How Not to Act

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    “But I only eat yellow cheese,” the little friend at the kitchen table told my 6-year-old daughter. Moments earlier, I had placed a slice of marbled cheddarella (that yummy combo of cheddar and mozzarella) along with four round crackers on a napkin in front of each of the girls. I knew what was coming next.

    “Are these real Ritz crackers, Mrs. Schwartzkopf?”

    I resisted the urge to accidentally thwack her in the head with a sleeve of store-brand knock-offs, and instead, asked in my very patient mom voice, “Milk or water, Sweetie?”

    Before the friend had a chance to insist on a different beverage, my daughter began explaining how “we don’t drink juice at our house because it’s too much sugar, and these crackers taste exactly like Ritz, and cheddarella is even better than…”

    “So when’s your mommy coming?” I interrupted.

    An hour later, her mother arrived and the playdate was a wrap.

    In the beginning I wasn’t big on playdates. I had all the kids I needed living at my house and they played together fabulously. When I did relax a little and let the oldest invite school friends over to play, it went relatively well.

    Until snack time.

    It was during snack times that we learned some intriguing concepts regarding food. Hard-boiled eggs, for example, smell like feet. Apple skin is bad for your teeth. And what would become my all-time favorite snack-time certitude: “Cottage cheese is always spired! ” Which, I soon figured out, meant expired.

    It was also during snack time that I began to recognize the value of one of the most important tools for parents there is: the teachable moment. For as soon as the door closed behind our little visitor, the impromptu lesson began: “If you ever act like that at someone else’s house…”

    At first, it felt a little wrong to use the behavior of other children as the foundation for my how-not-to-act talks. But I got over it. And over time, more interesting social issues – and the teachable moments that went with them – presented themselves at every turn.

    Invariably these came courtesy of characters in children’s books wreaking havoc at school (think Captain Underpants or Junie B. Jones), kids on television shows talking back to their dim-witted parents (think Disney Channel), as well as from real-life children, most of whom we didn’t know personally (think any mall). In fact, some of these kids were so inspiring (like the boy we saw texting and smoking while skateboarding down our street – without a helmet! As my youngest was quick to point out) that an entire curriculum of teachable moments could have been constructed around their awful decisions.

    Of course, over the years we have also entertained young friends who were models of comportment with much to teach my crew, especially at mealtime. As soon as the door closed behind these guests, the lesson went something like this: “I hope you act like that at someone else’s house…”

    As for my moments of discovery, although I admit I might have been too busy rolling my eyes to have them during those inaugural playdates, they did come. After listening to my little one grumble after every playdate about always being offered Goldfish crackers for snack, it dawned on me. It wasn’t my job to help every child under eight appreciate the benefits of the hard-boiled egg. What was I trying to prove anyway? And what kind of crazy person would place a serving of cottage cheese in front of a random first grader, expect her to say thank you, and eat it – with no questions asked? So taking another mom’s lead, from that point on cheese and crackers became our standard issue playdate snack. After all, aside from the occasional child with dairy allergies, who doesn’t like cheese?

    Just as long as it’s yellow.