One of the things I’m really good at is eavesdropping. I love listening to conversations that don’t involve me.
I know it’s rude or whatever, but honestly, I don’t feel that bad about it. People need to have better awareness of their surroundings and the volume of their voices.
My two jobs really jibe nicely with my desire to hear other people’s problems. Most of the time, my high school students assume I’m either too deaf or too old to decipher what they mean when they say “I accidentally got too turnt Friday night and ended up DM’ing Nikki’s ex.” I love when their mouths turn into little O’s of surprise when I jump in by saying “well, have you told Marco how you feel?”
At the bar it’s the same thing. Adults think because I’m on the other side of the bar I can’t hear them, despite being a foot away.
One common conversation I hear among customers at the bar is about parenting. These adults, drowning their sorrows in a few high-gravity IPAs, don’t understand why being a parent is so hard.
“I try to get him to take out the trash, and all he wants to do is play his goddamn Switch,” I heard one dad in his early 40s say to his friend.
“Have you taken it away?” said the friend.
“Then he just plays games on the iPad,” Dad said. “I can’t win.”
Look, I don’t claim to be an expert on parenting; truth be told, I’m 35 and can still barely take care of myself. But as a step father, I’ve helped to raise Melinda’s kids for the last six years, and I feel like I’ve done a pretty good job.
It was a little rocky at first. I felt awkward talking to the kids, trying to make them like me while still conveying a modicum of authority. But I’ve matured and gotten better, and the more experience I have with this whole parenting thing, the more I realize that being an effective parent really boils down to two (and a half) rules:
1 – Feign enthusiasm
Child molester Woody Allen once said 80 percent of life is showing up, and I’d say that is true of parenting as well. But while being physically present at the soccer games and the dance recitals and the Cub Scout jamborees gets you most of the way to your child’s undying love and affection, that missing 20 percent must be accounted for by conveying to your kid you actually want to be there. Which, of course, you don’t.
This is where the feigned enthusiasm comes in.
Admittedly, I’m not great at pretending, even though by now I’ve had lots of opportunities to practice.
My problem lies in the fact that, due to either some genetic mutation or my upbringing in the suburbs of Philadelphia, everything that comes out of my mouth — genuine or otherwise — sounds sarcastic.
Case in point:
Earlier this week, my 7-year-old daughter, J, came home from a trip to Target with a new set of JoJo Siwa bows. From what I’ve gathered, JoJo Siwa is a girl who has shot to fame for her unique talent of wearing bows in her hair.
J was very excited about these bows because a: she’s currently riding the wave of her first celebrity crush and succumbed to the belief if she buys enough JoJo merchandise she might actually become JoJo Siwa; and b: she bought these bows with her own money.
She came in from the car clutching the package, her eyes dancing with levels of joy only attainable by a child whom has never had to make a down payment on a home (which, by the way, I have pinpointed as the moment my heart died).
Me: Oh, what’ve you got there?
J: (Holds up package enthusiastically, shakes it) JoJo Siwa BOWS!
Me: Some bows, huh? Well, isn’t that something?
J: There’s a pink one and a green one and a polka dot one.
Me: That’s fantastic. They seem much different and exciting from the other 200 bows you have that are pink and green and polka dot.
Melinda’s much better at feigning enthusiasm than I am. She hitches her voice up an octave and goes “oooOOOOOoooo” and “oooohweeeeeEEEEE!” and “woaaaaahohohohho” and other such cliched stock mom noises that somehow convey sincerity and come to think of it she may also do this with me and I’m just now realizing it and…shit.
I’ve tried to model my responses after what Melinda does, making high-pitched, enthusiastic noises when the kids do something worth praising, but I get discouraged because they just end up making the dog next door bark.
Occasionally, she’ll prod me into showing more enthusiasm.
“Go validate your daughter,” she’ll say, pushing me into J’s bedroom like I’m an actor with stage fright.
But it never works, because I can’t seem to find the medium between deadpanning and acting like I just worked my way through a bag of Walter White’s blue meth.
