Not All Fish Die. Right, Daddy?

sullyanddolos2There’s something particularly disturbing about being on vacation with your family, getting a cell phone call and looking down and seeing that it’s coming from your house.

In this case, it was our cleaning lady, and she had some bad news.

“Jerry, Sutton’s fish is dead,” she told me, sadly. We’d left a 7-day gradual-release food pellet in his tank to cover our absence, but either something had gone wrong with it or it was just his time to go. She graciously offered to run out to the pet store and buy a replacement for us. Drew and I talked it over, then decided we’d handle the arrangements when we got home.

Thanks to some advice I got on Facebook, we decided to be honest with the kids. We also decided to wait until vacation was over.

We managed to put it out of our minds for the rest of the week, unsure how our sensitive, loving little girl would handle her first direct experience with death. Tonight, as we pulled into our driveway, I started to feel sick. It was time to face it.

I can’t claim that my fear of death is more intense than anyone else’s. You all think about it pretty much every single second, right? Right?? I’ve written before how worried I am about my kids finding out about it. Death is one thing I can’t protect them from. I’m not a religious person, so I don’t plan to tell them about Heaven or Nirvana or the idea that hey, things are actually even better when you die!

Death happens. It sucks. Everything else is a mystery.

It’s taken me 42 years to achieve that much acceptance of death, and I’m still terrified of it, of all the ways it could strike me, my family or anyone else I love, at any freaking time.

Bennett named his fish Sulley, after the character from Monsters, Inc. Sutton called hers Dolos, because… well, who the hell knows. After her phase of naming all her dolls Sutton, she’d moved onto a stage where she made up the most batshit names her little mind could concoct.

Punaniñas

Popocitas

Aliberias

Gatsos

Aspatilia

I don’t know why so many of them sounded Spanish. I’m sure I’ll find out someday that these are all the names of Dora’s woodland friends or something. Until then, I’m going to keep believing she’s some kind of twisted genius.

We didn’t wait long after we got home before we took her in the room and showed her the fishtank. I really think this was the right thing to do. It was pretty obvious from looking at Dolos’ belly-up body that he’d changed, that he was gone.

“Dolos died, Honey,” we explained.

She started to tear up. Through sniffles, she asked, “Can I still feed him tonight?”

“No. He doesn’t need to eat any more.”

“Do you want to go to the pet store tomorrow, so we can replace him?” Drew asked.

She smiled, instantly happy again. “Yes!” Then, she calmed down and asked, “What does replace mean?”

Bennett got choked up, too. We all moved into the bathroom, where we reenacted the Cosby Show fish funeral scene as well as I could remember it.

“Do you know what a funeral is?” I asked the kids. “When someone dies, we gather to remember them and talk about how much we love them.” I suggested we all say something we loved about Dolos. “I’ll go first. I loved how colorful he was.”

Sutton hung her head. “I loved watching him swim.”

A minute later, we flushed him. I’m not sure anyone was as emotional as I was, because I couldn’t focus much on them. I was too busy thinking of all the other funerals I’d been to, of everyone I’d cared about who’d died and of all the funerals my kids would go to in their lives. Of mine, someday, who knows when.

I gathered the kids for one more memorial. They’ve been really fond of the movie version of “James and the Giant Peach” lately. We’d watched it in the car on our way home from the trip. They knew all the words to all the songs, and through them, I had come to as well. I realized the movie provided a perfect elegy for our departed pet, so I played the song “Family” on my iPhone, and we all sat silently and listened to it.

“Do you kids want to play with the iPad now?” I asked when the song ended.

“Yeah!” they shouted. And that was the end of our funeral.

At dinner, the topic came up again. “Not all fish die, right, Daddy?” Sutton asked.

“No, they all die eventually.”

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Only some fish die.”

“Sulley is never going to die!” Bennett said.

“No, Sulley will die, too,” I told him. “But we hope it won’t be for a long time. That’s why it’s important to show him how much we love him while he’s here.”

