When I was a new, young junior high teacher, I remember writing in my journal at the end of one particularly difficult day, I hope when I can finally joke around with the kids without losing control of the class, I haven’t lost my sense of humor. It seemed to me that whenever I related a funny story or quip to my class, students would grab onto it and use it as a launching pad for their own comedy show. Pretty soon, the class was in an uproar, and what I had meant to be a funny way to get a point across had turned into 15 minutes of lost class time as I struggled to get the kids back on track.
While I eventually learned how to use humor in the classroom, it was always a balancing act. Too much and I risked the students not taking the lesson seriously; too little and I ended up with a dry, boring class that even I couldn’t stand.
Now, as a parent, I see that my humor is at risk once more, but in a different way. I am at risk for taking myself too seriously.
If humor is, as Webster defines it, “that quality which appeals to a sense of the ludicrous or absurdly incongruous,” parenting should be one of the funniest jobs there is. In any given day in our household, there are many, many ludicrous or absurdly incongruous moments. There are two small girls who ask, when it is six degrees outside, why they can’t wear their sleeveless leotards. There are two boys who can spend hours at a time shooting a ball at a 10-foot tall basket, but who cannot take 15 seconds to shoot their dirty socks at their 2-foot tall hamper, which has a very wide rim. There are conversations between the nine-year-old and the four-year-old where the entire point of the conversation seems to be to prove the other person wrong, on an issue that has no bearing in either of their lives. There is one person who feels very strongly about drinking from a cup with a certain cartoon character on the front, and would rather have this cup — even if she is not thirsty — than see anyone else use it. And just this morning, one of the girls asked me if she had kindergarten in the morning or the afternoon, even though she has been going every afternoon for six months now. It is ludicrous and it is absurd, and I need to somehow laugh about it more.
But like balancing humor in the classroom, balancing humor as a parent can be tricky. My boys love it when I joke with them about forgetting to do their jobs.
“Won’t it be great when the dishwasher fairy comes tonight?” I said one evening. “I know that must be why you haven’t emptied the dishwasher even though I’ve asked you about 12 times to do it. Does she look like the tooth fairy? She must be stronger, since she has to put all these dishes away.” The boys grinned and sheepishly started their job, with Liam, 9, going on and on (and on) about the dishwasher fairy’s attributes.
It became a happier family moment than it would have been if I had docked them each dessert for not following directions. Yet, I also know, that if I don’t dock them dessert, or send them to time-out for arguing, or take away toys for not sharing them, I will never be able to teach them that these things are important and expected. So it’s a balance. But for me, the danger is that in the midst of so many ludicrous moments, many of which require me to discipline, redirect or correct someone, that I will lose site of the absurdity and in doing so, destroy any drive at all to talk about dishwasher fairies.
We have a big dress-up chest in the basement and often, the two little girls will walk around the house in costume — Jamie as a fuzzy brown bear, T as a dragon with a spiky tail. They have no idea how cute they look, and Bill suggested once that we keep them in costume as much as possible, because it reminds him of how small they are and in his words, “what a limited IQ they have to work with.” Bill maintains it’s easier for him to be patient with Jamie when she’s fussing at him with ears on the top of her head and a tail.
And Bill is so right. When it comes down to it, they are all so young and short and inexperienced at life. And the more I can remember this and laugh — even in my mind —the better we all will be for it. So this Lent, I’ve decided to give up a little bit of my seriousness as a parent. I’m giving up a little bit of my belief that if I don’t teach them to put their dishes in the sink right now, they’ll never learn it. I’m giving up some of my unrealistic expectations for rationality, and trying to enter more into the absurd. I’m living with four people who have varying degrees of incongruity in just about everything they say and do. And it’s time to laugh.