The stream from the water gun catches me under my skirt and I holler. And then the little bum shoots again. “Cinder!” I yell, tossing my own empty water gun far, far away from me. “Look, no weapon! I’m out!” He blasts me again.
“Dude! Remember that carrot cake we’re planning to get when we go to Eau Claire? There are two distinct futures ahead of you. One of them involves eating a delicious carrot cake. The other has me poking you in the bohunkus with a fork. Which one are you going to choose?”
My friend Neela, skirting the edges of the water gun fight, laughs. “That’s an interesting parenting technique,” she says, half-serious. “You should blog about it.”
“And call it what, how to disguise threats, punishments and rewards with words?” I ask. I’m soaking wet. Cinder’s backed off; he’s chasing Flora and her friend Jenny now. They’re still fully armed and firing back.
Neela gives my flippant statement serious thought. “Words are powerful,” she says. “Syntax, semantics, all that matters. I’d never say, ‘If you get into your pajamas, girls, I’ll get you ice cream.’ But I do say…” she thinks for a moment… “Oh, ‘Girls in pajamas who report to the kitchen will get ice cream.’” She laughs. “Because, you know, ice cream before bed is a routine snack in my house.” (I leave it up to you to determine if she’s joking or not… or if it matters.)
Neela and I round up the combatants and take them to Eau Claire. The moms get coffee; the kids sweets. Cinder gets carrot cake, not a fork in the bohunkus. Flora gets a lecture about gratitude, and Neela and I talk about … gratitude, entitlement, and the too-easy-too-cross line between coercive discipline and … what? we’re not quite sure what to call it. Words, words, words. But as Neela said before, and says again, words are important.
Cinder’s running around, stealing Jenny’s shoes in order to lure her off the blanket where she’s chatting with Flora and get her to chase him. Then he plays Frisbee with Ender. Then returns to “annoying the girls.” Later, he’ll tell me, “Well, the trip wasn’t a total loss. I got to annoy the girls.” “D’you have to do that?” I’ll sigh. “It’s sort of my job,” he’ll retort.
And my job, as Cinder’s mother, is to… well, to make sure that the “annoying the girls” doesn’t cross a certain line. To encourage peace and harmony when possible, and to minimize the bloodshed (usually metaphorical) and help negotiate truces and separations when necessary.
And to muddle along that path the best way I can, on any given day, in any given moment. And yeah, sometimes it means waving the carrot (cake).
(You know I’d never really poke him in the bohunkus with a fork, right? He knows I’d never do it. I’m pretty sure he knows… hold on. “Cinder? Do you think I’d ever poke you in the butt with a fork?” Pause. “Probably not. Um… Well, you might.” “Really? You think I’d…” “I think if I poked you first, you might.” “But you’re not gonna, right?” “Well…” Fuck. Not exactly the reassurance I was looking for…)
The muddling continues.
For “Neela.” Based on events of August 1, 2012. First published August 3, 2012, Nothing By The Book.