As we tucked Sutton into bed a few hours later, still unsure how much she understood about death, she got sad again for a moment. “Daddy, do you know who died?” she said. “My fish, Dolos.”

“I know, Honey.”

She thought for a second. “And do you know what’s another word for burp? Belch. Just like you have around your waist.”

“No, Honey, that’s a belt.”

“Oh.”

“Good night, sweetheart. I love you.”

“I love you, too, Daddy.”

I Know Nothing About… Potty Training

Sure, but not always where you want them to.

Nothing shocked me more about parenthood than how fast I became desensitized to my children’s feces.  Having twins meant dealing with poop about a squijillion times a day.  It wasn’t long before I could wipe their butts as cheerily as I could mix their formula or play peek-a-boo.  We’d be out at a restaurant when I’d smell one of their tiny dumps, and I’d just shrug it off.  I’ll change them when I get home, I figured, and then, while the scent crept in and out of my nostrils, I’d merrily shove another fistful of waffle fries through my yammer.

One day I found a not insignificant smear of poop on my shirt, hours after the last time I’d changed the kids.  We’d just come back from a long walk.  Oh well.  No biggie.  People probably thought it was chocolate.

I’m not saying I’m proud of any of this.  In fact, Pre-Parenthood Me would be rightly horrified by who I’ve become.  I always figured I’d potty train the kids as soon as they could crawl.  “There’s the bathroom, Buster.  It’s your problem now!”

Turns out, that’s not too realistic.

We bought the kids their first potty when they were 18 months old.  “That’s where you’re going to pee and poo!” we’d say, and we’d all scream our heads off from excitement.  “Hooray!!!”

“Where are you going to pee and poo?” we’d ask.

“The potty!!!” they’d cheer.

“Do you want to go there now?”

“No.”

It was an Elmo potty, and after you used it, you could high-five Elmo and he’d say something like, “Way to go, dude!”  But you didn’t have to sit on the potty to get Elmo to talk.  He’d congratulate you either way.  For months, Elmo told my kids what an awesome job they were doing, when their bare butts had never once touched his pristine rim.

Not that I blame them for not using an Elmo potty.  We were asking them to do some pretty gross things to their hero.  Does Tom Cruise shit on the image of L. Ron Hubbard?  Well, who knows actually.  Scientologists are freaking nuts.

By the time my kids were two and a half, the Elmo potty was just another forgotten toy, something to step over on the way toward unrolling a full spool of toilet paper when Daddy wasn’t looking.  Nobody high-fived him anymore.  Nobody even thought about peeing or pooping on him.  We decided to reboot the entire potty training process.

For Round 2, they each got their own potty — a pink one for Sutton, a blue one for Bennett.  We put their names on them, because they could recognize their names now.  I gave them a bunch of stickers and let them each decorate their potty however they wanted.  It was a fun five-minute activity at a time when the kids needed something new to do every five minutes.

The excitement about the potties was back.

“What are you going to do in the potty?”

“Pee and poo!!!”

“Yay!!!”

“Yay!!!”

“Do you want to pee and poo there now?”

“No.”

We decided to ramp up the incentives a bit.  We got sticker charts with Dora the Explorer on them.  Each chart had rows for five different activities — pulling down your own pants, sitting on the potty, peeing on the potty, flushing the pee down the toilet and washing your hands.  Poop, I guess, earned double stickers.  The point was moot.  The kids would check off the first two categories and be happy enough with those two stickers that they didn’t need the rest.

So we found a Big Prize.  We bought wall decals to put in their room — Dora for Sutton, Thomas the Train for Bennett.  They could have them as soon as they filled up the chart with stickers.

“Can I have the decals now?”

“No, you have to be able to go on the potty first.  Do you want to try now?”

“No.”  They shrugged and walked away.

“But don’t you want the wall decals?  Hello?  Hello?”

We added more incentive.  M&Ms!  (I know, using food as a bribe sends the wrong message, but hey, I was desperate.)

Finally, we had our first triumphs.  Any time I reminded Bennett about the M&Ms and dragged him to the toilet, he would sit there for a minute and squeeze out what he could.  “I’m done!” he’d say proudly.

