Blood, Phlegm & Bile:
Parenting with Humor

February
Parenting Secrets of the Zen Masters


Like nature, I abhor a vacuum. Especially when it's time to clean the house.

But when you have children crawling around, it's very important to keep the house free of harmful dirt, dust, and Barney videos. I don't mind a little clutter--having a few hundred smiling anthropomorphic train engines strewn about is the natural result of creative play. But I also know that every particle of grime that I sweep up is one that would otherwise probably end up in my kids' mouths. I'm motivated, but after completing all the other essential daily tasks, like making dinner, playing with the kids, putting them to bed, reading the paper, playing the guitar, surfing the internet, and watching Conan O'Brien, it seems like there's just no time to clean. Not enough hours in the day, am I right?

And cleaning a house where children live is like the old saying about painting the Golden Gate Bridge: as soon as you're done, you feel like jumping over the rail. Wait, that's not it. It's time to start all over again. You pick up the clutter, sweep, dust, mop, and vacuum. Then you go to the kitchen for two seconds to get a glass of water, and when you come back, it's like you were never there. You're ankle-deep in Cheerios, applesauce is dripping from the ceiling, and you start again. I just wanted to tidy up a bit, and all of a sudden I'm starring in the Myth of Sisyphus.

Remember Sisyphus? He's the guy in Greek mythology who had to spend eternity pushing a big rock up a steep hill. Then, when he finally got it to the top, he went to answer the phone and one of his kids ran in and pushed it back down to the bottom.

Are our children punishing us like the gods punished Sisyphus? Is a messy house, as Camus described pushing the rock, the "price that must be paid for the passions of this earth"? We all feel that way sometimes.

But don't let these frustrations drive you to negative behaviors like getting angry at the kids or reading French existentialists. Let's look at the bright side. You know how you try to make everything into a learning experience for your children? Well, did you know that your kids are graciously doing the same thing for you? It may seem like they are wreaking random havoc in the house, but actually your children are teaching you important lessons in subjects like science and philosophy every single day! Here's just a sample of the curriculum:

Science

To the untrained eye, your children are simply running around trashing your house. But in fact they are giving you a highly educational demonstration of the important scientific concept known as entropy. Entropy is nature's tendency toward chaos and disorder. My older son Henry is such a pioneer in this field that scientists have coined a special term--hentropy--to describe the mysterious force that continually moves every object in my house to a different, randomly selected location. To give just one example, the other night, while I was sitting on the bed playing with baby Daniel, Henry came running up the stairs and into the room. He handed me the plastic latch that is supposed to keep him from opening the kitchen cabinet where we keep the toxic cleaning substances. He said "Here, Dad", turned, and ran back out of the room. What a useful lesson in the futility of trying to impose order on my environment! There I was getting annoyed about the messy house, when I should be grateful to my children for such valuable learning experiences.

Philosophy

The endlessly repetitive process of maintaining a clean and safe environment for our children despite their determined efforts to the contrary can bring about negative emotions like frustration, anger, and carpal-tunnel. But recently I had an experience that put it all in perspective. I watched two Zen Buddhist monks create a "mandala" sand painting. Over several days, they meticulously placed grains of sand on a table to form a beautiful geometric pattern. When the painstaking work was finally done, everybody admired it for a little while, and then the sand was swept up and dumped into a nearby stream.

As I watched, it occurred to me that being a parent is like being a Zen monk. What, you may ask, does living in a house with small children have in common with the teachings of Buddhism? The realization that life is suffering? Au contraire! The long periods of quiet contemplation? Yeah, right. I am referring to the joy of creating something beautiful--a representation of the divine in their case, a nice tidy home in mine--that is destined to be destroyed almost immediately.

The monks don't mind this, and neither should we. In fact, they believe the mandala is beautiful because it is temporary. It is so precious precisely because it must end, just like life itself, or, even more poignantly, like the pure joy of walking across a room without twisting your ankle on a power ranger.

So try to think of housework as a form of meditation. And check this out: the monks believe everyone who participates in the mandala process is purified and blessed. The very act of picking up that lego piece for the millionth time can take you one step closer to enlightenment!

Yeah, just keep telling yourself that. But if you ever visit the Bay Area, you should probably stay off the Golden Gate Bridge.

© 2012 John Hershey

Other Father Issues, Books

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Parents are the bones on which children sharpen their teeth. - Peter Ustinov

John Hershey is a dad, a writer, and a lawyer (in that order). He writes a syndicated biweekly humor column about parenting and family life.. His columns have been published or accepted for publication on websites and in magazines around the world, from Maine to Oregon, Colorado down to Texas, and down under in Australia.

Blood, Phlegm & Bile: Parenting with Humor appears monthly on menstuff.org. But, why the gross title? Well, for one thing these are three substances with which every parent becomes quite familiar. They were also called the "humors" by medieval scientists who believed that the proportion of these bodily fluids determined a person's health and temperament. So it's a pun! A pun requiring a lengthy explanation, but a pun nonetheless. E-Mail



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