Stockholm Syndrome or, What I Know About Parenting

by MATT STOKES | JULY 10, 2012

I’m not a parent, but I often playact as one to the two kids prominently involved in my life. I feel at this point it’s safe to say I’ve had at least a reasonable facsimile of the parental experience. For stretches at a time, anyway.

My sister, for example, is nine years old. I’ve been close to her all her life. When she was a baby, I’d take her with me on errands, and people would gush over her and then refer to me as her “daddy.” This embarrassed me every time and blew my mind because, 1) She’s adopted and of South Korean descent, so she couldn’t have looked more different from me, but, more importantly, 2) I was a fat, nerdy, baby-faced 16-year-old who looked like he was 12… it seemed plausible that I’d have gotten someone pregnant? I should have been so lucky!

There is the brother/parent-figure I’d like to be, and then there’s who I actually end up being. For some reason, the most important thing to me has always been that I be the, “Don’t worry about it, brah!”-cool adult. I’ve always prided myself on how I would always let my sister roam around a Barnes & Noble store, even when she was years younger, figuring, “If I’m going to worry about her being abducted, I might as well also worry she’ll get struck by lightning, since, statistically speaking, the lightning’s more likely to happen.” So I can be Cool Quasi-Parent, yeah, but not as often as I’d like. Take my girlfriend’s kid—I want so badly to be the, “Eh, she’s gonna do what she’s gonna do, man, just let it happen” guy, but in reality, she fills me with terror. I tease my girlfriend for being a nervous parent, but as soon as I’m placed in charge I morph into a cowering wreak. Seriously, I’ll just pace around the house, twitching and jumping every time the kid gets within four feet of a sharp corner. I don’t remember being this way with my sister when she was that age, but then maybe that’s the thing—maybe you just forget these parts.

I’m thinking that’s how it is, that as much as we’d all like to be the idealized cool parent or parent-figure we always imagined ourselves being, our circumstances start racing us, and we just desperately try to keep up. In my book, Generation Why (shameless plug!), I had a chapter about the workplace and the experience of Stockholm Syndrome everybody gets when they stay at a job long enough. You start a new job and you notice your coworkers are speaking with a certain jargon and doing nutty things like using WordPerfect, and you think, “They can’t be serious, can they?” (The example I used in the book was the word ‘brief,’ as in, “Let me brief you about what’s going on.” As if we’re about to plan our covert military operations in Tehran.) But eventually you just give in and start doing it too, at first looking around for somebody else in on the joke with you, and then, after a while, you lose the irony.

I think parenting and the parental experience is just like that. You tell yourself you’ll never barter with a nine-year old over the size of Sno-Ball she’s allowed to consume, but then you find yourself doing that very thing. “I know you and there’s NO WAY you’ll eat an entire large Sno-Ball!” you scream, even as the nagging voice in the back of your brain is saying, “What the hell do you care? Sno-Balls cost like four cents a pound, so what if she doesn’t finish it?”

I had a revelatory moment this week when I stayed at my parents’ house with my sister while they were away in New York for five days. The moment happened around 10:45 one night when I was standing at the backdoor of the house, begging the dog to go outside. As I grew more and more frustrated with the dog just LYING there on its bed, staring at me comatose, I pleaded, “Come on, just go out… just go out… please?” And as it continued to lie there, unmoving, I did a mental calculus: “I could just go sit down, not worry about this… but then, as SOON as I sit down, that God damn dog will get up and go to the door, and then I’ll have to get up AGAIN to let it out. Oh, the humanity!” Suddenly, finding a place to sit had become my lot in life, and I couldn’t let anything ruin my enjoyment of it. So as I stood there, attempting to bargain with an animal… holy crap, I’d become my dad!

It wasn’t just that, though. I’d started to make the rounds of the house, checking for lights that weren’t turned off, doors that were unlocked, thermostats that were set unnecessarily high. I became tired and ready for bed at 10. I was constantly exhausted, my back perpetually ached, and I longed day and night for alcohol. All of this from not being in my apartment and from having to watch a kid.

But there is of course the converse: kids are interesting. You can see the story of the world play out for you just by watching them. I’ll give three examples.

There’s been a theory I’ve had for years that people are getting worse and worse at listening to each other. Unfortunately, there won’t be a way to test this and compare our era to, say, the 1940s, but it seems a reasonable enough hypothesis—our attention spans have never been worse, and we’re handling so much information and stimuli from so many different directions that listening to somebody else and retaining what they say doesn’t seem realistic anymore. If our children are our future and are any indication, this trend looks to get worse and worse. Kids don’t fucking listen. And not only do they not listen, they lie to you, constantly, and often for no particular reason. Here’s me trying to wake up my sister to get her to ready for summer camp:

Me: “Alright, it’s time to wake up. You’ve gotta be at camp in 45 minutes.”
Her: (inaudible grunting)
Me: (10 minutes later) “Okay, seriously, time to get up. Camp’s in 35 minutes. Move it or lose it.”
Her: (very sad-sounding noises) ……….. (more of same) …….. “Okay…” ……….(more sad noises)
Me: (15 minutes later) “For real now, child, you have to be at camp in 20 minutes! So get up and get dressed!”
Her: (now fully lucid, wide-eyed, and sounding reasonable) “Gotcha. Not a problem. Piece of cake. Getting up right now.”
Me: (leaves the room, confident this will work out)
Me: (10 minutes later, finds girl snoring in bed) “What the hell?! You went back to sleep? Why even lie to me?”

Kids aren’t sensitized to the things that we jaded adults are. I took my sister to see The Amazing Spider-Man, thinking it’d be a cool treat for her, seeing a movie for bigger kids and getting to feel a little older than she is. Nope. She was freaked the hell out throughout the movie. Even scenes that just showed simple fighting disturbed her; Peter Parker gets punched, and she covers her eyes, turns around, and braces herself. And that kind of amazes me, because most of us take onscreen violence for granted. We’ve been exposed to so much of it for so long that we’re numb to it, and flock to the Saw movies every year just to feel uncomfortable seeing blood again. The flip side is that kids get to be delighted by things that don’t even make the rest of us blink—my sister laughs in amazement as Spider-Man swings from building to building, as I yawn and say, “Meh. It’s been done.”

But the coolest thing of all is how new the world seems to a kid. Everybody picks up on this, gets excited about it, and wants to teach babies and toddlers about everything in the room. “Dog,” I’ll repeat stupidly to my girlfriend’s kid, over and over again as I point at a dog. “Dog, dog, dog,” trying to get her to say the word. And even though she won’t say it, you just know she knows what you’re talking about, that she’s thinking, “Yeah, I’ve got ya. Dog.”

Learning. My girlfriend’s kid will “Ooooh!” at pictures in The Big Book of Words, fascinated by drawings of hairbrushes and blow dryers and towel racks. What’s this? Ooh, what about that?? Meanwhile, I play the first track of “Learn Spanish In Your Car!” on my iPod, hear, “Welcome! Bienvenido!”” and I groan in agony and turn it off. You expect me to learn something? NOW? But you get to watch it happen all the time with a kid, and you envy it. So, even though we’ll all eventually end up having serious arguments with a nine-year-old about what size Tupperware container of salsa she’s allowed to smuggle into the movies along with the bag of Tostitos she’s stuffed into her Barbie purse, it’s still a pretty cool thing to be a part of.