Children of the suburban wilderness

by Brian Clarey

My wife and I have three short people living in our house, ages 5, 7 and 9. Because they are our progeny — and to a one they claim they are — we are required by law to provide certain amenities like shelter, education and food to the best of our abilities.

So, fine. Every school night we corral these children and force them to do their homework to predictable howls of protest. Every school night.

And every night we coerce them to get into bed at a reasonable hour, actions which again are met with resistance on a regular basis even though bedtime has a more or less static value.

Another thing we do every night: Feed these children. This is no mean feat, as their tastes seem mercurial in nature — one week mac and cheese is received as an exotic delicacy; the next it could be treated with the same disdain as, say, saut’ed liver or raw, leafy greens. There is no apparent rhyme or reason to their preferences.

When our kids sit down to dinner, I remind them — again, every single night — that the way to sit on a chair is to place one’s butt on the seat and feet on the floor. For some reason, these kids of ours prefer to perch on the edges of their chairs like strange birds and hover over their plates of food, dropping significant amounts on the floor — enough food each evening, I figure, to feed a family of rats for a week.

I began thinking about this in depth a couple of weeks ago when one of my children, while sitting down to dinner, fell off his chair and onto the floor in a tangle of limbs and macaroni. Astounding. In all my years, I have never once fallen off my chair at the dinner table, and I have been at the dinner table in pretty sorry shape more than a few times.

I do not understand why my children like to use their chairs in this fashion. I just know it falls under my purview to make sure they understand the basic mechanics of sitting.

For a time I thought this predilection for the dinnertime squat was unique to my children. But a conversation with one of their teachers proved that this is a problem of severe proportion. All of the kids in my oldest child’s fourth grade class prefer to sit that way, this teacher told my wife. And she said she is constantly reminding students on the proper use of chairs.

So this seems more of a generational thing, I suppose, an example of using old products in new ways. Innovation? Perhaps. But I have another theory.

I think our children are reverting to feral status, like wild animals who suddenly find themselves with a house to live in, clothes to wear, handlers to outwit. They are resisting any and all training in the trappings of civilization, preferring to live like early hominids.

They eat like squirrels. They sleep wherever it is they happen to get tired. Their bedrooms look like rodents have ransacked them. And they seem to prefer it this way.

For example, my children do not like to use silverware, and I must remind them — yes, every night — that people do not tear food apart and shove it into their mouths with their fingers, that there are tools for this kind of thing that have been in use for hundreds of generations. I am not sure they believe me.

Just the other day, as my children squatted around the dinner table, I felt compelled to instruct them in another facet of civilized life.

“Do you kids know,” I said, “that on the upper-right side of the toilet there is a little silver handle. And if you push down on it, everything in the toilet gets ‘flushed’ down the pipes?” They said they were aware of that, but I don’t see how that’s possible, as every time I go into the bathroom there is something waiting for me in the bowl. Every time.

More: My middle child looks at me in astonishment when I suggest he put on fresh clothes at the start of each day.

“I’m already dressed,” he said to me this past weekend, clad in a foodstained school uniform that had seen at least 36 hours of wear, including eight hours of thrashing sleep.

So my wife and I are rethinking our parenting strategy. Our backyard, while not expansive, is large enough to allow three creatures ample space in which to live. Now that the weather has tempered, we can fence it in, create areas for nesting and elimination and another zone for bowls of water and food. I figure we can ring a bell or something when mealtimes come around and build a rudimentary low table at which they can squat while they chicken-scratch their homework. A lean-to in the corner of the yard will provide shelter when the warm rains come and shade when the sun beams down. And they will each get a single outfit of clothes, which can be traded in for new ones when they get destroyed.

And the first moment any of them shows any interest in life inside the house, we can begin their re-education in civilized living. But until then, I fear all effort in that direction is wasted.