Drew and I would act like we’d just landed a Mars rover.  “OH MY GOD!  YOU DID IT!  I’M SO PROUD OF YOU!  YOU’RE SUCH A BIG BOY!  WOW WOW WOW!”

“Now can I have my M&Ms?” he’d ask.

Sutton wouldn’t even make an attempt.  If there was an incentive big enough to get her to go on the potty, we never found it.  And we tried.

“They’ll go when they’re ready,” people would assure us, so we didn’t pressure them too much.

“My kid came to me one day and told me she wanted to use the potty,” friends would say.  “Then we never looked back.”

“How old was she?”

“Um… a little over 2.”

By then, my kids had turned 3.  “Don’t worry,” people said.  “No one accepts their high school diploma wearing a diaper.”

I don’t know why my kids have been so resistant.  Maybe it’s harder to train them because they’re twins.  Maybe my kids are exceptionally stubborn.  Maybe I’m just bad at this.  I’m guessing it’s some combination of all three.

They start preschool this week, and they’re supposed to be trained when they get there.  So two weeks ago, I decided to go hard-core.  I’m a professional parent, I decided.  This is my job, and I take pride in it.  There’s no excuse for me not to get this done.

I found a website that promised to potty train kids in 3 days.  I was hoping it was a camp I could send them away to, but unfortunately, it was just an ebook written by some woman who claimed to be an expert on the subject.  I paypalled her $25 and downloaded her PDF.

I’m going to save you $25, because here’s her method in a nutshell:

  • Throw out your diapers, and put your kid immediately in underpants.
  • Stay home.
  • Pump the kids full of juice.
  • Remind the kids every five seconds that they should go to the potty when they have to pee or poop.
  • Catch them just as they’re having their accidents and run them into the bathroom.
  • Give lots of encouragement and praise.
  • Repeat until the kid starts going to the bathroom on his or her own.

By the end of the third day, she promised, all kids “get it”.

I followed her instructions.  I’d see my kids dancing around, trying to hold their bladders, and I’d remind them to go to the potty when they needed to.

“I don’t have to,” they’d assure me.

Two minutes later, they’d burst.  “Uh-oh,” they’d say.  “Daddy, I peed.”

“IT’S GO TIME!!!” I’d shout.  “LET’S HURRY!  WE CAN MAKE IT TO THE POTTY!  THIS IS AWESOME!”

I’d pick the kid up and now, instead of being concentrated in one puddle, their pee would leave a trail all the way through our house.

“That’s OK,” I’d say when we finally reached the bathroom and it was all done.  “Next time we just need to get there sooner.”  Then, I’d get down on my knees with a roll of paper towels and a bottle of Windex and spend 10 minutes cleaning while they went back to playing with their toys.  Inevitably, around minute 5, the other kid would have an accident, and now, I’d have to run them through the house, splashing through all the pee puddles from the last kid while making a second trail that I’d soon have to clean up.

This was not fun for any of us.

The kids would scream and cry whenever I picked them up.  They would refuse to sit on the potty, even if they were still peeing when we got to the bathroom.  They never “got it”.

Sutton actually liked getting wet, not because she enjoyed the feeling, but because it meant she got to change into another one of her outfits.  If she had enough accidents, she could go through her entire wardrobe in one day.  Potty training made my little girl into Cher.

Still, the process was taking its toll.  The first night of potty training, Sutton woke up screaming and saying there were monsters in her room.  She’d never seen monsters before, never even had a nightmare.

We spent three days stuck inside, the kids constantly panicking that their bladders would fill up and spawn another sprint to the potty, me going through roll after roll of extra-strength Bounty.

I tried to remember another time when my kids were this miserable.  Then, it came to me: physical therapy.

Since they rolled over at three days old, Bennett and Sutton have been late on every physical milestone — sitting up, holding their own utensils, you name it.  When they weren’t crawling at almost a year old, our doctor sent us to physical therapy.