Me: HOLY FUCK BALLS, WHAT DO YOU HAVE IN YOUR BEAUTIFUL LITTLE HANDS!?!? ARE THOSE BOWS I SEE!?!?
J: (Holds up package like a hostage holding up a newspaper)
Me: JESUS CHRIST ALMIGHTY, THOSE ARE THE MOST PRECIOUS FUCKING BOWS I’VE EVER SEEN!!!!
J: Sam, your nose is bleeding.
Me: IT’S NOT BLEEDING, IT’S CRYING RED TEARS OF EXCITEMENT!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Ok, so I haven’t found the balance of false enthusiasm yet, but that’s because I tend to rely more on Parenting Rule #2:
2 – Trust your gut
I know it seems like I’m being a little generic here, but in my experience, following your instincts is critical to being an effective parent.
The reality is, we are biologically equipped to take care of our offspring. Science backs me up on this. Since the beginning of time, humans have reportedly (checks Wikipedia) reproduced, which means several generations of parents existed before Cameron Diaz and Jennifer Lopez starred in the 2012 parenting how-to movie What To Expect When You’re Expecting.
Trusting my gut has gotten me out of plenty of parenthood jams, like when to coddle and when to tell them to rub some dirt on it and get the hell back out there.
I’ll tell you, going with your instincts isn’t always the socially acceptable way, but that doesn’t mean it’s the wrong way.
The days my brother and I were born, my dad took the day off from his job as a union ironworker. He watched us squirm free of our amniotic prisons, hung out in the hospital for a couple of hours, and then went home to drink some beers. He was back up on the iron the next day.
This is not because he was a callous bastard disinterested in the birth of his two sons, but because his instinct told him that working — providing — for his family was a hell of a lot more important than seeing some goop-covered alien-looking thing come out of his beautiful wife. Dad went with his gut, and you know what? I turned out just fine.
The mention of my parents is a beautiful (read: planned) transition the addendum I want to tack onto Rule 2.
2.5 – When your gut is silent, just do what your parents did and it’ll probably be fine
I don’t want to make it seem like I’m some super parent who always has that little voice inside of me telling me the right thing to do. Like all parents, I sometimes visit the instinct well and it’s dry.
This is where I revert to handling the situation the way I think my parents would.
A scenario came up recently when J asked me in the car about where babies come from. Now, this is a tricky subject to broach for any parent, regardless of his or her level of experience.
J is super-smart for a 7-year-old, and I knew some bullshit story about the stork wasn’t going to cut the mustard. So I did what any parent in 2019 would do and I told her the truth:
Mommies and daddies order their babies from Amazon.
No, I’m kidding. That would never work, because J knows we have Amazon Prime and it would take way less than nine months for a baby to get delivered.
What I actually did was repeat the same bullshit my mom said to me when I asked the same question some 30-odd years ago.
“Well you see,” I said, “when moms and dads love each other and decide to have a baby, the dad plants a seed and then the baby grows.”
On the whole, not a terrible performance from dear old Mom. It’s factually correct, and the verb “plant” has a pleasing, earthy feel to it.
I remember my mom telling me this, because I have a memory of visualizing my conception. My father and mother sitting in a field under a tree, with a blanket and a picnic basket. My parents hold hands as my dad drops a seed into a mound of earth and covers it with a trowel.
…Ok, as an adult, the imagery is super fucking creepy. But come on, the romance of my mom’s explanation is definitely better than “your father and I got hammered in Cabo and we banged in the back of a cab and he didn’t pull out in time and now here you are.”
Which, just to clear things up, is not how I was conceived; to my knowledge, my parents have never been to Cabo.
On the whole, I think these two-and-a-half tips are sound and the only real advice any parents need. Worst case scenario, the kids will turn out just as screwed up as you are, which in my case means D&J will become overthinking, snarky eavesdroppers with a penchant for craft beer and shitty jokes. And really, what more could I want?