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Letting Kids Rule

It was the morning after "TV-free week," and I was tired and crabby. I lay in bed, trying to separate the aches from the angst. We'd been creative and artistic for a week; we needed to veg out. So when Cal, 6, woke up that Monday with a cough, I fairly crowed, "You're staying home -- let's watch a movie!"

Going for broke, I decided to call off all rules till dinnertime. Cal and his sister, Lily, 2, could eat what they wanted, when they wanted. They could watch hours of videos or tattoo themselves with markers or play any game they chose, as long as eyes and limbs weren't at risk. Of course I didn't tell them about my plan. Why traumatize my children with the knowledge that I could be their dream mom any day I wanted -- I'd just never wanted to before?

"A movie?" Cal asked, checking to see if I had the "dentist is your friend" smile.

"Absolutely." I watched as he got The Lion King. Places, everyone. Action!

7:30 a.m. I pour myself coffee and open the newspaper, trying not to giggle and disturb my mesmerized kids. When I'm done with the paper, I make the beds, wash the dishes, and start the laundry. I'm pouring a second cup when Lily pipes up.

"Mommy, can I have a cookie?" A test. Lily knows the three essential food groups: food (the stuff you get at meals), snacks (chips, fruit rolls, cookies), and treats (ice cream, soda, cake, candy -- pretty much everything served at birthday parties).

"One cookie coming up," I say.

"I want one too!" Cal calls from the couch. Sweets for breakfast while watching a video in pj's on a weekday morning. This is going well.

9 a.m. As The Lion King credits roll, I feel a stab of fear, but Cal goes into the kids' bedroom and within moments Lily follows. I turn on my computer and answer e-mail, then go to their room for a look. The rug between the beds is filled with rows of plastic dinosaurs. Neither child notices that I'm at the door. I tiptoe away and make some phone calls. I'm headed into the shower when Lily hunts me down: "Can you read to me, Mommy?"

10:30 a.m. Having just finished 18 books about Winnie-the-Pooh and his posse, I am reconsidering my plan. Now Cal has a suggestion. "Can we do experiments?" he asks.

I look at his lovely little face, so filled with hope and joy. He has four large books cradled in his arms. I recognize these books. These are the ones with titles like Lose a Finger: A Hundred Experiments You Can Do at Home!

"Experiments!" Lily squeals. She has sensed my resistance and made the classic choice of the second child: She's hopped on the sib train. I won't be showering for a while.

Pamela Marin is writing a memoir to be published by Free Press.

The Afternoon Stretch

Noon I'm sprawled on the couch. My children are chasing each other from room to room. The table is covered with experiments: a big, sticky soda bottle with a deflated balloon on top, bowls of salty water and floating eggs, stinky plates of vinegar and baking soda and food coloring. I gaze at a magazine cover and telepathically beg Russell Crowe to come rescue me.

"I'm hungry," Cal says.

"Go look and see what you want," I say, triggering a brother-sister race to the fridge. They come up with a complicated little-of-this, little-of-that menu, more than I'd normally do for lunch. But it's all healthy enough, so I say fine and haul myself off the couch.

1:15 p.m. I'm in the shower, and their voices are getting louder by the minute. Lily begins to cry. I try to coax her into the bathroom so I can comfort her and rinse the shampoo. No sale. I grab a towel and drip down the hall to their room. Cal's got his back turned, furious. Lily's in hysterics. Yes, I recognize these children as my own.

1:45 p.m. I'm in the glider, still wrapped in a damp towel. Lily has fallen asleep in my arms. I put her to bed, dress quickly, and go to the kids' room. Cal is reading in bed. He looks up. "Can we play Clue?"

3:30 p.m. Cal and I have played Clue and Monopoly Jr. and Sorry, and now Lily's waking from her post-traumatic-stress sleep. She's fussy. Cal grumbles at losing my undivided attention. I have an idea.

"We usually have a treat when you come home from school, Cal, so I was thinking..." I don't have to finish. With minimum help they settle at the table with bowls of ice cream. Then I hear the magic words: "Can we watch TV?" They watch. I read about Russell Crowe's newfound domestic bliss. My own experiment is just about over -- soon I'll need to cajole my kids through our regular dinner-bath-bedtime routine. And while I wouldn't want to end up in a 12-step meeting saying "My name is Pamela, and I'm a permissive mom," I think I'll let my kids rule now and then.

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