“Which is like banana cake, really,” I said, seeing where this was going. “Especially when you put chocolate chips in it.”
Felix didn’t look convinced. He tried breaking a few bananas off the bunch, explaining that he wanted to try cake or pie. So we took three yellow bananas home and waited a few days till they browned. At which point my wife, not a big cake fan, made banana bread.
“This is good,” Felix said. “But what’s banana cake like?”
“I have another bread recipe that you might like,” my wife told him. “It’s more like cake.”
Ah, but banana bread isn’t really banana cake, and if the kid wants to try cake then let’s make a cake, I figured. So we bought another bunch of bananas, and I even got cake flour, which the recipe called for, and cream cheese to make cream cheese peanut butter icing. I’m good in the kitchen, but tend to leave baking to my wife, since she’s more exacting in her measurements. I prefer to eyeball things. Also, since she bakes more often with Felix she knows how to get him involved — letting him measure flour and break eggs — while I sometimes get flustered, I’m so focused on getting the recipe just right that I don’t have the patience to manage him as well.
But I thought of my mom, who claims, though I can’t remember it, that we used to bake cakes every Friday to celebrate my dad coming home from work for the weekend. That’s a warm thought, right? And it was a gorgeous spring Friday afternoon, and opening the back door and blaring Talking Heads while baking sounded fun, and it was. All went well. With maturity and self-assurance, Felix explained how he could help when I wasn’t sure what to do with him. He tasted some of the batter and loved it. Later, when a beautiful golden brown cake came out of the oven, he nabbed a big crumb that had fallen off, and he loved that. After helping me hold the beaters to whip the cream cheese, butter, sugar, and peanut butter, he sampled the icing and exclaimed, “This is so delicious!” My parenting spirits were high, all seemed right with the world.
Until, after dinner, Felix tasted one bite of the cake and said, “I don’t like this.”
“No. I don’t like cake so much. I want O’s and milk like I usually have.”
My mind rewound to the last time I had made a cake, on some long winter afternoon when he had announced that he wanted chocolate cake. He had, at the end of that baking session, told me he didn’t like cake then either, and reverted to his usual cereal. And my wife, strong in her anti-cake stance, didn’t have more than a small slice or two either, leaving me to eat the whole thing. I looked up at the counter and imagined the dun colored hulk of banana cake affixed to my gut, since it now appeared I’d be the only one having it.
My blood rushed with anger, and I cycled through the stages of discipline. Reasoning: you liked the cake every step of the way, so it doesn’t make sense you don’t like it. Guilting: you asked for the cake, and so have an obligation to eat it. Demanding: you don’t get to choose what you have for dessert, take it or leave it. Insulting: you’re crying about not getting the right kind of desert? Some kids in this world don’t have the luxury of eating desert! And finally, swearing: Here are your f-ing O’s. Enjoy them, and don’t ever ask me to make a g-d cake again, because this is it. The last one.
Occasionally, my wife interjected with a “what’s the big deal?” style rejoinder, which fed my anger and directed it her way as well. Of course she wouldn’t see what the big deal is. She’s back from a long day at work, she just wants to kid to stop whining. I’m the one who spent the afternoon making a cake with the boy, which wasn’t an easy task for me, and now no one wants to eat it? Way to take all my hard work for granted. And just think of all the resources that went into the ingredients — growing and flying the bananas to New York, for example. It was morally wrong of him not to at least eat the cake, if only to make his dad happy. Isn’t that what being a part of a family is all about? You begrudgingly do things you’d really rather not out of a sense of obligation.
But Felix didn’t eat the cake; he never had more than that one bite. Instead, he got very upset with my cursing at him, and later asked his mom why people say bad words. I admitted that I over-reacted in a moment of stay-at-home parent self-entitlement, and the next morning apologized for being quite so angry, though I still think I made some good points and I’m not fully settled with the power dynamics at play. On the other hand, I like that we’re raising a son who feels comfortable speaking his mind and not cowered into sucking down a piece of cake that he doesn’t really want because of me.
There’s a happy medium, I think. It would have been different if he said something like, “I had fun making the cake with you, Dad. I just don’t like it so much!” But he’s only five, so it’s my responsibility to help him find the balance between being polite and being an autonomous individual. At some point, perhaps when he’s ten, or 12, or 17, it won’t be ridiculous of me to expect that he’d respectfully and politely acknowledge the effort that went into creating a cake for his benefit. Otherwise, he’d come off as inconsiderate.
Our standards of how we expect a child to behave change as the child ages. These early years are hard because our kids sometimes seem so mature — helping to bake a cake, say — and so when they fall back into a childish mode it can be enough to spark a tantrum of our own. With time, he’ll develop greater moral and social awareness, and I hope to continue acquiring greater patience, understanding, and calm. In the meantime, I have a cake to eat.