For an hour every week, I watched my happy little kids scream and wail at the positions the therapist would force them into.  They were miserable, and I swear they were pleading with me with their eyes, as if to say, “Why are you letting her do this, Daddy?”

The therapist taught me the exercises, so I could repeat them at home, every day.  I never did.  I didn’t care if they weren’t crawling.  They certainly didn’t care.  It was actually cuter to watch them roll around everywhere they wanted to go.  To change course, they’d roll up to a wall, use their feet to pivot them in a different direction, then push off where they wanted to go.  It was kind of genius, and they giggled merrily the whole time they did it.

It came down to a simple decision for me… what’s more important: do I want my kids to crawl, or do I want them to be happy?

We stopped going to physical therapy.

Eventually, they crawled without some scary lady posing them like Gumbys every week.  They even started walking… around 6 months later than other kids.  But they were happy, ridiculously so.  And so was I.

So on day 4 of our 3-day potty training course, I put diapers back on my kids and took them to an indoor playground.  They jumped on the trampoline, rode the mini cars, hung from the zip line, built giant block towers and laughed their silly little heads off.

It was fantastic.

Tomorrow, they’ll start preschool… in diapers.  I know I’ll probably get in trouble for not having them trained, but if the teacher gets snippy about it, I’m ready to defend myself.

And if they turn out to be the first kids ever who are still in diapers when they graduate high school, so be it.  They’re getting old enough that soon, they’ll be able to change themselves.  At that point, my job will be done.

“There’s where we keep the Pampers, Buster,” I’ll say.  “It’s your problem now!”

I Know Nothing About… Tantrums

How could you say no to this face?

I got a surprising amount of sassback on my meltdown post.  Sure, most of my commenters related to the complete irrationality of my kids’ tantrums, but some took it as an occasion to attack my parenting skills.  What interested me most is that I got it from both sides — those who think I’m too hard on my kids — “Sheesh give some freedom dad” — and those who argue I’m too lenient — “You’re the adult, ACT LIKE IT. Sheesh.”

Well, at least they agreed that I deserve to be sheeshed.  It’s a starting point.

OK, fair enough.  Proclaiming myself a “Superdad” certainly invites people to test my invincibility.  But hey, even Superman has kryptonite.  Mine happens to be tantrums.  And potty training.  And getting my kids to eat vegetables.  (And about a thousand other things, but I’ll save those for other posts.)

You think I’m in over my head when it comes to tantrums?  Well, you’re right.  I know nothing about them.  Nothing at all.

Except for the following…

A tantrumming child is not necessarily a sign of a bad parent.  I admit that before I had toddlers of my own, I’d sometimes see a kid melting down in public and think, “Why can’t those parents control him?”  I know better now.

Still, those judgmental jerks are out there, and if your kid throws a tantrum at the pumpkin patch or at IHOP, you can expect them to make themselves known.  The nicer ones just shoot you judging looks.  The real assholes think it’s their job to teach you what you’re doing wrong.

Their technique is always the same.  They bypass you, the parent, and crouch down in front of the kid.  Head tilted to one side, they crank the empathy up to a thousand and pout, “Oh no, little guy!  Why are you sad?”

Oh right!  Why didn’t I think to ask my kid why he was sad?  Thanks, Dr. Spock!

Bad news, genius.  Chances are my 2-year-old isn’t going to calmly explain to you that he thinks he should be able to stay in the pool all day even though he’s shivering, he’s hiccupping from all the water he swallowed and we’re running late to pick his other Daddy up at the train station.  The whole reason we’re in this mess is that his little mind isn’t capable of rationalizing any of that yet.  All he knows is: “Pool fun.  Daddy took me out of pool.”

I’d tell you that myself, but you didn’t ask me, jackass.  Go ahead, try your way, though, because you know what always helps kids relax?  Having to talk to complete strangers.  Yeah, that’s like a trip to the spa for them, totally clears their minds.

