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By the Seat of His Pants

Why, when it comes to raising kids, you'd better be ready to improvise

 

Max and I had been at the park for only a few minutes, waiting for his best friend, Emily, to arrive so that we could all toddle off for a few hours of goose-chasing, fish-feeding, bee-fleeing fun, when he told me he had to pee.

Max, all 3 years and 32 pounds of him, has the bladder capacity of a football player, and as a result he needs to go to the bathroom about every ten hours. Today, though, he cut it way too close. When he said, "Daddy, I have to go pee-pee," the dam burst on the latter "pee."

"Stop, Max, stop!" I pleaded in my typically helpful, developmentally appropriate way, but things were beyond the little guy's control. All I could do was wait for the floodwaters to subside. Then I carried him  -- at arm's length  -- to the car to ponder our next move.

Before kids, adult life involves precious little improvisation  -- from job interviews to blind dates, things tend to be nearly as scripted as Broadway musicals and presidential campaigns. Then along comes parenthood, and we're suddenly thrust into a maelstrom of moments for which we're unprepared. It's kind of like being dropped behind enemy lines with a pack of gum and a bunch of Q-Tips. You'd better be ready to think outside the box or you'll be in serious trouble. And here was one of those moments: It was time for Superdad to bust out of his phone booth.

After removing the outfit Max had used as an outhouse, I did a sweep of our car and came up with exactly one kid-size sweatshirt. Turning it this way and that, I was struck by how it looked a whole lot like a pair of pants, albeit pants with a big hole in the crotch. I stuffed my son's legs into the sleeves of the sweatshirt and plopped him in his car seat. Then I went to work finding something to prevent the sweatshirt from falling down so he'd be able to play when Emily arrived.

Car clutter is critical to successful improvisational parenting. A clean car wouldn't yield weeks-old bags of pretzel nuggets on those days when you show up snackless at afternoon carpool. A clean car wouldn't offer crayon nubs and marginally stickable stickers for days when you need a "bag 'o car fun." And a clean car wouldn't contain pipe cleaners.

But we don't have a clean car, so we did have pipe cleaners. And when they're twisted together, three pipe cleaners, it turns out, make one snazzy upside-down sweatshirt belt (especially when your model has an 11-inch waist). Presto  -- our outing was saved and a fabulous new accessory was born.

After living seven years with Max and his older sister, Alison, certain lessons have taken root. One is that conventional wisdom is entirely too conventional for coping with the emotional and physical cyclone that is childhood. I've learned, for example, that a brain softened and pummeled by sleep deprivation is arguably more capable of producing the kind of nonlinear thinking that often works best with small people  -- like the time I told my daughter that there couldn't possibly be monsters under her bed because she's Jewish.

I can't always be that flippant when the emotional stakes are higher, as they so often are on the playground. When Alison and her friends were working through what I call their Princess Period, skirmishes would erupt over who got the lead role (usually Ariel, Beauty, or Miss Piggy) in the fantasy play of the day. Simple, seemingly logical solutions, like suggesting that there be multiple heroines, were met with derisive sneers  -- and tears.

I had to get more creative. Thus was born Ariel's previously unknown twin sister, Leira, who had legs and lived on land but longed to be a mermaid. Other new characters were added as the need arose, and after a while the kids started to make up their own.

Raising children taps every synapse and squeezes creativity out of the creatively challenged. For the truth is, all parents are just making it up as they go along. Why is that so reassuring? Because it reminds me that I am the author (or at least the coauthor) of the definitive work on rearing my kids. I have a Ph.D. in Alison and Max.

So the next time one of them has ghoul-filled nightmares, pressing questions about death, wet pants, monsters under their bed, or even just a missing shoelace, I'm the answer man.

Speaking of which, I wonder if pipe cleaners would make good shoelaces?

 

Jonathan Kronstadt is working on a collection of parenting essays.

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