Monday, June 17, 2013

How to Practice Feral Parenting

It's no secret that parenting styles have undergone a vast shift over the last few decades. While most of those reading this no doubt grew up as I did under the authoritative model, children today are being raised under vastly different parenting flags, from "permissive parenting," and "concerned cultivation" to "emotion coaching," and "slow parenting."

Whatever that means.

As I've been traveling over the past few weeks, I've had the opportunity to see the various parenting styles of my friends. To say that there have been some extreme variations would be like saying that Napoleon ran into a little snag at Waterloo.

Two weeks ago, I stayed a few nights in a four-child home in which I never once heard the parents raise their voices above a soft conversational tone. I've dubbed their style "soft parenting." It seemed to be working, because their children were largely quiet, joyful, and well-behaved.

A few days later, I stayed in a child-riddled house containing five cheerful and rambunctious youngsters, four of whom were boys. When the littlest one (a miniature girl) got whiny, her mother leaned down and sweetly reminded her to "keep a happy heart." And it worked. The whining stopped and the crocodile tears dried up.

Meanwhile I sat at the dining room table snorting into my coffee, imagining my siblings' reactions had our mother attempted such snake charms on us. I've dubbed this friend's style "emotional engineering" and stand slightly in awe of it. I know that I could never pull it off. But it, too, seemed to be working. Her children were smiling, healthy, and helpful.

Then I came here, to the home of Feral Parenting.

For a variety of reasons, including natural temperament combined with the fact that these friends are still recovering from the stunning shock a few years ago of having had their third pregnancy turn out to be triplets, these particular friends have chosen to embrace Feral Parenting.

Although difficult to describe, it truly is a fearsome thing to behold. In a loose sense, I'd define Feral Parenting as a sort of long-term survival system flavored with a dash of desperation.

How to Practice Feral Parenting:

Step 1: Adopt utilitarianism. If you were to have been at Blue Marsh Lake this weekend, you might have been shocked to see a young mother using a butcher's knife to slather peanut butter on her children's sandwiches. The explanation? She'd forgotten her butter knife and begged the butcher's knife from a set of nearby picnickers. "Meh. A knife is a knife," she shrugs later as we laugh over the incongruity.

The utilitarian mindset likewise led to large servings of (hot, cooked) vegetables being served with bare hands. It's led to three potty-training toddlers skipping about commando for a majority of the afternoon rather than bothering with pants and underthings that are bound to get wet anyway. Most recently, this led to my friend mopping up the kitchen floor with a towel thrown down and shuffled under her feet.

"It works," she shrugs cheerily.

Step 2: Be blasé. To some extent, parenting does this to everyone. Poop, vomit, snot, drool--encounters with the bodily functions of children that would leave me dry-heaving seem to have little effect on parents. Within the framework of Feral Parenting, however, this phenomenon reaches new heights. Feral Parents have been known to handle a staggering number of baffling situations without batting an eye.

A few nights ago, one of the little ones picked his nose so hard that it started bleeding (not that anyone noticed at first, due to that night's dinner involving tomato sauce). Upon investigation, it was discovered that he'd been digging fruitlessly for a large kernel of corn which had become lodged high in his nostril. Not bothered, my friend dipped into the kitchen and returned with a mechanical pencil (see Step 1). Fortunately for both the nostril and the pencil, wiser heads prevailed: a pair of tweezers was located and employed in retrieving said kernel of corn. Moments later, as we cleaned up the dinner table and prepared to sip some tea on the back porch, we stumbled across a pile of turds which had apparently dropped out of a tiny pair of shorts onto the deck. No sooner had she cleaned this up, than my friend was hailed by a distress call from across the yard: one of the girls had gotten stuck high in a tree and stood in need of rescue.

The point is that not only did all of these mini disasters take place within the space of about twenty minutes, but they also seemed to cause my friend little to no fuss. Sailing serenely through her nostril-clogged-and-poo-riddled evening, she sat down to our cup of tea and game of Scrabble for all the world as if she'd just returned from a refreshing nap. Meanwhile, I lolled in my chair, exhausted and slightly sweaty from watching all of the drama unfold.

"You get used to it," she laughs.

Step 3: Don't smother. My friend's children play in their small, un-fenced front yard bordered by a very busy street. They climb too high in trees. They eat things that they find outside. They run around with knives clutched in their grubby little fists. "They're just butter knives," says my friend in a tone of voice which not only perfectly illustrates Steps 1 and 2, but also gives us a peep at the overriding philosophy behind Step 3: that children won't learn much if you don't let them hurt themselves once in a while.

