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Learning Curve

The Parental Learning Curve

Published in the Gazette March 5, 2000


            I tell my 2 ½ year old son, Eli, that I am the Fastest Diaper Changer in the West.  It’s a mad ploy to distract him—he hates to have his diaper changed.  He’ll run the other direction just to avoid a having a dry diaper put on.  But Eli is in a “no potties” phase, which I just have to ride out.

            Somewhere I read an estimate of the number of diapers you’ll change in your child’s pre-toilet-trained days.  With a calculator, I figured that I must have changed 7,285 diapers so far in my life, and if the “no potties” stage lasts much longer, I might top 8,000. 

I’ve never wanted to be an Expert Diaper Changer.  In fact, I didn’t know how to change a diaper before my first son, Robbie, was born. I remember that the nurse on duty in the Birthing Suites looked horrified when I rang for help with his diaper.  “You’ve never changed a diaper before?”  she asked.  “Well, I’ve never had one of these before,” I sheepishly replied, pointing to my infant son.

Diaper changing is just one of the many odd skills I learned in my first few years of being a parent.  Some others?

·         Holding an infant so his head doesn’t wobble.

·         Holding a conversation while a coliky baby is wailing.

·         Wiping someone else’s nose.

Many parenting skills like these are indespensible for a short time, then the need for them vanishes.  I just get ahead of the parental learning curve, and suddenly, I have to learn something entirely new.

It’s amazing what I’ve learned about the world from enthusiastic children whose obsessions and interests don’t always match my own.  While reading Robbie the many books about stars and planets he’s chosen from the library, I’ve learned that the planet Jupiter is made of swirling gasses and clouds, and that comets are huge balls of ice hurtling through space.   Eli’s interest in hot air balloons has meant that I’ve had to learn the difference between a flight burner and a parachute vent. 

The hardest part—but maybe the most revealing part—about being a parent has been learning things about myself that I didn’t know Before Kids.  

Just recently I was having a bad day at home.  The boys, who’d been cooped up indoors, kept fighting, and I’d been trying to redirect and settle them.

I was using all the helpful tactics I’d read about in parenting books.  Be firm; don’t become embroiled in their emotions.  Calmly but firmly separate the fighters, comfort the hurt, and explain what was wrong before ordering one or the other to his room to calm down before he comes back to apologize.  In a phrase:  Be the adult. 

Finally, they headed happily downstairs to play, but within seconds, I again heard yelling, and then loud cries from Eli.  I reached the playroom in time to see Robbie hitting his brother over and over. 

It was the moment that tipped me right off that steep Parental Learning Curve.

“Robbie!  Stop!”  I screamed, calm and firm parental demeanor gone.  “Upstairs to your room right now!”

Robbie came rushing at me, teeth bared, face contorted with anger.  “NO!”  he shrieked, his arms flailing out wildly toward me, toward Eli, toward the world. 

I learned something from that bad day.  Despite my belief that angry children should be met with calm firmness, and despite my resolution  that I would never spank a child—especially out of anger—I learned I am perfectly capable of screaming in rage and swatting someone’s rear end, and hard.

My only dismal hope, as we all took our “time-outs,” was that perhaps this punishment would have shown Robbie the error of his ways, and that he would never hit his brother again. But did he?

Later that afternoon, though, after the rage had dissipated from the Nesmith household, I walked hand-in-hand with Robbie upstairs for his afternoon rest. 

“You know what I wish?” he asked me.

“No, what do you wish?”

“I wish I had a hot air balloon, so that whenever you were mad and yelled or spanked me, I could fly away.”

I learned much from that bad day—and others like it—about my own limitations and how to live with them.  I learned (once again) how to make my own mistakes a learning experience for  my children as I showed them how to calm down, apologize, and figure out a difficult situation. 

But the miracle of that day was not what I learned or what my sons didn’t learn, it was the grace and forgiveness of that small hand in mine once again.

Parenting is a learn-as-you go enterprise, which is frightening when you think about how absorbant our childrens’ minds and psyches are—and when you think about how angry our children can make us sometimes.  We are saved from sure doom only by the resiliancy we encourage in our children, and by the trust we build through our love.