If my kid does stop crying for a second, it’s because he’s so terrified of this crazy lady who’s all up in his grill that he’s forgotten why he was upset.  So now the crazy lady thinks she’s the Tantrum Whisperer, and I’m the worst parent in the world.

Two seconds after she walks away, the tantrum starts up again, and now we’re a minute later to pick Daddy up.

But thanks, stranger, because clearly, you know what you’re doing.

Tantrums strike without warning.  One second, my kid is skipping merrily along, quoting Muppet one-liners and telling me, totally unprompted, how much they love me.  The next, they’re willing to stake our entire relationship on whether or not I’ll give them a packet of Dora fruit snacks, like, immediately.

Most of the time, I don’t know the tantrum is coming until after it’s begun.  So I’ll make a decision along the lines of, “No, sorry, I don’t feel like listening to that Katy Perry song for the 10,000th time today,” thinking that’ll be the end of the debate.  Instead, my kid melts down for half an hour.  If I’d known that would be the outcome, I would’ve just said yes and suffered through “Part of Me” yet again, but because I said no, I’m forced to defend my decision.  Once the tantrum has started, I don’t want to give in, or I risk giving the kid the message that acting like a lunatic gets you what you want.

And sometimes it does, because dammit, it’s just a Katy Perry song, and if this kid doesn’t stop screaming, I’m going to drive the car into a tree.

There is no single cause of tantrums.  Tired kids tantrum more often, no doubt, but that doesn’t mean the solution is to put them to bed.  Sometimes, the kid is bored, they’re testing their boundaries or they’re struggling to express something their little brains just can’t process.  Very often, though, they just really, really want more M&Ms.

There is no single way to defuse tantrums. 

I yearn for the days when distraction was a foolproof antidote to the common tantrum.  If my kid wanted to play with, say, a steak knife, the argument would go something like this:

“I want the knife!”

“No, the knife is dangerous.  You can’t have it.”

“I want the knife!  I want the knife!  I want the knife!”

“How about this train instead?”

“Ooh, a train!”

As they’ve gotten older, the “How ’bout a train?” technique has been working less and less.

Sometimes ignoring them for a while helps.  Other times, what they need is to be cradled and soothed.  Sometimes, nothing works – even giving in.

The kid just might need to throw a fit, and if you give him what he wants, he’ll find something else to complain about, or he’ll complain about the way you gave in.

One time, Bennett wanted me to play a song on our car ride home.  I said, “I can’t search my iPod for your song out right now, because I’m driving, and it’s not safe.”  As soon as we got home, I offered to play him the song, but that apparently wasn’t good enough.  “No!” he screamed.  “I want to hear it IN THE CAR!”

Tantrums are like viruses. Find a way to fight them and they mutate into something even more inscrutable.  You can lessen the symptoms, but you’ll never cure them.

There are no winners in a tantrum.  Sometimes, I give in to my kids, but do they smirk and gloat over their victory?  No, they’re usually too exhausted and frustrated for that, and they still need a hug.

Sometimes, my kids calm down on their own, but that doesn’t make me feel like some kind of champion.  It’s hard to watch a kid struggle through a tantrum, and it can be devastating to have someone you love so much scream in your ear for what seems like hours before they finally give up.  No matter how the tantrum shakes out, I won’t be popping champagne for my parenting skills at the end.

If you are keeping score with tantrums, I’m pretty sure you’re doing it wrong.  This isn’t a battle of you vs. them.  It’s you and the kid together, versus bedlam.  You’re helping them through their tantrum, teaching them to deal with emotions they’re not quite equipped to process and showing them where the boundaries are.

Tantrums aren’t competitions, they’re (ugh, overused phrase alert) teachable moments.

Like I said, I know nothing about tantrums, but I have to believe my kids are learning something from them, that each episode brings them closer to an understanding of the world and why I set the limits that I do.  Over time, they’ll learn that there are good reasons why Daddy says no, and they’ll discover more productive ways to petition for the things they want.  If I do my best to help them through this phase, then eventually, they’ll outgrow it and become the mature, rational, productive little citizens I want them to be.

Right?  Right????