Some parts of parenting aren’t tricky. You shouldn’t spank. You should play with your kids. You should kiss their boo-boos. You should listen to their stories. You should tell them not to pick their nose or grab their teachers’ boobies. The harder lessons to teach are the ones that take awhile – how to be patient, how to put yourself to sleep – and are not so obvious.
When it comes to eating, unless you’ve completely given up and serve nothing but pizza and French fries, most of us try to serve a healthy variety, switching things up with different vegetables, different spices, different preparations, to broaden our kids’ palates. Inevitably, the ancient discussion begins with the tyke uttering the words he doesn’t know yet is a cliché: “I don’t like this.”
“You haven’t even tried it.”
“I don’t want to try it. It’s yucky.”
Strategies and results vary, but most parents cycle through threats and bribery, until the kid gives the food a tentative lick. Sometimes the child will enthusiastically go for it after that. I’ve seen it happen, as recently as last night, with a slice of mango that looked strange and slimy before it went down. More often, this obligatory taste is followed by a stubborn refusal to eat more.
“I told you I don’t like it.”
“Well, you haven’t learned to like it yet,” I’ve begun saying. “We’ll try it again later.”
The reason I’ve adopted that phrase when the battle over a particular foodstuff is over is that I want Mikey to understand that eating is a learning experience. Your taste-buds don’t know what to make of unusual foods until they have to be trained.
The same is true of all sorts of activities, and this is where parents have to draw different lines in the sand. Initially, we want to sign up our kids for every activity, sport, and club that we come across. Of the three after-school activities offered at Mikey’s preschool, we were informed he was interested in all: dancing, music, and gymnastics. I’m enough of a cynic to note when I’m probably being milked, but indulgent enough not to care much. If Mikey wants to try something, that’s all we need to hear.
I see evidence all the time that he’s getting something out of gymnastics. The springs of his bed and our patio screen door have all suffered for his craft. Somersaults and handstands are typical means of locomotion around our house. And as for music, we get monthly CDs in his cubby so we can play the tunes and sing along. Half the slots in our car’s CD changer are filled with kids’ CDs, which might make you the gentle reader recoil in horror until you look at the other ones. In his collection is Ziggy Marley and Willie Nelson’s duet of the old spiritual “This Train.” In our collection is Barry Manilow’s rendition of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love, Baby.” Which I sing out loud with gusto and no idea what key I should even be attempting.
Dance, that’s a little different. Like his dads, Mikey loves to dance. There doesn’t need to be music for him to jump up and grab our hands and say, “Let’s dance!”
My dancing’s received mixed reviews from the public. There are those, like my brother, who say it’s not fit for decent folk, and there are others, like my husband, who think I’m Nureyev if he had talent. It’s hard to know who to believe, but I’m leaning towards Ian’s opinion. My son thinks that I’m awesome because I’m all ham.
Besides enthusiasm and some elementary rhythm, what do you really expect from a three-year-old’s dancing abilities? He has started a peculiarly adult hip swivel, almost a mock Elvis, which I thought he might have picked up in dance class. When I asked him, he denied it. It’s probably something he picked up from TV. Ian’s addicted to all the dreadful “So You Think You Can Dance?” and “Dancing with the Stars” shows, which tend to be on just an hour past the official bedtime of the boy, when he’s really not asleep and looking for a distraction.
Now, you’re thinking that if you’re not sure about the lessons your child is receiving, shouldn’t you check it out yourself? Ian did that, and reported back that it consisted of Mikey and two other kids from the preschool class, shuffling around inside, while the rest of the kids – those whose parents weren’t paying extra for the privilege – ran around the playground, shrieking with joy. We asked Mikey if he still liked his dance class. He swore he did. It was about that time we were invited to the recital.
The theme was classic rock and roll, with the title “At the Bop.” The pamphlet we received in the mail asked us to bring our little dancer to a local high school gym on Saturday at mid-day. The boys’ costume was jeans and a plain white T-shirt, and it was suggested to add an additional bopper look to slick back their hair.
Our boy has hair that drifts from afro to dreds. Slicking it back is not an option.
In period costume and non period hair, we arrived on the scene. Our preschool was represented on stage by Mikey, one other boy, and one other girl, but there were three other preschools who joined them to fill the ranks. About 30 girls to 5 boys.
Like all the other parents in the audience, our video camera and still cameras were raised, anticipating capturing our prodigy as he took flight with pirouettes, plies, grand jetes, and maybe a little soft shoe. There was one boy, conspicuously placed by the teacher in the middle, who evidently only answered to the stage name “Jack Sparrow” and danced with the girls, except for the girl from our school who glared at him. The other boy from Mikey’s class burst into tears and was taken off stage two minutes into the performance. The other boys from all the other preschools, including Mikey, stared at one another and the audience. Minute after minute.
For 45 minutes which felt like 45 hours in a hot auditorium.
Like middle-aged groupies, we parents rushed the stage at the end of the performance. When we asked why Mikey hadn’t danced, he professed concern for his friend who had been taken off stage. There might be a little truth in that, since he kept looking in that direction during the recital. More to the truth is that three-year-old boys, except for the Jack Sparrows, don’t go for dance performance like the girls. Evidently, Mars and Venus choose their battlegrounds even that soon after birth.
And we parents of boys who just stand around end up giving luke-warm praise like, “Well, you looked so cute.” Talk about a gender role reversal.
So, we’re left with the question about whether we need to get more involved and teach enthusiasm for the art of dance, or if we should just shrug and save ourselves the $50 a month and let him play outside with all the happy kids in his class.
It’s at times like this I turn to the words of wisdom of the great W.C. Fields:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again. Then quit. No use being a damn fool about it.”