Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Deep fried disgrace

Now that the Grape is four, he knows how to behave in restaurants. So I tell myself. I must be delusional.

It's not like we haven't had loads of practice. The kid knows how to behave. He sometimes chooses not to. 

An urban kid, the Grape has dined out about once a week for his whole life. He's a pro who knows the drill. He's bungled through Michelin rated dinners* without serious incident. He's charmed proprietors and gotten himself invited to meet chefs and view kitchens. Strangers have—more than once—crossed crowded dining rooms to compliment me on my son's behavior. He even has a regular table, a favorite waiter, and a usual order at the best Italian place in our hood.

All of this makes the parental humiliation exponentially more acute when he leaves an ordinary lunch date in disgrace. Pride, they say, goes before the fall.

Today the Grape and I went on a spontaneous lunch date with a friend and her son, who's about a year the Grape's junior. We walked into a new neighborhood spot, a casual bar and grill that opened last week. They're still getting the kinks out, and so it seems, is the Grape.

He's rarely the oldest kid around, so maybe he seized too enthusiastically on the opportunity to show off. His friend, who's small for his age and can still get away with baby behavior in the eyes of strangers, found his antics hysterical. 

But still, blowing milk through his straw at me, and the table, and his friend, crosses  gallops over the line into unacceptable territory. His three-year-old friend, for what it's worth, found the stunt hilarious, and mimicked the Grape's abysmal manners with no small amount of glee.

The sanguine, unflappable child rearing experts say that the parent must remain calm in the face of unwelcome behavior. 

Fine. I didn't lose my cool just because the Grape was spewing his drink all over the establishment, and cackling with delight while doing so. 

I did start wishing that we'd come in at early dinner hour instead of at lunch. Maybe if the other patrons were loaded, they wouldn't notice my maniacal little monster.

I issued a stern warning. The Grape ignored me. His friend laughed. I told the Grape he was going to get a consequence if he didn't stop this instant. Milk flew into my face again and sprayed all over the gleaming new table. 

I asked myself, as sort of a gut check, "Would my own mother have put up with this behavior? This utter meltdown of discipline?"

I took the milk and straw away.

The Grape howled like I was stabbing him repeatedly with my fork. He kicked and flailed and screamed, and lurched onto the table as if afflicted with a rare seizure disorder. In retrospect, I'm surprised nobody called 9-1-1.

His little friend continued playing with his own drink and straw in a display of preschool solidarity. His mom started pleading with him for better behavior, in a sort of desperate but earnest stage whisper.

The waitstaff, including two trainees who had no job on the lunch shift other than to shadow their experienced colleagues, stopped and stared. I could see what they were thinking, as clearly as if they'd have cartoon conversation balloons floating over their collective heads. It's the same thing all those so-called experts would ask:

Isn't he too old for tantrums?

Of course he's too old for tantrums. He doesn't have them at home, and they're not toddler tantrums in the sense that he hasn't lost control of his emotions, nor is he frustrated because he cannot express himself clearly. Whatever his faults, the Grape doesn't struggle with verbal expression.

The Grape's tantrums constitute the most powerful weapon in his four-year-old arsenal—a nuclear option he deploys only when he really wants to dig in.

How can I be sure? They never happen at home, no matter how tired and/or frustrated the Grape gets, and they never happen without a large public audience. He plays his big scenes for sellout crowds only.

The four-year-old tantrum exists to let everyone within a half-mile radius know that I've lost control.

The experts say thou shalt not give in to tantrums. I challenge any one of those experts to sit in a fairly busy restaurant—even a casual one without tablecloths and with highchairs—and ignore a medium-small child throwing his thirty-four pounds around the banquette while shrieking at the top of his lungs that he wants milk.

A jumble of thoughts flew through my mind:

Shouldn't bars have loud music to drown out disturbances? Is it too late to order a stiff drink? Remind me again why smacking your offspring is illegal? 

I dragged the Grape's flailing form outside as our order arrived. The tantrum stopped the second we stepped out of view of the hostess stand. I gave him a speech about table manners and indoor voices, told him he'd lost his play date for the afternoon and his beloved Finnish troll videos for the rest of the week, and asked if he was going to be good if we went back inside. He blinked at me through big weepy eyes, stuck out his chin, and said no.

Why do I think he said no? I suspect he called my bluff. He knows we can't leave a restaurant without paying, and my handbag was still on that back banquette.

