Kids Do Weird Shit: One More Reason Parenting is So Hard

About 8 or 9 years ago, the writer Reginald McKnight was on our campus doing a reading and a Q&A session for our students. McKnight’s collection The Kind of Light that Shines on Texas is a really nice collection of stories exploring the emerging post-civil rights community. His minority characters exist in a world where they are “representatives” of their race, whether they know it or not. Such is the plight of any minority in recently desegregated classrooms or office buildings. Or, perhaps, the plight of any minority even in our post-racial, post-discriminatory America. McKnight’s collection draws a bead on how we so easily reduce the one black person (or gay friend, or hispanic friend, or [insert minority here]) we know into the whole. (Creating, of course, the irony that we are not really “post” anything.)

In the title story of the collection, one of the kids walks into class every day, spits in the crease of his elbow, rubs the saliva around, and then lays his head on the desk. It smells like mayonnaise, the narrator tells us. If I had the collection with me, I would let McKnight’s much better language build the scene, but, suffice it to say, it’s odd. During the Q&A session after his reading, one of our students asked McKnight what the significance was of that scene. Clearly, the student saw the moment as allegorical or metaphorical, perhaps a commentary on the irrelevance of the public school system on integration or an attempt to rub the “blackness” off.

McKnight looked at the student. “I don’t know. ” He paused, looked at the table and then back up. “Kids do weird shit.”

He wasn’t being flippant. He added, after the laughter in the room died down, that it wasn’t the job of the writer to deliver meaning, but the role of the critic and reader to infer, develop, and think critically about the language and the story. Literature, McKnight added, is a puzzle where meaning emerges as we encounter the text.

As a professor, I loved McKnight’s answer. I’m no fan of biographical criticism and, I tell my students, we must move beyond assuming the author is master of her own work. The narrator and the author are two very different people. As D.H. Lawrence told us oh so many years ago, we must trust the tale not the teller. Authors are liars by trade. Like teenagers trying to craft an excuse after coming in past curfew, what authors write and what they say they meant are often two very different things.

I’ve thought of McKnight as good bit as a parent over the years also. Like all kids, my boys are prone to doing things that make absolutely no sense. One of my sons didn’t start talking (or walking for that matter) until it was absolutely necessary. The other came sprinting out of the womb letting us know what he wanted and when. We wondered if they both had an attention deficit disorder because one never seemed to pay attention and the other might get so focused on one thing the world could end and he wouldn’t notice.

Like most parents, we’ve watched our kids be lazy, hate school, throw fits, struggle with ethics, act half-crazy, be sweet, rude, stupid, dangerous, and everything else in between.

Fortunately, we had great friends around us whose kids did the same things and we could look back at our own childhoods for reference. When I came home one day to watch my sons jumping off the roof onto the trampoline, my wife reminded me that she and her sister used to ride a rope swing, together, off the barn roof. When my older son forgot to get rid of the red solo cup package and throw the beer cans into the neighbor’s trash instead of ours, I was reminded that I once put the whiskey bottle under the house in clear view from the back yard.

If you are a parent, pause for a moment and count the number of times you said “What were you thinking!?”

When my wife and I wondered about the intellectual ability of our kids, usually late at night after watching various particularly inane displays of what will eventually become great stories we tell our grand kids, the answer seems obvious:

Kids do weird shit.

I can’t help but think we need this reminder more often as we discuss children and teens.

There is no doubt that parenting is hard work. We have to sacrifice our own self-interests as we help our kids learn to make good choices. We also want what is best for our kids and we want them to have good, clean, pain free lives. We brought them into this world and we sure as heck don’t want to watch them suffer while they are in it.

But just because your son can’t speak complete sentences at 20 months doesn’t mean he needs a speech therapist. When little Johnny throws a fit and refuses to pick up his clothes, he’s not being a hooligan. If Suzy isn’t  reading before kindergarten, she still has a shot at going to college. If your 2 year old bites his brother (or his friends), it doesn’t mean he has the taste for human flesh. (If he lights the family pet on fire and starts running with scissors, disregard anything I’ve said.)

Certainly, I’m not advocating that we stop concerning ourselves with the idiocy that is our children, but we also need to remember that life is a marathon not a sprint. Over the course of 18 years, our kids will do weird shit but not everything they do is worthy of our obsession or our therapist. Good parents disappoint their children. Good children, at some point, disappoint their parents.

In the meantime, let’s let them be kids and, most importantly, let’s let them be weird.

 

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

2 Responses to Kids Do Weird Shit: One More Reason Parenting is So Hard

  1. Diana Shaw says:

    My youngest boy took to early learning very well. My 2nd boy hardly said a word till he was almost 3 years old, then all of a sudden spoke in full sentences. Kids learn differently and have different gifts. But so important to their success in school and life is reading and social skills.

    My first boy started at 20 months, but he was exceptional. The others were plenty interested in my reading games by age 3.

    I could not afford preschool for my kids. But I found some programs that helped me give them a head start before kindergarten.

    I got my kids started early to read…before they ever entered kindergarten. I can’t overstate how much it helped their overall confidence level in all subjects. My first boy started reading before age 3. As he entered first grade and they told me he was reading on the 5th grade level. Kids love reading when they can learn with no pressure. He is interested in so many things. He’s just a tiny little guy but he loves T-Ball, soccer and football…and he’s pretty good at all of them. But learning to read I think is what gave him so much confidence in other areas.

    DianaS
    Early2Read.com

  2. lsurrett2 says:

    Weird is definitely more interesting and provides much more imagination.

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