Letting the Terrorists Win
I’m used to pressure. In fact, I’m one of those freakish people who actually operate better under a fair amount of it than I do when everything’s going just swimmingly. In high school, I acquired my only-partly-facetious nickname “Emergency Lass” for jumping into musical ensembles and yearbook deadlines and graduation preparations and a whole host of other situations, and not just filling the gap adequately, but kicking a fair amount of ass at the required tasks. My last semester of college ended up comprising 22 credit hours, plus 3 for choir, my wedding, grad school applications, a car accident, and a half-time job. I got the best GPA I’d ever had stateside.
Naturally, I was angry. I mean, come on! When you do well and almost die doing it, it makes people think you can handle that level of activity and pressure all the time, and you’re left yelling at their backs, “But no! Didn’t you see me almost dying!? That wasn’t normal!”
I thought I understood pressure. But that was before.
Before Real Life.
Before I was a mom.
Before I’d lived through an NPR membership drive.
I’ve been thinking a lot about extortion lately. Our kids know summer is the lean season, typically, and they tend to be a lot better about not asking for things, always a bit of a paradox, since you’d think they’d be more desperate for distraction in the depths of those long, school-less days. But for some reason, the switch has flipped, and they are really laying on the hard sell every time we turn around. If we ask what they’re hungry for, they name a restaurant. If we say we have to go to the store, they present a list of demands. I’m surprised fuel and a plane to Cuba aren’t among them, some days.
The fact that the answer is no, has consistently been no, deters them not at all. You’ve got to admire that kind of persistence, and maybe I would if I weren’t so exhausted by the constant struggle. Because their response to “no” is as consistent as my delivery: shocked outrage, followed by whining and temper, general intractability, creative retribution, sullen slouching-about. Pick one from Column A, two from Column B.
This is not, however, the much-vaunted “culture of entitlement” you read about in the news. I get really angry about this, when people say how spoiled kids are when they ask for things they want so readily. My kids feel no more entitled to Stuff than any other kid out there, and I want them to feel comfortable asking whatever question passes through their little prefrontal corteces, so when the important ones come along, there’s no hesitation there from the time I screamed at them over a stupid Happy Meal.
They’re freaking kids. Part of the psychological profile of elementary-school-age kids is that they’re little egomaniacs — their world is SUPPOSED to revolve around their own needs and wants at that age. What about human infant rearing doesn’t encourage this way of thinking? We don’t leave bottles and dry diapers at strategic posts throughout the house, on the floor where the kid can reach them if they work hard enough to roll over there. We go to them as soon as their breathing alters; why wait until they’re cranked up to a full-on wail? Let’s be totally honest here: this is as much for our own ease and peace as it is for theirs
If you’re a bad parent, if you’re actually spoiling them, they think that’s normal at any age. But at this age? It’s normal. All I figure I can do for them is be consistent in my responses, and hand them increasingly complex rhetorical tools with which to build their appeals, so they can argue well by the time they need to make the arguments that really matter.
I joked about the MPR membership drive as the model of extortion, but if the kids were really paying attention to how to get the job done, they’d listen to those masters of soul erosion. Those same familiar voices that bring us the news and entertainment I bathe my eardrums in as I putter around the warehouse or navigate the roadways turn their earnest midwestern accents toward a singular appeal for eight days. They change up the pitch, the rhythm, the variance of pathetic and logical appeals like a championship boxer, looking for your tender spots. They dangle colorful lures in a landscape suddenly dark in the artificially imposed news blackout — of course you want a chili red diner mug that reassures you, every time you feel low, that “YOU make MPR happen.”
Even the language of membership appeals to us at our basest needs: “Become a Sustainer.” Who doesn’t want to be a sustainer to something or someone? Clearly, my kids don’t think I’m sustaining them — I say no all the time! But if I say yes to MPR, just this once, I’m a Sustainer. I sustain.” My boss thinks a better name would be “Enabler.” I think she’s probably right. At least we’d be closer to the right sentiment if, after crawling into the broom closet at work and surreptitiously dialing the number to pledge a measly $5 a month, thus obtaining the prized Chico bag with MPR logo, and confessing our breathless addiction to the infectious laughter of the Car Talk guys, we had to mutter the phrase, “I wanna be an Enabler.”
You think you can torture me? Bring it. Waterboarding is so 2006. Stress positions are nothing next to carrying all the groceries in from the car in one trip. Electrocution? Who do you think you are, Jack Bauer? Kids, pay attention. Terrorists, both foreign and domestic, take note. If you want to break people down, really get everything they’ve got and leave them begging to give you more, you don’t need to beat them, bomb them, or bankrupt them. You just need to give them a nice coffee mug and tell them you really need and appreciate them. Don’t believe me? Just ask any of the 13,500 poor slobs who fell for it in the last eight days.
Guilt and self deprecation are powerful tools. Just ask any stereotyped mother in law.
But more importantly, did you enjoy it?
Which one, the parenting, or the MPR membership? I generally get way more pleasure from the radio than my kids. 🙂
She’s kidding, of course. Our kids are a never-ending source of fun, good times, and parental satisfaction. Yes. Yes, that’s the ticket.
And they fit in the reusable Chico bag with the MPR logo, which you too can have for only $5 a month. Be a Sustainer, and carry your children when they’ll no longer walk out of the store under their own power. You know you wanna.