in the art of all she does right (and all we do wrong). Armed with an artillery of “Ten Tricks,” or “Six Steps,” or “Four Forces,” she’s like a walking self-help seminar, decorated with with mottos and slogans to oversimplify the subtleties of child-raising. She starts her sentences with phrases like “all of the experts say…” to which we’d love to interject with phrases like “did we sign up for your little lecture?” (To be fair, I’ve lectured publicly on parenting topics, but I do my best to reserve these thoughts for audiences who actually care, within the boundaries of my professional role. There’s a big difference between solicited and unsolicited advice).
THE HANDS-OFF LOUNGERS
While the Parenting Expert tries too hard, the Loungers hardly try.
They pretend like they don’t notice their children demolishing toys, pulling hair, staining carpets, or throwing glass bowls against brick walls. Which leaves the rest of us in the rather awkward position of noticing it for them. But they don’t seem to mind letting us do their dirty work. So long as they can stay comfortably seated and undisturbed by the sounds of shattered glass and shrieking toddlers. They’ll laugh it off innocently, asking “is that our little rascal, again?” But they’re usually the only ones laughing.
THE “MY CHILD CAN DO NO WRONG” DEFENDER
Most parents (myself included) like to see their children in only the most sparkling of lights. It’s hard to see our little angels through objective lenses. But we do the best we can to take responsibility for our children and the mistakes they inevitably make. But some parents seem highly defensive, as though a minor lapse in their child’s conduct equates him with the likes of terrorists and serial killers. Their theme song is “Don’t you dare blame my child!” which is a great way to produce unaccountable, unreliable, irresponsible children — albeit, well protected by the thick shields of defensiveness. Teachers know this type of parent all too well.
THE “MY CHILD CAN DO NO RIGHT” APOLOGIZER
On the other end of the spectrum is the parent who blames their child for everything.
“Oh, your kid bit my kid? It’s my kid’s fault! He’s always convincing other children that he’s edible!”
“Oh, the chandelier is covered in maple syrup? It must’ve been my kid!”
“Oh, the fish tank ate your iPhone? I’m sure my kid did it!”
This innocent child is totally defenseless, and can look forward to recounting these episodes years later on the therapy couch. Until then, his mommy or daddy will absolve all peers of any guilt, as the files of their perpetual prosecution pile up to the roof.
THE DEVELOPMENTAL TRACKER
Who’s walking first? Who’s talking first? Who’s toilet trained first? Who’s counting to ten in Mandarin first?
This parent keeps track of it all – especially when her child is sightly ahead in the developmental race. It’s fine and dandy to be proud of your kid, but relax with the scorecard. The kids will all figure out how to talk, and last I checked, most people manage to graduate beyond diapers (for a while, at least). The fact that your child took his first step 17.3 seconds before the neighbors’ kid doesn’t earn you bragging rights like he’s been nominated for a Nobel prize in quantum physics.
THE PREGNANCY PREDICTOR
Along similar lines is the Pregnancy Predictor who continually calculates who’s due for another child, and continually guesses (often, insultingly so) who’s abiding by this arbitrary schedule. She tends to stare at bellies for longer than appropriate, and asks questions that are equally inappropriate. She does it so casually that it almost sounds normal, but she’s so predictable in her pregnancy predictions that we all know to keep the maternity wardrobe hidden before she broadcasts our privacy to the general public. Beware: she’s watching you. (And the size of your waste.)
THE PERFECT DAD
He changes every diaper, he pushes every swing, he comes to every siddur play – and he does it all with a permanent smile. Onlooking wives can’t help but feel envy, while onlooking husbands can’t help but feel disgust. Imperfect fathers like myself form a “United Dads Against Mr. Perfect” union, as we secretly wonder what type of skeletons he’s got hiding in his closet. There must be some guilt behind that fatherly front; what else would motivate him to be so selfless and loving?
These are some of the strange games that ensue as young parents gather and chatter. As I’ve said — most of us play these games to a certain extent. The question is not do we play them, but how willing we are to catch ourselves when we do. There’s nothing wrong with playing a role, so long as we can see it as such.
Take it from me, I’m an expert.