Blameless

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When the lady in charge of my daughters’ daycare asked to speak to me yesterday, a familiar question crossed my mind: How have I failed as a parent this time? Daycare doesn’t expect much from my kids. All my 3-year-old and 1-year-old have to do is eat, nap, and not bite other children, and even those requirements are flexible. When my oldest daughter, Betsy, first had a mouth full of new teeth, my wife and I considered buying her a muzzle. Parents whose children develop a fondness for human flesh are liable under the same laws that punish owners whose pit bulls eat the elderly. But no matter how many children Betsy attacked a few years ago, the daycare staff didn’t kick her out. The teachers there just gave me the same knowing, disappointed look that my wife uses on me every time our eyes meet. I used to think misbehaving children were the direct result of bad parenting, but now that I’m a dad I prefer to blame the kids themselves. There’s no point in even having offspring if you can’t use them as scapegoats. I look forward to the day when my kids are old enough that society holds me as blameless for their shortcomings as I hold myself. Unfortunately, that time may never come. Long after I’m dead, I’m sure my girls will still be in therapy to complain about my parenting style and the terrible genes I gave them.

To ensure your pit bull doesn’t eat the old people next door, let him scarf down all the senior citizens he wants before he leaves the house.
The parenting failure that daycare pointed out this time involved Betsy’s dietary habits. Apparently she hasn’t eaten her lunch there in weeks. The staff assumed it was because she got more than enough food at home. Curiously, my wife and I assumed Betsy didn’t eat anything at home because she ate so much at daycare. As far as I can tell, she hasn’t actually eaten anything in months. As her father, I suppose this is my fault, just like everything else in her life. Letting a child go without food for a large portion of the year is frowned upon in most states. Despite my culpability in the eyes of daycare and the government, I’m going to dump part of the blame on my 3-year-old. Betsy has full meals in front of her three times a day that she simply chooses not to eat. Inexplicably, she’s still healthy and active, so it’s entirely possible she’s powered directly by the sun. I’m not saying that Superman is her real father; I’m merely pointing out we never had a paternity test.

Obviously, Betsy needs to eat. I refuse to have the only malnourished kid in a country where childhood obesity is a national epidemic. At the same time, force-feeding her seems counterproductive. It’s hard for me to estimate exactly how much food her tiny stomach can hold. I was going to measure it by having her swallow as many marshmallows as she could before she threw up, but my wife vetoed that plan. It’s possible that by nibbling on this and that throughout the day, Betsy gets exactly what her body needs. If that’s the case, I’ll save enough money on food in the coming years to buy something our family really needs, like a garage or a slushy machine. Flavored ice mush might not be on the food pyramid, but it fills the moat that surrounds it. Without a clear idea of when Betsy is actually hungry, forcing her to eat indiscriminately seems like a good way to get her on TLC. That network is always looking for 300-pound toddlers to exploit for its weeknight programming block. Requiring Betsy to eat at least three full meals a day, though, seems like a fair course to everyone except my daughter, who I’m sure will lament my cruelty in her memoirs someday. I, on the other hand, continue to pray that someone will come into my life and demand I eat more food for my own good. Being force-fed medicinal corn chips is as close as any living human being can come to heaven.

All of the great pyramids had moats. Unfortunately, the pharaoh had to drain them when the Egyptian Tea Party shut down the government.

Tattling is another issue that’s come up at daycare, and I’m sure I mishandled that one, too. At home, I act like Betsy doesn’t need to tell me things because I already know everything. It’s better for discipline if she thinks I’m omniscient, even when I demonstrate hundreds of times a day that I’m clearly not. It’s hard for me to convince her I’m always right when on more than one occasion I’ve tried to put her in the bathtub when she still had her socks on. At daycare, Betsy sometimes turns in other kids for their misdeeds, and I’m still not sure if I should discourage that behavior. For the most part, it’s probably useful. The ladies there can’t see everything. The last thing they need is a toddler they didn’t notice dealing meth on the playground. At the same time, Betsy, like most kids who are still too young for preschool, is at best an unreliable witness. When she says something happened yesterday, it might have occurred one day ago, one year ago, or never. Her past and her imagination blur together so that her stories are as likely to feature her sister or her grandparents as they are a monster truck or Snow White. In her version of the Disney classic, the princess pops a wheelie and runs over all seven dwarves. The daycare ladies have come to trust her, though, at least on things that seem plausible. If Betsy says a kid is getting ready to jump out of a tree, her teachers believe her; but if she says the kid was chased up there in the first place by zombies, they smile politely and blame me later. Then they all get eaten because her zombie story was totally legit.

I haven’t taught my daughter what to do in case of a fire or a tornado, but we drill twice a week on what to do when the dead come back to life.

I firmly believe in taking personal responsibility, except for things that are clearly my fault, which I blame on everyone else. I want my kids to take the fall when they screw up while I slowly back away and pretend I don’t know them. I’m responsible for both their nature and their nurture, yet I believe their free will somehow absolves me from guilt. Anything wrong with their inherited mental processes or their learned behavior can be no more than 50 percent my fault. My wife has just as much to do with their upbringing as I do, so I suspect all the bad stuff comes from her. It looks like I’m off the hook again.