Although I believe that children are much the same from generation to generation, it seems increasingly obvious to me that they are also becoming more sophisticated and skeptical when it comes to parental directives and admonitions.
I think back to the fixed phrases my parents would use to make me come to heel. For example, when I'd make a face, my mother had that old saw at the ready, delivered with a wag of her finger: "Your face will freeze like that!" I remember being horrified by this possibility, and I quickly dropped my expression and went on to needle my parents in some other way.
Although I had forsworn using such false warnings on my children, I recently became a victim of my own past experience. When I placed supper before my 6-year-old the other day, he made a sort of protohuman expression of revulsion. Although I couldn't believe I was saying it, out it came: "Anton, your face will freeze like that." The result? He doubled his efforts to distort his face even more, if such a thing were possible.
Other expressions of parental disapproval come to mind. Perhaps one of the most familiar is reserved for kids who won't eat. This past Thanksgiving I took both my sons to a nice restaurant. The helpings of food were immense, a feast with a capital F. But when the waitress laid the repast before Anton, he shook his head and declared, "I'm not hungry."
Out it tumbled, from my very lips: "There are children in the world who don't have anything to eat at all."
"That's right," chimed in my 17-year-old, seldom an ally but making an exception for the special day.
Anton would have none of it. "Then give them my food!" he said before crossing his arms and staring into the distance.
And then there is the time-honored tactic of pronouncing a child's entire given name, to indicate the seriousness of a situation. When I was a boy, "Robert Thomas Klose!" was enough to bring me around, especially when accompanied by my mom's planting her fists on her hips. But I used this device only once on my son, after several failed attempts to get his attention by uttering only his first name. "Anton Alexander Kornilov Klose!" I said, in a firm and husky voice. But he only looked at me, waved me off, and said, "That's so funny!"
What's a parent to do?
It's as if kids today have read some book that was written and handed down by their predecessors designed to fill them in on the strategies their parents employ to gain their cooperation. I picture a large, leather-bound incunabulum with brass hinges, its title engraved in gold: "Things Your Parents Say To Make You Obey."
As the modern parent I perceive myself to be, I have tried to come up with my own prompts to get my kids to toe the line. My guiding principle is that, unlike the freezing face or starving foreign children rubrics, my rationales be both true and less abstract.
The other day, for example, Anton was sprawled out on the sofa, watching TV. As I passed through the room he called out to me, with an insouciance befitting a pampered prince, "Bring me a banana."
I stopped and threw him an incredulous look. "Anton," I said, "you shouldn't tell me to bring you food when you can get it yourself."
"Why not?" he challenged.
I realize in retrospect that I should have simply said, "Because I said so," but I try to use that particular maneuver sparingly, lest Anton become immune to it. Instead, I made a stab at what I thought was a more rational approach. "Well," I began, taking a modest breath, "when Daddy wants a drink of orange juice he doesn't ask you to get it for him."
Without a moment's hesitation, my son pulled himself up off the sofa, went to the refrigerator, poured a glass of orange juice, and handed it to me.
Then he returned to the sofa and said, "Now will you bring me a banana?"
When I was a kid, parent-child relations were like a Ping-Pong game: There was some give and take, but the winners (my parents) were fore ordained. Today it seems to be more of a chess game, and I fear that my king is on the run.