Parent, heal thyself

Lately, every time I walk past my bookcase, the same two volumes catch my eye. They’re identical, with garish yellow dust jackets emblazoned with the bold red title, Have a New Kid by Friday. They’re courtesy copies sent to Minnesota Parent by a publicist who hopes they will impress reviewers like me, who will then encourage people to run right out and buy them. Perhaps a few of us will even test-drive their secrets on our own wee folk.

Not me. Each trip past the shelf just leaves me with more vexing questions. Why Friday? Why not Have a New Kid in Five Days, or One Week to an Uber-Kid? Presumably the book lays out several steps to effect this transformation. And: If such miracle transformations are in fact possible, how does one explain our collective addiction to therapy? Did they send me two copies because my family is doubly in need of a makeover?

Most problematic: Why would I want a new kid? Can’t I keep the ones I have and just yell less?

I finally pulled down one of the volumes the other day, and I don’t think it’s too much of a spoiler to tell you that you are not meant to start reforming Junior on a Thursday. Beyond that, I can report that it contains some useful tidbits; more on those in a minute. The title, however, is all wrong. It makes the kid out to be the problem, but the reasonable (if far from revolutionary) advice inside seems aimed at reforming the parents.  

This thought propelled me back to the shelf, where cursory examination revealed a host of titles in the same vein. Unspoil Your Child — Fast! abutted Taming Your Spirited Child — which, incidentally, takes the feral kid bit to a new low by suggesting parents build an “eight-sided corral.” Why eight sides? Gentle reader, I love writing this column—but not enough to have read on far enough to know that answer.

Instead, I got nostalgic for the Berenstain Bears. In case you’ve been parenting from the space station or in a yurt, the four members of the Berenstain Bear family played out domestic dramas in, oh, 600 or 700 skinny paperbacks that followed a narrative arc as predictable as a James Bond plot.

Brother Bear and/or Sister Bear encounter a roadblock in life or, in the series’ later books, lapse into some irascible cub behavior. Papa Bear tries to seize the teachable moment but succeeds only in making himself into the butt of the joke. (The bio on the Bear Family’s website puts it best: “Papa Bear is the world’s greatest expert on almost everything. He is often wrong but never in doubt.”) The moral of the story is revealed, and order is restored to the tree house.

The best of the allegories revolve around Papa’s sheepish realization, usually at the, er, paws of Mama, that he is modeling the exact behavior irking him. In The Berenstain Bears and Too Much TV, for example, the cubs can’t seem to live without television until Mama Bear informs Papa Bear that he, too, has to find other entertainment. The dramatic resolution to The Berenstain Bears and Too Much Junk Food involves Mama putting Papa on a diet, and so on.

When author Stan Berenstain died a few years ago, an obituary reported that he modeled Papa Bear on himself. Apparently his wife and co-author, Jan, was fond of pointing out that his parental lectures fell on deaf ears because he didn’t walk his own talk. When he did, his kids were much more likely to get with the program.

I’m not clear whether Papa Bear is usually the problem parent because Stan Berenstain had rigid ideas about gender or because he knew that self-deprecation was the safest way to mine his own marriage for material. In any case, only occasionally is the comeuppance Mama’s. She gets busted being a total pushover in The Berenstain Bears Get the Gimmies. And she loses her cool completely in The Berenstain Bears and the Messy Room.

Let’s pause at that messy room for a moment. When I read that one out loud for the first time, I felt Mama Bear’s pain. If I had a nickel for every time I was certain I’d get an abscess where a Happy Meal prize punctured my foot, I’d hire a housekeeper. Really, the only false note in Mama Bear’s explosion was that she used G-rated language.

Order is restored to the cubs’ room when Papa Bear points out that the youngsters don’t really have anywhere workable to store their toys. Everything they paw through (ba-dum-cha!) looking for a game ends up on the floor. I don’t mind telling you it had not occurred to me until I turned the page on that one that I, too, was more the problem than the solution.

Back to New Kid by Friday: The second two-thirds of the book is divided into useful, Bear-like nuggets on manners, TV, oversleeping, potty training, and so on. The alphabetical topic headers aren’t consistent; I spent several minutes trying to figure out whether help with mealtime tussles would be found under “food,” “meals,” or “picky eaters.” If you can get over that, the bits of advice are practical and easy to apply.

But the shtick is not going to transform your kid. It might sell books, and it might help you become a new parent in fits and starts, but I’m here to tell you that overhauling the toy-storage system is a twice-a-year event at my house. If I’m lucky, at some point during each of the tirades that precedes the makeover, I flash on Mama Bear and realize that without a little remedial closet clearing in the interim, I might as well be asking my kids to stuff toothpaste back in the tube.

And so I got up off the couch, leaving New Kid by Friday in a pile with other books with titles I wager would appeal equally to animal trainers. I walked upstairs to the kids’ room and hobbled across a field of Nintendo DS cartridges and Pokemon figurines in search of some Bear family classics. I found none.

I stood there for a moment, as perplexed as Papa Bear when he’s shown to be ignoring his own advice, wondering where our collection had gotten to. And then it came to me: We purged them a couple of years ago when I realized (post-hissy-fit) that there were too many books for the kids’ shelves.  

Beth Hawkins is a Minneapolis writer.

Have a New Kid by Friday
By Dr. Kevin Leman; Revell; 2008; $17.99

Taming the Spirited Child
By Michael Popkin, Ph.D.; Fireside; 2007; $14

How to Unspoil Your Child Fast
By Richard Bromfield, Ph.D.; Basil Books; 2007; $16

The Bear Country Library

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