The most remarkable aspect of this entire situation is that Feral Parenting seems to be working. The five children living under this regime are thriving and uninjured. They work hard, play hard, and sleep hard.

I'm no expert, but perhaps it's time for you to embrace Feral Parenting. Unstrap those diapers, give your little ones butter knives, and turn them loose to play in traffic.

Meanwhile, feel free to kick back and make yourself a hot tea.

You deserve it.

Monday, June 10, 2013

How to Be a Good House Guest

We've all experienced the mixed feelings associated with going to visit friends: the half-excitement of anticipation mixed with the half-dread of everything going massively wrong and ruining the friendship forever.

We've all been there are time or two. Maybe you've gone to visit relatives whom you absolutely love until partway through the trip, when you suddenly remember why you live so far away in the first place. Or you've gone to meet the parents of your significant other only to find yourself toeing the line between the keen desire to make a good impression and the crippling fear of trying too hard and coming across as a massive tool.  

Whatever your situation, do not despair. I'm here to help. 

I write this post while sitting on the borrowed coverlet of a borrowed bed in borrowed loft-style bedroom in the middle of a six-week road trip during which I will stay nearly every single night in the homes of different friends; thus I write from an ever-expanding knowledge base brimming with insightful factoids concerning how to be a good house guest.

No, there is no need to thank me. I offer this as a public service.

How to Be a Good House Guest:

1. Pack light. Perhaps the best advice ever given regarding traveling is that one person should be able to carry one person's stuff. Forget the length of the trip: if you're one person traveling with two suitcases, a backpack, a purse, and a shoulder bag full of odds-and-ends, you may want to consider whether travel is actually right for you. After all, when you're planning to spend time in borrowed space, you never know where you may wind up. You may find yourself--as I have this week--in an attic bedroom accessible only by ladder.  Therefore when it comes to packing, the rule is this: the lighter the better.

Bear in mind that most people already have many needed items just lying around their houses already, and if they like you well enough to let you stay over night, they probably like you well enough to let you use anything that you find lying around (hair dryers, plates and cups, shoes, toothbrushes, etc). Especially if they don't realize that you're using them!

2. Be transparent.  Even if you're just staying for a short time, it's probably smart to make your likes and dislikes known right away.  After all, how can your hosts cater to your every whim if they don't know what your whims are! To that end, I recommend sending a GOOD IDEA/BAD IDEA checklist at least two weeks in advance in order to alert your hosts as to your special needs and give them time to prepare. This is especially important if your host household contains children, since children often require a few days to practice certain elements of your checklist, such as learning not to speak aloud before you've had your coffee, etc.

If you forget to add something to the list beforehand, feel free to make constant verbal updates throughout your stay. Use clear, simple statements such as "I like this," and "I don't like this."  For example, if dinner consists of bratwursts and sauerkraut with a side of beans, feel free to point out which elements of the meal appeal most to you --"I like this" (*point*)-- and which ones don't --"I do not like this" (*point*). I'm certain your host will be vastly appreciative of your efforts to make yourself clear. If you feel the need to elaborate as to why these items should have appeared on the BAD IDEA checklist, feel free. Open lines of communication can only be a boon.

3.  Keep a predictable routine. No matter the routine of the household that you're temporarily joining, I feel that it's important for you to follow your own routine. Not only does this assert your individuality (thus inspiriting any children in the household to "be themselves" when they grow up), but it also gives your friends, family, and new acquaintances a true picture of who you really are and of what your life is like. 

After all, how will your family and friends be able to grasp your true personhood if you become enmeshed in helping them live their lives? Likewise, how can your hosts fulfill their duty to cater to you as their guest if you are busy catering to them

The mind boggles! 

Thus when it comes to meal times, leisure activities, and personal grooming, I strongly recommend that you keep your own schedule. Get up when you like, eat when you like, shower when you like, sleep when you like.  I'm certain that your friends will appreciate the chance to see the "real you" in action.

4. Don't offer to help.  It implies that you think your hosts aren't doing a good job on their own.

Whether or not you choose to put any of my other recommendations into practice, remember this last one: be grateful to your hosts for letting you in. I don't just mean for letting you inside their homes. I mean be grateful that they let you inside their lives, entrusting you with something of inestimable value--a chance to view their lives from the inside out. 

The truth is that if you can learn to do that, then you've learned what it means to be a good house guest.