The more experience I get as a parent, the more sympathy I have for my own forebears. I’m pretty sure my parents didn’t make it a habit to default to generic parental clichés too terribly often, but I heard the phrase “Because I said so!” often enough (possibly from other kids’ parents) that I formed a distinct disdain for it early on. It’s annoying as a kid because it’s a conversation stopper: You get chastised for something, you question the motivation and the response you get is a circular reference to logic by way of authority. Well excuse me for trying to understand you, parent! My suspicion as a child was always that adults didn’t actually even have a reason why something was forbidden or disallowed, their directives were based on an unknowable algorithm of random chance, whim and some inexplicable currency system on my part involving chores, cuteness and consideration for my sibling.
But as parenthood for me approaches its second anniversary, I realize that the problem isn’t that parent’s lack motive. In fact, the problem is quite the opposite: We have too many reasons, and they are too complex to describe in situ for each and every infraction. If we parents were to recount the entirety of our rationale for our various sand-drawn lines, we’d never get anything else done.
My daughter, for instance, has a bad habit of pushing back from the dinner table when she’s done (her high chair has wheels) and then propping her typically bare feet on the table. Since she stopped sitting at a tray-bearing chair some nine or ten months ago this has been an ongoing, near nightly battle. Now, my daughter has yet to master the plaintive “But whyyyyy?” Don’t think for a second though that when she drops her feet in response to a sharp directive from me and then immediately, before I even turn my head back to my meal, replaces her feet exactly where they were when I admonished her nanoseconds before that the message isn’t “Your instruction does not contain sufficient rationale to modify my behavior. Dad.”
Now, I suppose I could in theory offer her the following explanation:
Callie, sweetheart, you need to put your feet down because the table is a surface we eat off of and your frequently bare feet are typically dirty and therefore unsanitary which could potentially cause an entirely avoidable illness. But furthermore, even if the threat of disease weren’t sufficient reason, there is a base level of decorum and politeness which your foot-propping undermines, a sort of social malaise that indicates you have no respect for the meal, the others you share the table with or the effort that was put into the preparation of the food you just enjoyed. I’m instructing you to remove your feet from the table because it’s part of a broader effort to instill in you the notion of politeness, consideration for others and class which, ideally, will prevent you from growing into a horrific boor, a savage in conventional social settings who embarrasses yourself, those around you and not least of all us as your mother and father. We are tasked with imparting these principles on you and there is a broad range of general guidelines as well as specific rules our culture has developed which fall under the heading “manners:” They help to establish parameters of respect for your fellow humans and demonstrate that you are civilized, ascended from the bestial state that may, at this stage in your life, come more naturally. Right now you may not realize that us asking you to say “please” and “thank you,” that our insistence that we all sit down together and eat as a collective and remain at the table until everyone has finished their food, that our concern over where you put your unwanted food particles (i.e. not on the floor) and this oh-so-frequent request to keep your feet off the dining surface are all part of a much higher level project. But trust me when I say that you need to keep your feet off the table because no daughter of mine is going to be thirteen and at a friend’s house for dinner where that child’s parents—our contemporaries—watch in open-mouthed horror as you wolf down your food with your fingers as if it were some sort of feeding trough, loose a trumpeting blast of flatulence and a soul-rattling belch, kick off your shoes and cross your sweaty sock-funky feet on their rosewood dining table and demand dessert before this hypothetical host family has even settled in their seats. It is equal parts concern for your personal reputation and ability to normalize within society and deep-set desire to never have to receive a phone call (or telepathic hyperlink or whatever we’re using in the year 2022) from a fellow parent with that sort of reporting attached that causes me, here and now, to tell you for the six hundredth time to get. Your. Feet. Off. The. Table!
But let’s face it, I’d get about two sentences in and her gigantic blue eyes would puddle up with uncomprehending tears and I’d trail off and scoop her into my arms and whisper into her straw-colored hair that it was alright, everything was okay and Daddy would always love her. In moments where my frustration bubbles over she feels my angst and she expresses her remorse in the most pitiful fashion. In these moments I want to tell her: “Forget it, sweetness. Put your feet on the table. Drop those 118-decibel burps. Some cultures think that means the food was great! Toss your food wherever you like. Hey a food fight or two never hurt anyone, right? We could all stand to lighten up a little! Whatever you do, don’t look at me like I’ve broken your tiny, fragile heart with my words, okay?” I don’t want the puppet strings to show too brazenly in front of Nikki, after all. I usually settle on cradling her in my arms until the sniffles stop.
Then ever so gently, I set her back in her high chair, kiss her lightly on the forehead, and return to my seat where the next glance in her direction reveals that she’s propped ten small, filthy toes right on top of her plate and is grinning at me like Al Pacino playing Satan in The Devil’s Advocate with her hands folded behind her reclined head. And I swear her incomplete set of teeth are sharp.