We marched down the gauntlet of judgmental bystanders and I made the Grape apologize to the busboy—the nearest available adult in a uniform—for good measure. He ate his food with his napkin on his head like a pirate hat—a stunt immediately duplicated by the little friend. He squirmed but held it together long enough for my friend and me to scarf our food. 

Lessons learned today: 1. Never claim your kid is good in restaurants. 2. Never, ever let anyone issue him, or anyone at the table, a straw. 3. Try to eat in restaurants far away from your residence so you never need to see the waitstaff or other customers again. A block is not remote enough.

* I didn't voluntarily bring my kid to a Michelin restaurant. I would never attempt that because I believe, at certain establishments, people are paying a lot of money for ambiance that should not include even the best-behaved child. We were someone's guests at the time of the Grape's two Michelin visits.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

How I survived summer camp

I grew up on a rural road, one with more forest than houses, more cows than cars. Back in the 1970's, we were considered too remote to merit a house number; our mail came to a rural route address.

We were also fortunate to live very close to the kid friendly beaches of Narragansett Bay, and not far from the Atlantic Ocean beaches of South County.

My parents, surrounded by all this nature, didn't believe in camp.

Or perhaps more accurately, they didn't see a need for it, at least when we were little. They certainly didn't go crazy, researching various camp options.

I got sent away one summer, when I was ten or maybe eleven, to a lovely, rustic place called Alton Jones, which was located in an even more rural corner of the state. I suspect two factors played into its selection: My mom knew how to drive there, and someone she knew had sent their kids and they had survived.

Alton Jones offered swimming, canoeing, candle making, cow hugging and long walking expeditions in the woods. Their campus featured an impressive lodge-slash-dining hall where they must have offered some kind of musical entertainment in the folk tradition. The details are hazy.

What I remember most: homesickness, mosquitoes and poison ivy. The bunks smelled funky, and one perky red-headed girl got festering mouth sores from not washing her retainer.

Maybe my parents got their money's worth, because I learned three things about my ten-year-old self.

First, I learned I wasn't the type to fall head over heels in love with some eleven-year-old boy in the dining hall and spend the week alternately cooing about him and tormenting him, and I didn't have a lot of use for girls who did.

When the girls weren't chasing the boys, they liked to engage in childish playground games which primarily involved jockeying for rank based on upper body strength.

I couldn't do a handspring.

Back in 1984, this physical shortcoming constituted the playground equivalent of leprosy.

Thankfully, while I was a late bloomer, I wasn't a total moron. I had the brains to keep my headgear—which the orthodontist wanted worn every night for twelve hours—in the bottom of my suitcase for the duration of the camp week.

So because my bunkmates' hormones and biceps were in overdrive and I was still pretty much an underdeveloped little kid, and a horse obsessed one at that—and this was so NOT a horse camp—I didn't make any lasting friends.

Nor did I smoke copious amounts of pot or change the course of my life in the manner of the gang from Meg Wolitzer's bestselling novel The Interestings.

I always feel a twinge of regret when I hear about someone's (real or imagined) LIFE CHANGING, WONDERFUL, AMAZING sleep away camp experience. I know outwardly normal adult people who say meh to their high school and college reunions, but would never miss a camp reunion.

But in fairness, the kids reporting such camp based life transformations, whether at real cocktail parties or in fiction, tend to have been at least pubescent when sent to camp. I was a tween, and a naive one at that.

Second, I learned that I prefer my outdoors with some basic creature comforts. I love spending the day out in nature, but I also like hot water.

And screens. Window screens would have greatly improved my camp experience. I still have small scars on my legs and feet from the bug bites I suffered thirty years ago.

Third, I learned that most of my fellow campers spent a few years going to day camps that offered similar, outdoorsy activities in a coeducational setting before their parents loaded them into the Plymouth station wagon and abandoned them—with headgear no less—in the wilderness of  Rhode Island. Some of the kids were old pros. They showed up with arsenals of mosquito repellent, as well as sleeping bags designed for placement on surfaces other than wall to wall carpet.

Those five days felt like a month, and represented the beginning and end of my camping career. I harbor absolutely no bad feelings toward my parents as a result of my ordeal. I think, with the benefit of thirty years' hindsight, that it built character.

You'd think the great Alton Jones bust would be enough to put the kibosh on the Grape's future as a camper. But did I mention I just read devoured The Interestings?

So I'm starting him early. He goes to a day camp for the under five set, a few days a week. They go on amazing adventures all over the city and he loves it, though he's always happy to come home after lunch.

Check out the pure joy: