Wild Things

Why bad parenting is sometimes good.

By Kate Moses
Published August 15, 1997 8:04AM (EDT)

Late on a summer evening, past my bedtime and that of my two brothers, I watched from the back seat of the family station wagon as my parents vandalized someone's house with toilet paper. Night had stained the sky a deep blue, but the day's heat held, and
my father was in shirtsleeves, my mother in a sleeveless dress that showed off her long, tanned arms. The hum and warmth of the car had lulled us back to sleep after we were lifted from our beds and carried out to the garage, but now we were wide awake and staring, amazed, at our parents. My father was a melancholy lawyer and not someone given to caprice -- anything frivolous frightened him. My mother, on the other hand, was silly and playful and childlike and miserable married to my somber father. They drove each other crazy, and by the time I was 7, the landscape of my childhood
had been tainted by their mutual frustration and resentment.

And yet here they were, standing in the green shadows of somebody's front yard, casting off yards of toilet paper into the bushes and across the porch railings. My father was papering an oak tree by crouching low with a paper roll, then flinging it high into the air. The ribbon of paper would catch in a branch before tumbling to the lawn on the other side of the tree. My mother, watching my dad leaping around like a fool, bent over double with laughter. Afraid that the noise would attract attention, my father ran over, shushing her theatrically and grinning.

My brothers and I were speechless. Our parents were trespassing! They were making a mess! The neighbors would call the police! Everyone in town would know! Our parents were behaving shockingly, laughing and rolling together on the grass as the porch lights flicked on. And most shocking of all, they were having fun. In the car, we three children were also falling over each other and laughing, giddy with the prospect of our parents' happiness, however fleeting we already knew it to be.

Do we have to be reminded that it pays to have fun with our children? I don't mean the trip-to-Disneyland kind, or the shopping excursion marked by the promise of a stroll down the cereal aisle ("If you stop whining, honey, you can pick out something for tomorrow's breakfast. Won't that be fun?") or a play date with a school friend while Mom rushes around cleaning up the house. I mean true lightheartedness. Letting go for a while. Loosening up the rules. Remembering what it was like before you developed a superego.

One of the great benefits of having children is gaining the opportunity to drop the mask of adult respectability once in a while. Of course I'm not advocating anything truly foolhardy -- I'm talking about the simple stuff, like pillow fights or getting covered chin to toes with sand. And though most parents would agree that the most secure children are those who feel that adults are really in charge and taking care of them, those same kids not only think it's hilarious when adults are playful, they also learn
that it's possible to be responsible and have a good time.

It's easy to forget that children's fantasies are, for the most part, pretty basic, and it's not that hard to indulge them. They want to have fun with you, and though they may think that means reading something hideously insipid like "The Glove of Darth Vader" or playing a Raffi tape over and over and over, if you never really succumb, they'll never really be satisfied. So next time your children surround you, their eyes glazed with boredom, mumbling for you to supply them with Something To Do, live a little. Think in terms of the holy trinity of childhood: sugar, television and making a mess. If you can't come up with some fun of your own, borrow some of ours:

1. A Whipped Cream Fight. The mother of one of Salon's editors started a whipped cream fight with her kids that has taken on mythic status in family lore. Apparently none of the kids was quicker on the trigger than their spirited mom, who came totally unglued when an unsuspecting neighbor kid showed up at the front door in the middle of the melee. Anyone remember a Timothy Hutton movie called "Taps" about a military school taken over by its
cadets? And Tom Cruise, in one of his first roles, grinning insanely and crowing, "It's beautiful, man," as he sprayed machine gun fire out a dorm room window? Something like that, except with whipped cream.

2. Bottomless TV. Just what you'd think: The night before, let your kids know that they have permission to turn on the television as soon as they roll out of bed, and the set won't be turned off until they've passed out on the couch and have to be carried, limp, with their mouths hanging open, back to bed. You might not be able to spend the entire day with them in front of the tube, but on a stormy summer day it can be downright decadent
to have everyone stay in their jammies and pile up with pillows on the rug for a big fat dose of cartoons.

3. Canned Frosting. You could put it on a cake, but that would render the frosting functional, and the beauty of this particular exercise is that it's pointlessly indulgent. So get out some crackers if you must, but a spoon per person is the only accompaniment you need. (To kill more time, you could walk to the store with the kids, playing "20 Questions" on the way about the purpose of your journey.) A variation on this theme is to mix up a batch of chocolate-chip cookie dough with absolutely no intention of baking any cookies.

Kate Moses

Kate Moses is the author of "Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath" (St. Martin's.) She was the co-founder, with Camille Peri, of Salon's "Mothers Who Think" site, and she and Peri also co-edited the award-winning book "Mothers Who Think: Tales of Real-Life Parenting." She lives in San Francisco.

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